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The Rise and Rise of Music Podcasts


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Podcasts are firmly part of our media diet – with some turning into huge brands and others happy to cater to the most niche of interests. 

The podcast economy boom is now so great that not only did Spotify pay $100m to secure the exclusive licensing deal for the enormously popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast, news of the deal added more than $1bn to the streaming company’s market cap. 

Sony Music has identified podcasting as a “key area of creative and business development” and is putting together a team in its New York office to produce podcasts; Atlantic Records launched its own dedicated podcast team in 2018; and Universal Music announced a deal with Wondery the following year to produce podcasts. 

For musicians, meanwhile, launching a podcast has become a standard part of the promotional checklist, especially following the success of podcasts from the likes of George Ezra, Jessie Ware, Pixies, The White Stripes and Oasis.

 

Labels and artists move in 

In many ways, the rush for labels and musicians into the podcasting space makes a lot of sense. Music and podcasting are closely intertwined – a recent study by Pex found that 17% of all podcast episodes contain music – while record labels have access to both artists and the kind of archive material that should prove podcast gold. 

Announcing Atlantic’s excursion into podcasting, the company’s chairman and CEO Craig Kallman along with chairman and COO Julie Greenwald said in a joint statement that the label has “a constant stream of artists coming through the building, so the next logical step for us was to create an environment where we could spontaneously capture them telling their stories and talking about their music”. 

It makes business sense, too, for labels to get into podcasting when key industry partners like Spotify and Apple are hot for podcast content, giving major labels an additional weapon in licensing talks with streaming services. 

Mike Wooller, content development manager at podcast giant Acast, says that musicians are at an advantage when they start out in the podcast space as they typically have large, engaged fanbases desperate to interact with them. “With one of the biggest challenges for podcasters being finding an audience, artists have a huge leg up from day one,” he explains. “Additionally, with the support of a label and its significant marketing resources, it’s much easier for an artist or label to leverage those resources and generate a buzz around their launch.” 

Tom Mullen is a music industry consultant and the creator of the Washed Up Emo Podcast. He was previously at Atlantic Records where he created and launched its in-house podcast network, Jefferson Studios. As one might imagine, he is a firm believer that artists and labels should make their own podcasts. 

“Labels need to look at the medium and realise that they can tell their stories and that there is a deeper reason to do that – there is that wonderful artist’s voice!” he says. “When you go to The Fader and you do a video piece, they keep that video. Even if you just make two shows about an artist, you should do it because you need to get that voice on the record and in your archive.” 

Perhaps the key question for artists who are into podcasting, then, is whether they should launch their own podcast or join the long line of artists who want to appear on George Ezra’s podcast (and, of course, other hit podcasts). 

Key Music Management’s Richard Jones, whose company manages Pixies, Dead Can Dance and Blood Red Shoes among others played a significant role in the launch of the It’s A Pixies Podcast, a 12-episode series that documented the recording of the band’s seventh album, Beneath The Eyrie. 

He says the initiative paid dividends in terms of familiarising their audience with the band’s new material. “We have got an avid fanbase – there are always stories about when someone first heard ‘Debaser’, all these magic memories that people have associated with Pixies songs,” he tells Music Ally. “Always at the back of my mind there is the thought: ‘How can we possibly create that kind of strong memory or affiliation and association with new music in a less obvious way than hearing it on the radio?’ We want to go on tour and play some songs that people already have at least an understanding of or an affinity with.” 

The response, according to Jones, was very strong. “Our understanding of [the podcast] was people really enjoyed it,” he says. “It was very popular. It was listened to many hundreds of thousands of times. But for me, the most important thing was: did it do the job that we wanted it to do? And it did, yes. We noticed a much greater connectivity and engagement with the new songs – much earlier than we had with any other of the new records.” 

 

Beyond the music: the “talent-owned” podcasts 

It’s A Pixies Podcast is an example of the kind of artist-led podcast that takes its inspiration directly from music, alongside the likes of Listen Up: The Oasis Podcast, Striped: The Story Of The White Stripes, Questlove Supreme and George Ezra & Friends. 

Label podcasts – unsurprisingly – tend to take a similarly musical route. Atlantic debuted its podcast division with What’d I Say, featuring interviews with current Atlantic artists, as well as Inside The Album and Respect: Women Of Atlantic. Many of the leading artist podcasts, however, take a more tangential view of music – evidence, perhaps, that the straight interview model may be becoming a little tired. 

Frank Turner’s Tales From No Man’s Land saw the British artist talk to historians, poets and musicians about “twelve historical women who have been largely forgotten but should be celebrated”, while rapper TI’s expediTIously podcast aims to shed light “on important social topics […] in an authentic, eyebrow-raising dialogue that might make you want to pull out your dictionary”. 

“I have a lot to say, and I think the world needs to hear it,” he told Billboard. “I also felt that my opinions and ideas were far too big to just live on someone’s phone or on social media.” 

Meanwhile, Jessie Ware’s Table Manners podcast, which focuses on “food, family and the beautiful art of having a chat”, has become a huge hit over its nine series, expanding the singer’s profile by being an outlet for a side of her personality that is not always evident in her musical work. 

Andrew Harrison, producer and presenter at UK podcasting company Podmasters, says that these kind of “talent-owned” podcasts “are a brilliant avenue” to get across, from a fan messaging and marketing point of view, the personality of the people you are dealing with. 

“If you are an artist with an interesting personality, then that is one of your assets,” he explains. “You need to show it off. And that does not necessarily have to be sitting down to do an interview with someone else.” 

The other advantage, Harrison explains, is that these kind of podcasts can reach people who aren’t necessarily fans. 

“We’ve seen it with Jessie Ware – and that’s considered to be one of the real success stories,” he says. “That is great because one of the things it shows is that you can actually get a podcast property out – not just to the people who like the music, but also to people who are a bit lukewarm on the music. And, in some cases, people who don’t even know about the music. They just like her because she is a likeable and interesting person and who is good to spend time with.” 

Whether artists choose to focus on music or not, creativity is key in making a podcast format that works. “There probably isn’t an artist out there who hasn’t already been interviewed on some podcast somewhere, so there’s not much point in creating an interview format unless you can bring some new element to the table,” Wooller says. “Instead, I point them [labels] to the success of US storytelling hits like Dolly Parton’s America or Making Beyoncé as creative avenues to pursue.” 

Mullen says that labels “need to not be followers in podcasting”. 

“Labels are not going to be the first ones to do something in podcasting,” he says. “Everybody was like: ‘What about Song Exploder?’ But that doesn’t fit everyone. What can the label create that is their Song Exploder idea that other people copy and do first in this field? That’s the secret.” 

 

Label investment rises 

Major labels are, as mentioned above, in a unique position to exploit the podcasting medium, with access to artists as well as rights to the music. Yet the majors are not exactly known for their forthright communication and willingness to let artists tell their own stories uncensored – two key traits in making podcasts that connect. Plus it is hard to imagine a major label creating something as fabulously open-ended as Serial or as deeply strange as S-Town. 

Major labels have, it is true, recruited from the podcast world to help with their excursions into the podcasting world. Sony, for example, has poached Emily Rasekh, Ryan Zack (formerly at Megaphone and Acast) and Christy Mirabel (formerly at Stitcher and Panoply Media) for its New York podcasting team. That said, it will take a change in the major label mindset to allow podcasters to work with anything close to the autonomy they might be used to. 

What labels can currently do, and do well, is promotion – which is a transferable skill for the podcast space. “A podcast is like a release in its own,” says one UK music industry executive. “You need to have a release strategy which can, of course, run in tandem with your album release.” 

 

Getting both partners and timings right 

This promotion can be a significant amount of work. When a new podcast signs with Acast, the company consults with them on best practices for launching or growing their audience from day one, according to Wooller – even handling some aspects of PR and marketing. 

“One piece of advice I tell everyone launching their first podcast is to not rush things,” Wooller adds. “With the relatively short time it can take to go from development to a finished product, there’s a tendency to want to get it out there yesterday. Like with any piece of content, a successful launch campaign takes considered planning. 

“Are you going to reach out to other similar podcasts for some cross-promotion? Will you run a paid campaign? Which DSPs should I pitch this to? What are the plans for social media? These are all questions that need to be thought about well ahead of launching your podcast.” 

One of the most important things to consider when launching a podcast is frequency. Listeners appreciate a regular release slot, but artists and labels may not want to overburden themselves with commitments. Podcasts don’t have to last forever, of course. But a podcast that is irregularly updated or even abandoned makes everyone look bad. 

“Like a dog, podcasting isn’t just for Christmas,” says Wooller. “It’s all too tempting to see a podcast as yet another medium on which to market an artist’s latest album or tour, which it absolutely can be. But often these projects are dropped as soon as the campaign ends and are never revisited. Instead, a podcast should be seen by artists and labels as another platform to build up and a way for fans to engage with them all year round.” 

Platform is another important consideration; although, again, this will be familiar territory for those in the music industry, with podcasts largely found on the same platforms as digital music (Spotify, SoundCloud, Mixcloud and so on) or close cousins thereof (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts etc.). Equally YouTube should not be overlooked here as a podcasting platform, with a recent survey of Canadian adults finding that 43% per cent of people surveyed “went to YouTube for podcasts in the past year” ahead of Apple Podcasts (34%) and Spotify (23%). 

Labels and artists should also consider the additional material they use to promote their podcasts. Pixies created video trailers and photo montages for every episode, while blog posts with a summary of the episode and a news item on your website can help with SEO. Social media should also be used to promote the podcast and it is vitally important to tag guests in these posts, using their following to promote your work. Facebook even gave those on its Three & A Half Degrees: The Power Of Connection podcast a “guest appreciation kit”, including promotional material and a personalised note, which guests inevitably shared on social networks, boosting the podcast in the process. 

 

More than just “the new radio” 

Of course, artists don’t need to launch their own podcast to benefit from the format’s promotional power. Major music commentary podcasts like Song Exploder and Switched On Pop reach millions of listeners, making them a key – and still relatively new – part of the promotional trail. 

The importance of such shows lies not just in their listenership, though: podcasts are known as a very intimate form of listening, which means that listeners feel a strong connection with their hosts. A music recommendation on a well-loved podcast, even one that doesn’t specifically deal with music, can go a long way. 

“You are reaching a very, very engaged audience as nobody listens to a podcast by mistake,” says Harrison. “It’s also something that people have actually decided to listen to so, consequently, the engagement levels are very high. People really pay attention. It’s incredibly intimate. It’s right in your ears.” 

He compares podcasts to chat shows. “The majority of what makes a podcast work is conversation. If you’ve got a brilliant raconteur musician/music person, rather than restricting yourself to reviews, why would you not be thinking of pitching them out to a politics podcast or a more general conversational podcast where they could possibly shine a bit?” 

Wooller says there are several ways to pitch your artist to a podcast. “The first, and most obvious, answer is to approach it in a similar way to radio plugging and reach out to the podcaster directly,” he says. “However, with a bit of marketing budget, it’s also possible to approach this as a piece of branded content. For example, the artist could feature on a special episode of your chosen podcast, supported with a paid ad campaign across a selection of similar podcasts, reinforcing the message.” 

Songwriter Charlie Harding is the cohost of Switched On Pop, “a podcast about the making and meaning of popular music” that has grown into one of the biggest music commentary podcasts globally. He tells Music Ally that he receives between 50 and 100 requests a day for music to feature on the podcast; but for a pitch to be successful “there has to be a story in there”. 

“The story can be [the song’s] popularity, but it is rarely that; and if it is, it needs a really interesting story, like where it came from,” he says. “Why does it resonate? How did it break through the noise?” 

The perfect pitch, Harding says, “is a short, personal email that is usually anything from two to six sentences […] Maybe it’s even, ‘Hey I was recently listening to your recent podcast. A story that I think would be really great for your audience is this other client I am working for. Here is what they are doing and why; here is what I think you could do together; and here is why they are the perfect guests. I attach more information about them below,’” he explains. “That says you have thought about who I am and you have taken the time to write me a personal note. That means you might actually book a person on my show.” 

As well as blind PR approaches, the big no-no for Harding is to pitch an artist who isn’t actually available to appear. “I recently got an A-lister, a top 10 pop artist’s PR approach and I said, ‘Great, if they want to talk on the show, I would love to chat with them.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, they’re not available,’” he says. “I understand that some people aren’t going to be available for interview. But for me, I’m not going to cover people’s work if I can’t speak to them.” 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Harrison has had a very different experience when looking for musical guests for his popular podcast review show, Bigmouth. “It’s surprising [that we don’t get many pitches], as when people pitch to us, we usually say yes,” he says. “I was editing Q [magazine] until 2013 and you would get a lot of PRs. People were banging on the doors to try to get through, so it is surprising that, at a time when pretty much all print media is in critical decline, you have this hugely growing medium, immensely low cost, and we are sitting here like baby birds with our mouth open – and yet people are not taking advantage of it.” 

Harrison puts this down to some rather old-fashioned thinking in the British music industry, which he believes may still equate podcasting with the radio, despite the fact that podcasting has far greater levels of engagement. “The American podcast industry is more mature than ours, but ours is catching up quick – it’s growing,” he says, adding that the UK has national radio stations in a way that the US doesn’t. “We are two or three years behind where America is with podcasts.”

 

Cover image by David MG / Shutterstock.com

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