Why Spotify is trying to fuse video and podcasts

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Spotify has a pretty long history of trying and failing to get its users to watch video on its platform, which is why some may have rolled their eyes at the latest report that it’s testing out a new video offering in the coming months.

According to The Verge, Spotify signed a contract with YouTube stars Zane Hijazi and Heath Hussar for them to upload video versions of their podcast to the app. A Spotify user will be able to either just listen to the podcast like they would normally or open the app and watch along with the in-studio video recording. Whenever there’s an inserted ad spot, the video will freeze and then resume once the spot has ended. After a testing period, Spotify hopes to quickly roll out the feature to other podcasts within its network.

This might seem like merely an iterative feature that will do little to move the needle. After all, plopping a camera in front of two podcast hosts won’t exactly result in the next Game of Thrones or Stranger Things. But that’s precisely why I think this will be more effective than Spotify’s other attempts at producing video.

It wasn’t that long ago when Spotify actually was trying to become the next Netflix or HBO. As far back as 2011, CEO Daniel Ek charged his underlings with building video capabilities on the app, and they even designed a prototype for a Roku-like device that would plug into a user’s TV, allowing them to stream Spotify’s offering on a bigger screen. In 2015, it began licensing already-existing content from media companies like Comedy Central and ESPN, playing it in a new “video capsule” within the app. 

A year later, the company hired Tom Calderone, a VH1 executive, to lead these efforts. He began offering production companies between $20,000 and $200,000 per episode to create series for Spotify, and in May 2016 it announced a slate of new shows ranging from documentaries to reality TV to even a mockumentary.

But video usage never took off. Partners said (anonymously) that most episodes generated only a few hundred views, on average. Some complained that video was always buried deep within the app, while others claimed that the company ghosted them just when it seemed on the verge of signing a new content deal. By 2017, Calderone was gone from the company, and Spotify started to turn its attention to other projects: namely, podcasts.

Flash forward a few years, and Spotify has gone all-in on podcasts. It’s spent over half a billion dollars on high-end podcast networks (Gimlet) and companies that specialize in personality-driven discussion shows (The Ringer). What’s more, it opened up the submission process to allow just about any podcast, big or small, to be streamed on its platform. It’s clearly trying to position itself as the player-of-choice for all of our podcast listening.

This is why I think its new video product will prove to be a success: it adds an additional reason for a potential podcast listener to choose Spotify over a competing app like Apple Podcasts or Overcasts.

A decade ago, I would have considered the idea absurd that people would ever want to watch in-studio videos of podcast episodes, but several YouTubers over the last few years have proved that people actually love that type of content. H3H3. Logan Paul. Joe Rogan. David Dobrik. Even Howard Stern (though he’s technically not a podcaster). All generated tens of millions of views from posting their podcasts to YouTube.

Here’s how it typically works: the podcaster typically sets up one or two cameras within their studio and film the conversation. The YouTuber will then create two separate channels. The first is dedicated to uploads of entire podcast episodes. For the second channel, the YouTuber/podcaster will cut the episode into viral-worthy clips, each usually only a few minutes long. These shorter videos are optimized for the YouTube algorithm and can spread to a much wider audience.

For example, take the podcast produced by the team behind the H3 Podcast. Its channel for full podcast episodes has 2.16 million subscribers and 283 million total views. Its channel for short highlights from the show has 1.57 million subscribers and 573 million views. Some of its most popular videos include a six-minute clip of Post Malone talking about the death of a friend and a nine-minute clip of a popular YouTuber talking about his taxes.

It’s clear that this type of video content is hugely popular, but no major podcast player allows for it. Except Spotify, of course. That’s why I think this move is so brilliant. It’ll increase Spotify’s value proposition as a podcast listening app. If you can watch your favorite podcasts while listening to them, you have just a little extra motivation to move all your podcast listening from, say, Apple’s app to Spotify’s. What’s more, this kind of in-studio filming isn’t expensive to produce, so Spotify doesn’t have to hand out Netflix-size checks to induce podcasters into handing it over.

My guess is that this feature will roll out with Spotify-owned podcasts and then eventually be made available to all podcasters on its platform. The question is whether Spotify will take further cues from YouTubers and allow podcasters to upload shorter clips from their episodes. I could envision a future in which podcast playlists distribute these clips to a much wider audience, thereby exposing the podcast to new listeners.

It’d be an understatement to say that I’ve been fairly bullish on Spotify’s expansion into podcasts, and I think this new video initiative will be a major boost to the company’s longterm health. This latest move makes me even more confident that CEO Daniel Ek knows how to outmaneuver much larger competitors like Amazon and Apple.

Major update

Wow. Less than an hour after I published this article, The Verge reported that Joe Rogan, arguably the king of podcasting, is moving his podcast exclusively to Spotify. After the news broke, I tweeted, “This is the first major podcast that started as a massively popular free show and is now being pulled behind Spotify's walled garden.” After giving it some further thought, I issued a follow-up: “Hmm, on second thought, this isn't entirely true. Joe Budden's podcast was distributed freely before being pulled into Spotify. But Joe Rogan is the king of podcasting. It's a huge deal that other apps won't have his podcast.”

What makes this news super relevant is that Joe Rogan had seen tremendous success uploading a video version of his podcast to YouTube. According to The Verge, Rogan will vastly cut down on the number of clips uploaded to YouTube and will instead publish those clips to Spotify.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.