There are big opportunities for the music industry in podcasts, but one of the big barriers is licensing: the cost and complexity for podcasters of securing the rights to actually play music in their shows.

This was one of the clearest points made last night at the BPI and Music Ally’s ‘Pod Only Knows’ event in London, which explored the potential (and challenges) of music and podcasting.

We’ve co-published a report with the BPI – you can read / download it for free here – rounding up some market data; a directory of more than 75 music podcasts; outlining the strategy of Spotify, Pandora and other distribution platforms; and interviewing some experts about how they see the market. But at the event, licensing loomed large as the biggest headache in 2019.

“Rights are a disaster,” said broadcaster and writer Miranda Sawyer, who reviews podcasts for the Observer newspaper in the UK. “We need to get to the point where there’s a blanket licence like TV has,” agreed Chris Baughen, managing editor Global Player at radio group Global. “I’ve been pushing PPL and PRS for Music to do this. The cost of getting tracks on big shows is not that much on TV.”

Later in the event, Sawyer suggested that many music podcasts “aren’t that good really” because they can only talk about music, without having the rights to actually play it. “They will improve if licensing is sorted out,” she said. “I do wonder when there will be an absolutely massive smash pop hit – a Top Of The Pops of podcasts – but I think that won’t happen until the rights are sorted out. So I wonder if that will ever happen.”

John Doran, co-founder and editor of music website The Quietus, agreed that rights are a headache for any podcast that’s focusing on music. “For us, it doesn’t matter how obscure the music is: if it came out in 1901 on a wax cylinder in Romania! We’re not going to play the whole thing: we don’t want to run the risk of getting burned [in a copyright sense] for it,” he said.

Baughen took up Sawyer’s point about the future potential. “It will be great once the licensing is sorted out and we can bring the music in,” he said. “There’s some amazing stuff that could be done. We get amazing pitches all the time that we just can’t tough. But when the licensing is sorted out…”

The panel also talked about what makes a great podcast, with editing and sound quality to the fore. Doran talked about The Quietus’ latest podcast, The Best Of Times, to highlight the importance of editing. “We’ll do an initial interview that will last anything up to an hour and a half, but I’ll try to get it as close to half an hour [in the final edit] as I can.”

Baughen agreed, criticising podcasters “who think you give a monkeys about what they got up to that weekend for 20 minutes before you get into what the podcast is” adding: “I don’t care if you went to your dad’s barbecue at the weekend!”

Sawyer said that music companies have an advantage here. “If you work in the music industry or audio, you know about sound. A lot of the bad podcasts get the sound wrong,” she said. “If you know about sound you’ve already got lots of brilliant engineers, and people who know how to edit. The very best podcasts use sound in a different way, and that is absolutely available to labels.”

Peggy Sutton, managing partner at production company Somethin’ Else, was also positive about the potential for artists to make podcasts that look out beyond their music to their wider passions.

“We’re making a podcast with Frank Turner and Polydor. He’s a massive history nerd!” she said, approvingly. “He comes to the studio always reading some kind of history book. And his album: each song tells a story of a historical character, and then we tell that story in the podcast. There are loads of stories around music, and for me as a listener, story is what I want in a podcast. That’s an area that hasn’t been fully explored yet [by the music industry].”

Both Sutton and Sawyer praised the podcast of spoken-word performer George The Poet, which has won a barrage of awards recently.

“He talks about music and the importance of music to young people, and how it works. The music is treated absolutely brilliantly: you hear it as you should hear it, and he and his friends talk about it in a way it should be talked about,” said Sawyer. “He said what podcasting has given him is a place to experiment,” added Sutton.

More tips from the panel included length – “Podcasts are getting shorter: think about the 20 to 25 minute mark,” said Sawyer” – and a warning that while the barriers to podcasting are low, making something more involved than a simple conversational show does require resources.

“You hear a few people say ‘it doesn’t cost any money’. I want to challenge that a little bit. It doesn’t cost that much money to make a George Ezra or David Tennant [interview] podcast,” said Sutton – Somethin’ else produces the latter’s show.

“But if the music industry is looking at Serial or Slow Burn or these shows with very good narrative storytelling? That does take a lot of time and skill and expertise, and it’s going to cost you a reasonable amount of money… We get people asking us ‘Can you maybe make this a bit more like Serial? Put sound design in and all this stuff…’ and sound design takes time!”

The panel also discussed Spotify’s move into podcasts, including original commissions. “We’re getting very interesting briefs from Spotify with really decent budgets. For a producer there’s the opportunity to do really well paid, really creative work for them,” said Sutton. “It’s a good thing: the more people involved in podcasting at that level the better,” agreed Baughen.

Doran was less excited about Spotify’s recent acquisition of Anchor, an app for making podcasts. “It’s interested in user-generated content, which is the opposite of making good-quality original material!” he said.

“When are people going to learn about user-generated content? It’s always awful! It’s like Web 2.0: that whole thing of people [running websites] having to get rid of their comment sections, or that thing about ‘citizen journalists’. The bar to making podcasts is already incredibly low. Don’t make it any lower! I’m all for Spotify pouring money into making original content. I’m sure that will be good, but the other stuff? No, not at all.”

Earlier in the event, Atlantic Records’ Tom Mullen offered his views from New York (via video-call), explaining the lessons learned from his work making podcasts for the label, as well as his own Washed Up Emo show, which he started in 2011.

“What we don’t have in the [Atlantic] archive, and what I don’t think any archive has, is the artist’s voice. And that tells the story,” said Mullen. “I have been pushing that: we need the artist’s voice. So not only am I doing a podcast and getting an interview with an artist. I’m getting that moment in time: there’s a bigger play to this than ‘I want to get into podcasting’.”

Mullen also talked about the importance of good editing. “People don’t edit!” he said, of his biggest bugbear with other podcasts. “You need to be respectful of the person’s [listener’s] time. I’ve got someone on the tube or in the subway, they’ve got 20 minutes,” he said.

“They don’t want to hear ‘Hey how’s things?’ ‘Oh great’ for five minutes. Cut that out! The editing is so much of it… If someone comes to me and says they’re not editing or just putting up two hours, you’re not respecting the audience.”

Mullen also said that he sees podcasts as marketing for music and artists, rather than as something that labels should be working overdrive to make money from.

“We’re getting someone for 30 or 45 minutes, or 15 minutes, listening to an artist. That’s more than a song would be, and maybe they’re learning about them differently,” he said.

“If you’re getting someone to listen for 30 minutes, that’s time invested. With Spotify and Apple and everything else now with streaming, if someone asks me ‘what did you listen to’ I can’t remember. It’s hard! Maybe I remember this playlist or that playlist but… if I’m listening to this podcast and hearing them [an artist] tell the story, I’m getting a deeper connection with them.”

Mullen also talked about the importance of planning, and also of devising creative formats for new podcasts.

“Consistency. Do you have the legs? Are you planning out a season, two seasons? Is this a three-year thing, a four-year thing? Have you done the due diligence? Or is it me and two friends in a room going ‘hey we’re really funny!’ and then two weeks later you realise you’re not?” he said.

“Also, do not do what’s already been done. Do not do another Song Exploder! Find another way to do it: find another format, find another time, find something that’s not just an interview, and different… If we step back and do something interesting, you’ll start the next trend.”

Mullen is dreaming big for music podcasts. “I want the next Serial. The next My Dad Wrote a Porno. Those next ones that shoot off and people start figuring out another way to do this,” he said. That ambition was reflected in the later panel by Peggy Sutton, although she returned to the big headache in the way of this.

“Factual storytelling, big long-form documentaries… There are so many great stories in music,” she said. “But you just can’t do that unless you can hear the music too.”

Read the BPI / Music Ally’s ‘Pod Only Knows’ music and podcasts report here. Last night’s event also included a segment with Columbia Records’ Alex Eden-Smith and Edd Blower talking about George Ezra’s podcast: you can read more about that project in our Sandbox report from last May.

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