Podcasting Does a Thing II: Welcome to the Montage

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid on 8th March 2019. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.

Podcasting is doing a thing again. Last time it did a thing that thing was ‘Be partially absorbed by Hard Drive Galactus’. This time round it’s Luminary, a major new podcast developer, announcing their launch line up. 40 shows, including Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to legendary musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch, podcasts from Conan O’Brien, Malcolm Gladwell, Trevor Noah and the sequel to beloved superhuman audio drama The Bright Sessions.

All of them behind an $8 a month paywall, apparently intended as the ‘Netflix of podcasting’.

Metaphor first. It’s terrible. It doesn’t work. Report to the bin.

That paywall though and what it means is much more interesting not to mention complex. Whether we like it or not, and that’s a nuanced answer that we’re all working on, paywalls are going to be a thing in podcasting for a while. As my partner in all things pointed out, this is the exact same thinking behind the plethora of streaming platforms we’re all about to be expected to pay for. Everyone’s seen Netflix’s money. Everyone wants some of it and the attempt to replicate that model is already spilling into other media with podcasting. Witness the Disney streaming platformthe conclusion of the Netflix/Marvel relationship, the Spotify assimilation of Anchor and Gimlet Media and the astonishing amount of money Himalaya just threw at their podcasting slate. That’s not cash anyone spends lightly.

If anything, podcasting is an even more attractive proposition than that shiny nerd dollar with the odd scratch on one side that everyone’s chasing. It’s uncharted and functionally infinite territory, where herds of Intellectual Property graze peacefully. Which to us, is lovely and to venture capitalists is the textbook definition of a target rich environment.  I know for a fact there is at least one IP hunting firm in the UK that has been offering a pittance to fiction podcasts in return for their IP. Every show I know they’ve talked to has said no but the fact they’re out there means they think there’s someone who’ll say yes. They’re right too; the creative industries have been systemically undervalued for close to a century and when we’re offered half a donut the instinct to grab it is almost overwhelming.
That, from what I’ve been able to tell, is not what Luminary have done. They do have long-term IP rights, confirmed by Lauren Shippen who has talked about how her show for them won’t be publicly available for at least a few years. However, they also apparently give their shows complete creative freedom and are backing serious money up to them. Which, as we all know, is not the norm. Here’s a quote form her tumblr:

We’ve had a Patreon for several years that enabled us to survive and do bonus episodes that would have otherwise been impossible. But to pull back the curtain on that a bit: one month of our Patreon earnings equals the cost of one bonus episode. Thankfully, we’ve been able to pay everyone – guest writers, guest actors, Julia & Mischa – pretty fairly, but we’ve made no additional profit off of the Patreon, ever. 

That’s pretty much the standard for a lot of folks including us. Escape Artistsploughs every dollar we get back into infrastructure, into paying our staff and into working towards upping our pay rates for authors. This is the best job in the world but the best job in the world never pays well. We’d love to be able to pay our staff more. We’d love to have people go full time with us. Luminary, and companies like them, offer that freedom. For a price. Three prices actually. The first is the $8 a month cost. The second is having Intellectual Property tied up in someone else’s hands. The third is the loss of all the people who can’t afford to come behind the velvet rope with you.

Draw a line starting at the Spotify assimilation, through Himalaya to this and you’ve got three data points that all speak to the same thing; the burgeoning evolution of podcasting into something more than, but still embracing, the scrappy ‘record under a duvet’ invention that got it where it is today. The upside to companies like Luminary is creatives finally being paid a fair rate. Actually that needs to be broken out onto a line of it’s own with a couple of other givens I should say out loud while I’m here..

The upside to companies like Luminary is creatives being paid a fair rate. That’s a massive upside. We should ALL be paid a fair rate. Lauren and her team do amazing work and I’m delighted they’re being paid well for it. It’s long overdue.

The downside is that in doing so, Luminary and co pressurize the shows who don’t have the capacity to do what they do and create a two tier industry and a two tier audience. That infinite plain of egalitarian Intellectual Property herds suddenly has walls around sections of it and guards on the gates. Guards who, as anyone who’s seen Luminary’s slogan (‘A better way to podcast’) or their startlingly tone deaf advertising will know, seem to have no problem sneering at the people on the outside.

It’s a mildly sensationalist image I know but it’s also true and in fairness, everyone involved knows it. Not every show from these teams in the future will be pay walled and eventually, years from now, the ones that are may be unlocked. It’s also worth noting that for all their drum beating over the last week, Luminary’s app is a podcatcher as well which will presumably have nice big windows (And ads) for what’s just behind the door. Similarly, Spotify have talked about how they’re experimenting with walled off shows and open ones. Nothing’s set, yet. Everyone’s working on something new. In fact, welcome to the montage. This is the period of time where this industry is going to work out what it wants to be next. It’s pretty exciting.

But it’s also worrying. It is all but impossible to be in this situation and not make people feel like they’re being excluded. Because, and there’s no nice way to say this, they ARE being excluded. For audiences, it’s watching characters they love be locked behind an extra expense. For podcasters it’s looking at colleagues getting the call and asking the question none of us want to and everyone of us will:
 ‘Why not us?’
 Or worse still, getting that call and having to make the choice between surrendering their IP to another business for stability and growth, or carrying on with the IP for less stability and slower growth. Or to rephrase that; choose between getting the money to pay their staff a living wage and expand in the ways they want or keep all their listeners.

Can open. Worms EVERYWHERE.

We’re seeing two business models collide in real time and they’re not slowing down.  Neither is going to survive the crash unchanged. Neither can, or should. This is going to get messy, on every level. But in the end my hope is what will come out of the other side is going to help more podcasters get paid and leave no audience members behind. Or worse, just next door.