Apple Mulls Podcast Subscription Push Amid Spotify's Land Grab

Apple Mulls Podcast Push as Spotify Makes Gains
The Hollywood Reporter Illustration

The iPhone giant has explored adding a paid audio product, a risky move given the proliferation of free, ad-supported programming.

In the past decade-and-a-half, Apple has built significant influence in the podcasting industry by letting creators reach its large audience of device owners without charging them a dime. But the company’s recent conversations with creative partners about introducing a subscription product to its podcasting business signals that its reign as a benevolent distributor might be coming to an end.

The talks, first reported by The Information, have been ongoing since at least last fall, sources tell to The Hollywood Reporter, and ultimately could end up taking several different forms. Regardless, it’s clear that Tim Cook-led Apple — after spending the last two years watching rival-in-music-streaming Spotify invest hundreds of millions of dollars to align itself with some of the most prolific producers and most popular personalities in podcasting — is no longer content sitting on the sideline. “There’s a huge opportunity sitting under their nose with 1.4 billion iOS devices globally,” says Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives, “and they don’t want to lose out.” Apple declined to comment about its podcasting plans.

Much of the growth of the podcasting industry over the last decade can be traced back to Apple and its former CEO Steve Jobs, who in 2005 declared that he was “bringing podcasting mainstream” by adding support for the medium to iTunes. A few years later, the company introduced a separate Podcasts app that quickly became the leading distribution platform for the medium. But Apple, which netted $275 billion in sales in fiscal 2020, has refrained from turning podcasting — still a relatively small industry that the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimated would bring in nearly $1 billion in U.S. advertising revenue last year — into a moneymaking venture.

Now, however, Apple’s position as the top platform for podcast listening is being threatened as the company faces heated competition from tech and media giants including Spotify, Amazon and SiriusXM. In the years since it first added podcast support, Apple also has placed an emphasis on its growing services business, through which it already offers subscription products for music, television, video games and fitness videos.

But Apple will have to proceed carefully as it explores introducing subscriptions to podcasting, a business that has long been funded largely through advertising sales. Many longtime podcasters are vocal supporters of keeping the medium free and widely accessible, and listeners have yet to show a strong appetite for paid podcast services like two-year-old startup Luminary. Even Spotify, which has a robust music subscription business with 144 million members, has refrained from putting any of its podcasts behind a paywall. And analysts at Citi recently questioned whether Spotify's podcast investment can pay off, noting Jan. 15 that the company's cadence of Premium subscriber additions and download data "do not show any material benefit."

Ives says Apple might have an easier time selling a podcast subscription if it offers a curated selection of exclusive and original shows from in-demand talent, much like it does for video programming with Apple TV+, which launched in 2019 with drama The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Apple has released a handful of in-house podcasts and discussed making podcasts that serve as companions to its original TV shows, sources say, but it has yet to go after high-profile projects or talent the way Spotify has. Last fall, Spotify paid handsomely to bring The Joe Rogan Experience, regularly the No. 1 show on the Apple Podcasts chart, exclusively to its platform.

Apple currently bolsters Apple TV+ sign-ups by offering a free subscription to people who buy new devices. It also encourages people to pay for multiple Apple subscriptions by offering discounted Apple One bundles. LightShed's media analysts recently wrote that they "believe Apple can be successful" with a subscription podcast product if it leverages its new bundles with its "leadership position in podcasting."

Membership platform Patreon has shown that podcast subscriptions can work on an individual level, with fans paying for exclusive or ad-free content from their favorite personalities. Apple could employ a similar feature, in which it allows people to pay à la carte to listen to shows without the advertising. But in order to entice podcast partners, Apple’s deals would need to cover any lost advertising revenue.

“It’s not like this is a layup,” Ives says, “but given how aggressive Spotify in particular is going after this market, they have to do something.”