Industry Analysts Are Wrong About Apple Podcasts+

Success is about brand not about specific financial gain

Before I write about Apple Podcasts+, I just wanted to mention that the dry spell over in the main Timber publication is partly on purpose as we try to finish up our software and get ready for the launch. We have a few new stories in flight that I’m really excited about and they’ll be published soon. I won’t forget to tell you 😊.

Last Friday I got an email alert from The Information that Apple is going to create Podcasts+. I’ve been tempted to subscribe to The Information many times, and this was the story that I couldn’t resist, so I coughed up the very impressive subscription fee (nice business, Jessica!) to read it. After that, I subsequently read takes on Twitter, PodMov Daily, HotPod, PodNews, and in some personal circles.

Most of the takes I read focused on whether Apple would be able to make a go of it. And more specifically on whether the juice was worth the squeeze financially. Would there be enough money in subscription podcasts to make a Podcasts+ service successful?

I think that’s the wrong lens. Apple is already successful financially. They literally have so much money that they can’t spend it fast enough. The better lens to look at this is a brand lens.

Have you seen an Apple commercial lately? What’s their brand? Creators. They talk and talk about how they care about creators and how their tools enable creators. If you’re cool, young, (or old but young at heart), and creative, you’re using Apple products.

Back to podcasts. What sucks about podcasts? That it’s nearly impossible to get paid properly for the fruits of your creation. That’s really the only thing that sucks about them. And it’s kinda Apple’s fault in the first place.

So if Apple wants to fix this, and to keep up with other brands that are suddenly vying for creators’ attention, it has to do something. I think that Podcasts+ will be this something. And now here’s where I’ll lose some people (including my co-founder Chris).

I think Apple Podcasts+ will be a non-exclusive way for top-end podcasters to monetize their shows via per-minute-listened payouts from the possibly Apple-subsidized subscription money coming in from both Apple One subscribers and Podcasts+ specific subscribers. And I also think that podcasters will jump for it.

What’s that I just said? Non-exclusive? Yep. I think that just like with News+ and Apple Music, Apple will allow creators to be on other platforms. But creators will prefer their deal with Apple over those they have with other platforms and therefore pull people into listen on Apple.

Also what about that “possibly Apple-subsidized” part? If Apple were to use some of its war chest to subsidize payouts to creators it could prime the pump. Just think of the brand benefits of spending the same amount of money to subsidize creators as Spotify or Amazon just spent to buy podcasting!

Whether or not Apple primes the pump, the reason creators will jump to join Podcasts+ is that Apple will offer better terms for them than they are getting from shared ad revenue on Spotify and other platforms. I also think that Apple may ask them to include ad-free versions of their shows for these premium subscribers. So between these better terms and the fact that it’s Apple (ie not Amazon, not Luminary), entire big networks will instantly hop aboard the Apple Podcasts+ train.

This is key. If whole big networks jump on Podcasts+, and they do it with ad-free versions of their shows, I’d be game to pay a fee. And I don’t think I’m alone. Heck, podcasts already get a bad rap for being elitist and niche, so don’t be surprised when all your elitist, niche friends already have a subscription.

I also don’t think the Podcasts+ rails will be open to just anyone. Apple has already proven that they know how to construct gatekeeping pipelines (see the App Store, the 3rd party hardware partnership program, Apple News, etc). So there will be some high hurdles to clear to get into Podcasts+. This could hurt smaller independents a bit, in sort of the same way that the blue checkmark system on Twitter hurts people that don’t have one. But just as it hurts them it also creates a goal. Independents will strive to meet the requirements to get their Apple badge of quality.

One thing I haven’t covered yet is Apple exclusive podcasts. This is what everyone keeps talking about. I do think there will be some, but they will be clearly separated and Apple branded, and there will only be a handful. I also expect some of these to be very good, just like some of Apple TV+ shows have been very good. (The other day N. Quah totally forgot to mention Ted Lasso despite being a one-man Ted Lasso tweet machine during his binge. Also shoutout to Little America on Apple TV+ which was such a smartly written anthology of feel-good, moving, and relatable immigration stories. And it is likely to become one of these exclusive podcasts.)

So with all these predictions what happens? Is podcasting saved? Not at all. It’ll still only be possible to monetize your show by being better than 1000 of your fellow podcasters at creating and marketing. But within that elite group, there may be less scratching for ad dollars, there may be clearer ways to market, and there may be more equitable access to being discovered. And that would be right in line with Apple’s brand goals.

One final thing that’s on my mind with all this is that it’s so important that Apple puts some real work into the Podcasts app as part of their strategy. Small things like library organization, keeping track of where you were in binge listens, being smarter about what you want to listen to next, and helping you discover shows you’ll like (not just shows that curators want you to like) need to be addressed or Apple will continue to lose player market share to Spotify and all this goes away.

There you have it! My attempt at full-on industry punditry in which I center brand rather than bottom line. I’d love your thoughts!

—Jon Christensen