Final week, Bloomberg dropped an enchanting scoop that Apple, the long-time neutral steward of the podcast ecosystem, is seemingly planning to finance unique podcasts that may be unique to its platforms, and that it has met with media firms to debate doable offers towards this finish. In response to the report, the talks had been preliminary and Apple has but to ascertain a transparent technique round unique audio content material, however regardless of the precise recreation plan seems to be, the corporate seems able to do issues with podcasting and audio exhibits that it hasn’t completed earlier than.
This growth has largely been interpreted as a response to Spotify’s efforts to diversify its choices away from music, similar to its $300 million–plus acquisition of three podcast firms earlier this yr and subsequent exclusive-content partnerships, most notably a take care of the Obamas’ manufacturing firm Increased Floor that’ll see the previous president and First Woman growing podcasts for the platform. In the event you’ve been following the competitors between Spotify and Apple over the music-streaming enterprise, you then would possibly see Spotify’s diversification efforts as an try to outflank Apple Music for customers and paid subscribers, and also you would possibly maybe learn the Bloomberg report as Apple trying to reply in variety.
However this information of Apple probably investing in unique podcasts additionally appears to suit extra broadly with the corporate’s strikes in different content material arenas, together with the truckload of unique TV exhibits being developed for the Apple TV+ and a roster of video video games being developed solely for its upcoming Apple Arcade subscription service. All this, mixed with the corporate’s basic shift away from an iTunes-centered directory-style worth proposition, suggests a future by which Apple might function an eminent publisher-distributor throughout all media classes. This doable future, because it particularly pertains to podcasts, is unnerving to some corners of the podcast ecosystem — notably those who champion the medium’s traditionally open nature.
Apple has lengthy had a distinctly distinctive relationship with podcasts, one which’s rooted within the firm’s 2005 choice to start providing the format on iTunes. That yr, podcasting, within the kind we at present comprehend it, was barely a number of years outdated, and it was nonetheless very a lot the area of early adopters and tech lovers. However Apple’s choice to bundle podcasting with iTunes significantly elevated the medium’s visibility, expanded entry for potential listeners, and strengthened incentives for audio creators of all stripes to publish by means of podcasts — and, particularly, by means of iTunes.
The transfer primarily created the podcast market that we all know in the present day, and it instantly established Apple because the dominant podcast distributor whereas pushing aspiring podcast-distribution start-ups (like Odeo, now often called Twitter) off the board. Apple additional cemented its centrality by assuming a considerably surprising place: It didn’t transfer to straight monetize podcasts listed on iTunes in any form or kind, opting as a substitute to function a pure distributor. On high of that, Apple additionally allowed the iTunes podcast listing to turn into the inspiration for a big selection of third-party podcast apps. To this present day, apps like Overcast and Pocket Casts depend on Apple’s podcast API to populate their inventories.
At this level, you could possibly understandably ask: Why didn’t Apple monetize podcasts from day one? Right here’s how I see it: Frankly, there wasn’t a lot to monetize in these early days. In 2008, which is the furthest again that Edison Analysis has studied the podcast class, solely 9 p.c of all Individuals over the age of 12 listened to podcasts on a month-to-month foundation. In these days, podcasts barely made any cash, and the fashionable podcast-advertising enterprise mannequin solely actually began discovering its toes after the monetary disaster of the late 2000s.
On the time, it was most likely extra precious (or much less bother) for Apple to let podcasting develop by itself phrases than to use itself onto the class the identical method that it did with apps, music, and tv. Even with out by some means straight monetizing podcasts on iTunes, the class might nonetheless present marginal oblique worth: For the slice of people that did discover and like podcasts, they had been one more reason to maintain utilizing an iPhone and keep inside the Apple universe.
The corporate even turned the beneficiary of goodwill for its comparatively neutral place. For a very long time, Apple was not solely practically synonymous with podcasting, it was additionally held up as a constructive mannequin for a sure form of open publishing surroundings. Its hands-off stance allowed the medium to flourish as a unusual backwater of digital curiosity — equally inhabitable by specialists, amateurs, speaking heads, audio documentarians, public-radio powerhouses, public-radio refugees, fiction writers, and so forth, all working the identical odds of discovering an viewers over a comparatively open ecosystem. After all, the association wasn’t at all times excellent — right here’s a New York Instances headline from 2016: “Podcasts Surge, however Producers Concern Apple Isn’t Listening” — however for essentially the most half, issues labored out.
The substance and stakes at the moment are dramatically completely different, in fact, as podcasting grows in recognition and revenue. Lately, 32 p.c of Individuals over 12 hearken to podcasts on a month-to-month foundation, per Edison Analysis. The podcast trade revamped $470 million in promoting income final yr, in keeping with the Interactive Promoting Bureau, and the quantity is projected to beat $1 billion by 2021. We now have podcast millionaires and podcast celebrities. The Bodega Boys at the moment are on Showtime. American presidential candidates are hitting podcasts like they’re the brand new roadside diner in Iowa.
And Apple now faces actual competitors for dominance over podcast distribution from entities desirous to faucet into monetization. The corporate continues to be believed to carry the lead so far as podcast listenership is worried, with estimates suggesting that the Apple Podcast platform (f.okay.a. iTunes Podcasts) nonetheless drives someplace between 50 p.c to 60 p.c of all listening. However after years of matches and begins, Spotify, following its definitive push into the class earlier this yr, is assumed to have shortly turn into a robust second distributor. (Additionally angling to meaningfully compete: fellow music-streaming service Pandora.)
Within the face of all this, Apple has appreciable incentive to abdicate its longtime place because the neutral steward of podcast-land and to start correctly determining methods to straight extract worth for itself. To be clear, we nonetheless don’t fairly know the extent to which the corporate will break from the previous ought to it go down this path. Because the Bloomberg report notes, a transparent technique round unique audio content material doesn’t seem to have been decided simply but — it’s unclear what number of of those exclusives are being developed, whether or not they are going to apply to Apple Music or Apple Podcasts (or each), whether or not it is going to contain a serious overhaul of how the Apple Podcast platform at present works, and so forth.
However the very risk of Apple being keen to essentially change the best way it pertains to the podcast ecosystem as a complete, amidst a vastly elevated aggressive surroundings, is yet one more sign that podcasting’s traditionally open nature is topic to an unsure future.