Courtesy of Spotify
I don’t know about you all, but my social media has been flooded with people posting their 2020 Spotify Wrapped, showcasing their top music from the last year––and it might be the distillation of all my favorite things about the internet and the digital age. For those not in the know, or those who have been under a rock since Dec. 1, every year, Spotify rolls out “Wrapped,” their year-end year-in-review that is personalized for each user of the uber-popular music streaming service. The service allows people to see their most played songs, artists and genres of the year, along with a detailed breakdown of exactly how long they spent listening to the service.
Even better, Wrapped is easily shareable to social media, allowing people unprecedented access to everyone’s music tastes. It’s truly an amazing feature and encapsulates everything great about our current information age, with Spotify giving users access to the data they collect from them to easily show off what they listen to and the music they love. This sort of thing would’ve been impossible even ten years ago, but now most people have unlimited access to unlimited music for a flat rate, and a platform to quickly show off their music. Spotify Wrapped has allowed millions of people to express their individuality while showing us all how similar we might be.
This year, we needed Wrapped more than ever before, with the COVID-19 pandemic isolating us to a degree that was unthinkable before this March. The explosion of Wrapped across our Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter stories (yes, Twitter stories exist now and they’re called Fleets), has enabled a shared cultural experience, and that is truly something special in a time when we’re all so fragmented. While I realized my music taste was as basic as ever––I listened to 136 hours of the Beatles this year––I saw the vast variety of artists my friends listen to and common tastes that I didn’t realize we shared.
However, people might’ve noticed something new about their Wrapped this year. No, it’s not just the presence of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” topping global charts. Now, people’s most listened to podcasts are also being included in people’s Wrapped for the first time ever. This is no innocuous addition, but rather reflects a long-term strategy that spells a monumental change in the podcast industry. Spotify is shifting away from being a predominately music-based company to an overall audio company by making several plays to take over the podcast industry. This change will make the app the exclusive home of everyone’s favorite podcasts the way it is for music. Spotify’s tagline, “listening is everything” reflects this new commitment, but could have troubling implications for the last remnant of the older freeform internet.For a brief history lesson, podcasts are episodic digital audio files that users can download and enjoy easily. In what has become this generation’s equivalent of radio, podcasts have allowed a proliferation of audio storytelling, enabling new types of journalism, commentary, discussion or just general conversation about the podcasters’ passions. However, the thing that makes podcasts so amazing is the low cost to the podcast listener. In fact, the vast majority of podcasts are free to download and aren’t really dependent on any specific service. Unlike the world of layman-generated internet videos, which is currently dominated by YouTube, podcasts are one of the last relics of an era when the internet was far less restrictive and dominated by certain companies.
That might all be about to change with the series of acquisitions that Spotify has made over the past few years, in plays to control the production, distribution, content and the payment aspects of podcasts in order to become the dominant force in the industry.
The thing about podcasts is that, due to their low production cost, they are incredibly easy to make, but it is also hard to make money. Because of this, many podcasters monetize their podcasts through advertisements. However, due to the fact that podcasts aren’t concentrated in any particular service, it’s hard for podcasters to track the engagement of their ads to make more money. Now, Spotify is trying to make their platform more appealing to podcasters by addressing this issue through their recent acquisition of Megaphone, a podcast hosting company that also inserts and sells dynamic ads for podcasts, allowing Spotify to have much more control over what ads are present in shows and for which users while using data to determine that certain ads should be inserted for certain users. Now Spotify will have much more information on users’ listening habits along with their names, age and other relevant info, giving podcasters a lot more information about who is listening to their podcasts. This will entice podcasters to change their hosting network to Spotify in order to access all of this ad tech.
This all sounds great for podcasters, but it’s only one of the many steps Spotify has been taking to make it the only home for podcasts. Spotify has also recently acquired Anchor, the so-called “easiest way to make podcasts,” which is an app that gives podcasters easy tools to create podcasts straight from their phone. Anchor podcasts now account for 70 percent of Spotify’s total podcast catalog, or around 1.3 million out of over 1.9 million shows, creating a cascade of exclusive small podcasts that can satisfy every kind of listener. But Spotify isn’t only dominating small podcasts. Over the past few years, Spotify has been acquiring podcast networks to produce high-quality content for the streaming monolith, including Gimlet Media, a narrative podcast network, Parcast, a crime and mystery network and the Ringer, one of the premiere sports and entertainment networks, which all command large audiences. That, along with exclusive contracts with celebrities like Michelle Obama and Kim Kardashian West, and exclusive access to perhaps the biggest podcaster in the world, Joe Rogan, has made Spotify the premiere destination for podcasts, threatening the free and open nature of the podcast market.
While this may not mean much to most people, since it’ll mean that people switch to Spotify to listen to their favorite podcasts, there is something being lost in all this shuffle. It’s indicative of the monopolistic nature of our current digital landscape, with only a few major players able to compete, each of them grabbing tighter and tighter control of every market. The death of the free podcast will be the last dying breath of the internet that perhaps we have already lost. Isn’t it a pity?
For now, enjoy your 2020 Wrapped, but be wary of what companies control increasing parts of your life.