The year ahead may represent a period for the podcast space less tumultuous than that of 2020, a year when many brands paused ad spending to weather the initial damage of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, it’s not just rebounding ad spend that’s likely to occur during the next 12 months in the podcast space.
Below are VIP’s top five predictions for the podcast business in 2021:
1. Paid podcasts won’t take off (in a big way). While the number of podcasts offered behind a paywall is likely to increase in 2021, it’s unlikely that paying for podcast content will become a widespread behavior among podcast listeners. Sure, tech companies own top publishers now (i.e., Spotify-Gimlet, Amazon-Wondery), and that gives them even greater power to gate scripted shows. But the disappointing performance of Luminary in 2020 will likely scare some platforms from aggressively paywalling podcasts. And the sheer number of free podcasts available will likely limit paid podcast listenership growth in the year ahead.
2. Spotify will continue to weaken Apple‘s grip on the podcast market. The Daniel Ek-helmed streaming platform’s podcast growth story will continue in 2021 thanks in part to unfolding exclusive podcast plays (like a scripted “Batman” podcast in partnership with DC and a series from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s production company). Joe Rogan’s podcast juggernaut, “TJRE,” became exclusive to Spotify in December, and that will likely push more consumers (who didn’t notice the exclusive move last month) to start using the platform more regularly in 2021. Spotify’s growth will likely come at the expense of Apple, which hasn’t been nearly as aggressive as Spotify in podcast deals and lost market share among weekly podcast listeners from 2019 to 2020, per Westwood One.
3. SVODs quietly experiment with podcast production and distribution. Streaming services have dabbled in the podcast space before: Netflix has long had a companion podcast for “The Crown,” while Hulu launched a companion pod to “Little Fires Everywhere” with iHeartMedia in March 2020, for example. But it’s not like podcasts have ever really been a significant part of a major U.S.-based SVOD’s growth strategy (Netflix isn’t interested in making a major podcast play, according to Recode editor-at-large Kara Swisher). While I don’t suspect SVODs will all of a sudden start prioritizing podcasts in 2021, we will likely see some lean more heavily on them as a differentiation factor, as Discovery+ and Paramount+ further crowd the streaming landscape. HBO Max already has podcasts accessible in its app (with HBO Max chief Andy Forssell in October saying podcasts were coming soon to the app).
4. Tech giants make more M&A plays to supercharge podcast listening growth. Consolidation has been a big theme in the podcast space over the last couple of years, with Spotify notably taking the lead by scooping up companies like Parcast and The Ringer. This merging of players is likely to continue in 2021, though Spotify may be relatively less active on the M&A front given its marquee acquisition spree starting in 2019. A recent hint that Spotify may be more choosy with M&A now is that it did not bid on Wondery, which Amazon announced it was acquiring last week. Spotify being less active in podcast M&A leaves room for Apple and Amazon to scoop up more production houses, though the recent acquisition of Wondery leaves few other marquee independent podcast publishers on the market.
5. Amazon’s podcast push will remain in challenger status. Amazon Music just added podcasts to its platform in September, and although Audible has long offered podcasts, it seems like it only recently wanted to seriously start turning up the heat on its podcast push. Audible added a bunch of free podcasts to its catalog in October, though its catalog of 100,000 shows falls well short of Apple and Spotify’s (both Apple Podcasts and Spotify say they host over 1.5 million titles). The relatively small catalog of Audible will hurt its chances at becoming the preferred podcast platform of some users in 2021. But perhaps equally as pressing an issue is the disparate podcast pushes of Amazon Music and Audible (even producers and podcasts networks reportedly are puzzled by it). “Which app am I supposed to use again?” a user searching for an Amazon exclusive podcast might be asking. If these issues aren’t addressed, it seems likely it’ll still be fair to refer to Amazon’s podcast push as “early-days phase” at the end of the year.