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Joe Rogan's Podcast is Moving to Spotify: A Guide to the Podcast Wars Between Spotify, Apple and Google

May 21, 2020 6:19 AM 5 min read

Joe Rogan, one of the biggest names in podcasting, is shifting to Spotify. From September 1st, The Joe Rogan Experience will be distributed exclusively on Spotify, which means the only (legal) way for you to listen to that top-rated podcast would be by becoming a Spotify member. It’s not yet known how much the company shelled out to get Rogan onboard, but the deal is a coup for the audio streaming giant’s podcasting ambitions.

It’s been clear for some time now that Spotify is eager to make it big in the podcast industry, which is currently dominated by Apple. Today, let’s explore the podcast wars and see what they mean for the tech companies and content creators involved.


Joe Rogan 's Podcast is Moving to Spotify: A Guide to the Podcast Wars Between Spotify, Apple and Google



A Brief History of Sound

Apple’s relationship with podcasting dates back to 2005, when it decided to offer the format on iTunes, elevating a relatively new medium and cementing the tech giant’s place as the dominant distributor. Apple soon became the source of 50-60% of all podcast listening (if you took into account third-party platforms, which pull their podcast data from the iTunes API, the number is likely to be even higher).

And credit where it’s due, Apple didn’t exploit its position and operated as a “benevolent despot”, largely not collecting data and not privileging its own content. This allowed publishers and independent content to thrive.

But then things began to change.


The Invasion of Competition

Spotify’s audio streaming rampage is not brand new information. Since 2014, it bought 15 companies that were involved in data analytics, music and audio production tools, audio ad tools...and podcast production. Podcasts are a vertical Spotify has been actively exploring since 2017. Only last year, it bought podcast networks Gimlet, Parcast and The Ringer as well as podcast creator Anchor.

CEO Daniel Ek isn’t bashful about his company’s podcast ambitions - Spotify, Ek has said, “will become the leading global podcast publisher with more shows than any other company”.

Then there’s Google. Google Podcasts was rolled out in 2018, a major development considering Android’s prominence in the smartphone industry. And YouTube is the undisputed leader in video podcasting (also something Spotify is currently testing, FYI).


The Winds of Change

Imagine you’re back in 2005 (so, centuries ago). The internet was relatively open and free. Google and Facebook were still up-and-coming players, internet trolls and privacy debates were not mainstream, and using Internet Explorer was still a socially acceptable thing to do. 

Production, distribution and advertising operated more or less as three separate layers, with each having its own players. Above all, it was quite decentralised, so there was a lot of competition.

Then, the “M-word” emerged. The internet became monopolised by a few companies which breached production-distribution-advertising barriers, expanded in power, gobbled up weaker competitors, capitalised on user data. Basically, Big Tech was born. And the internet was never the same.


How Podcasting Changed Forever

For a long time, the podcast industry operated like the internet of the mid-2000s. Sure, Apple was the king of distribution but it hardly earned anything from podcasting so it let it thrive and expand naturally. Production was taken care of by independent creators and advertisers courted them on their own once they were sure the content reached a wide audience.

But now, podcasting has become a booming business. In 2018 alone, India registered a 60% growth in podcast listeners (40m Indians are currently active podcast listeners). In the US, 32% of internet users are monthly listeners (for those below 54 years of age, this number is 40%).

As the medium grew more popular, distributors saw in it an avenue for monetisation. So they moved swiftly to trash the production-distribution-advertising demarcations. And by “they” we mean Spotify - because Apple and Google had already committed that original sin long ago.

Spotify moved a lot like Google or Facebook in the early 2010s. It bought smaller competitors, introduced a new advertising service (Spotify Podcast Ads) to let advertisers target choice audiences using user data, and is now signing on superstar podcasters whose content will soon be available only on Spotify. 

Together, Apple, Spotify and Google are the giant triumvirate of the world of podcasting right now. And when giants fight, it can get ugly - especially for the hapless and tiny independent creators on the ground.


Why is Monopolisation of Podcast Distribution a Problem?

Think of what’s wrong with the news industry right now. Publishers are up in arms against Google and Facebook because they say these tech giants divert crucial ad revenue from journalistic organisations to themselves. 

If you’re The New York Times or The Times of India, you may still be able to manage without Google and Facebook (or at least afford a fight with them). But if you’re a small-scale independent media organisation, you need Google’s search engine and Facebook’s social networking channels to market yourself.

Now say you’re an independent podcaster. You host episodes on your own website and distribute them on most podcast platforms too. But now you’re being enticed to share your content exclusively on one of these platforms in exchange for a lot of money and a promise to distribute your podcast to millions of more listeners. 

Quite tempting, isn’t it?

But such a deal would also give the platform access to a vital tranche of user data that can drive both future content and advertising strategy, something you never had to worry about with traditional open standard RSS feeds. Your existing listeners would also get tied to a single platform. New listeners would also prefer to use it.

You could, of course, stay clear of these giants and continue distributing your content independently. You could stay clear of the contested relationships between content creators, advertisers and corporate management and work instead in a more flexible system. 

But then your growth prospects would be severely limited and your competitors who actually do join Spotify or Apple exclusively would rake in millions more in listens and revenue very quickly, leaving you in the dust.

Welcome to the network effect.


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