What We Got Right (and Wrong) About Our 2021 Podcast Predictions

What We Got Right (and Wrong)
Yinchen Niu/VIP

Many in the podcast biz at the beginning of 2021 were likely just hoping for a more stable year than 2020, which saw brands pause ad spend to survive the initial COVID-19 outbreak and some listeners veer away from podcasts as shelter-at-home orders initially hit. And this hope seemed to be fulfilled for the most part in 2021 — there were no major ad pullbacks, and most states had reopened by the summer, for example. 

That largely lines up with the high-level view VIP+ had for the podcast space in January of this year, when we said, “The year ahead may represent a period for the podcast space less tumultuous than that of 2020,” in our 2021 podcast predictions article. Still, some other notable things in 2021 unfolded that we didn’t call out in January. 

So while it’s always nice to highlight the calls we get correctly, it’s also good that we hold ourselves accountable for the expectations we previously laid out that didn’t end up being quite right. 

Below are all of VIP+’s five 2021 podcast business predictions and an analysis of how well each aged … 

1. Paid Podcasts Won’t Take Off (in a Big Way)

Accuracy check: Maru/Matchbox conducted a survey exclusively for Variety Intelligence Platform on Dec. 17 and found 78% of the respondents who’d listened to podcasts before had never paid for a podcast. Meanwhile, a June 2020 YouGov survey conducted for VIP+ also found that over 75% of respondents hadn’t ever paid for a podcast. While the percentages between the two surveys aren’t apples-to-apples (different survey providers, different sample sizes etc.), Maru/Matchbox’s results still strongly indicate that paid podcasts haven’t yet taken off in a big way. However, some paid podcasts likely still did have an easier time generating revenue in 2021 versus 2020, as Apple and Spotify launched podcast subscriptions and boosted the exposure of certain exclusive digital audio shows.  

2. Spotify Will Continue to Weaken Apple‘s Grip on the Podcast Market

Accuracy check: EMarketer in February forecasted that Spotify would count slightly more U.S. podcast listeners in 2021 than Apple Podcasts would, marking the first time Spotify would overtake Apple Podcasts in U.S. podcast listeners. And this lines up with Maru/Matchbox’s December 17 survey, which found that Spotify was a slightly more widely used podcast platform than Apple podcasts. The growth of Spotify over Apple is no surprise given the Swedish music streamer continued to lock up exclusive podcasts in 2021 (like “Call Her Daddy” and “Armchair Expert”) in a way the Cupertino-based tech giant hasn’t. However, we admittedly could have improved this original prediction by acknowledging how widely YouTube is used as a podcast platform (44% of survey respondents in Maru/Matchbox’s survey said they use YouTube for podcasts). 

3. SVODs Will Quietly Experiment With Podcast Production and Distribution

Accuracy check: The venturing of notable SVODs into podcast land continued in 2021. For example, Netflix in July hired former Apple and NPR exec N’Jeri Eaton as its first head of podcasts to oversee the streamer’s podcasts, which are largely tied to its originals. Meanwhile, Apple TV+ has launched official podcasts tied to its shows, including “For All Mankind,” “The Problem With Jon Stewart” and “Foundation” in 2021. HBO Max has also launched podcasts in 2021, such as “Generation: The Podcast” and “Batman: The Audio Adventures.” Perhaps what may make this prediction seem like a better call is that these are all indeed new podcast efforts from SVODs that “quietly” happened (i.e., it’s not like any of these launches ever dominated the entertainment/tech news cycle). But what didn’t really occur in 2021 that we expected to with regard to this prediction were new streaming services like Paramount+ and Discovery+ leaning on podcasts as a differentiation factor — podcasts are currently not to be found on those two streamers.

4. Tech Giants Will Make More M&A Plays to Supercharge Podcast Listening Growth

Accuracy check: As expected, consolidation did continue in the podcast space in 2021, albeit not quite in the manner we expected. In January, we broadly said tech giants would make more podcast M&A plays in 2021, but we also suggested Amazon and Apple would be more acquisitive because Spotify had already been on a major buying spree since 2019. What actually happened: Apple made no high-profile podcast-related acquisitions this year, while Amazon's most notable 2021 podcast acquisition was scooping up podcast monetization platform Art19. Meanwhile, Spotify has acquired audiobook platform Findaway and podcast tech company Whooshkaa within the past two months. As was the case at the end of last year (after Amazon bought Wondery), there are few marquee independent podcast publishers on the market, so it’s unlikely we’re going to see Apple and Amazon significantly ramp up podcast company M&A efforts in 2022.

5. Amazon’s Podcast Push Will Remain in Challenger Status

Accuracy check: It still feels appropriate to label Amazon’s podcast push as being in challenger status, as Amazon Music was used by notably fewer respondents in Maru/Matchbox’s Dec. 17 survey than YouTube, Spotify or Apple Music. Amazon also offers podcasts on its audiobook service Audible, but even assuming it accounted for the entire 13% of the “Other” category in the graphic below, Audible still wouldn’t appear close to rivaling the reaches of the major podcast platforms we’re familiar with discussing. One way Amazon could boost up the user base of Amazon Music specifically is by making new paid-only Wondery shows exclusively streamable on Amazon Music. For example, you can currently subscribe to Wondery’s subscription channel on Apple Podcasts to listen to Wondery exclusives like S2 of Dr. Death and S1 of “The Rise of the State.”