The Ledger is a weekly newsletter about the economics of the music business sent to Billboard Pro subscribers. An abbreviated version of the newsletter is published online.
Spotify’s top podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, appears to be impervious to criticism. Despite attracting worldwide attention and a good deal of condemnation for COVID-19 misinformation espoused by some of his guests, TJRE remains the most popular podcast at Spotify in English-speaking countries United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, according to Chartable. Rogan is also popular in European countries where English is commonly spoken: it’s No. 2 in Sweden and Ireland, No. 4 in India, No. 5 in Finland, No. 6 in Denmark, No. 8 in the Netherlands and No. 12 in Austria. The show even has fans in Spanish-speaking countries that have a lower incidence of English speakers: No. 28 in Spain, No. 61 in Chile and Argentina, No. 69 in Colombia and No. 82 in Mexico.
That’s great news for Spotify. After all, TJRE is a cornerstone of the company’s efforts to build an all-around audio platform and expand its margins to compensate for its reliance on recorded music. Spotify paid dearly for TJRE’s exclusive rights : most reports put the figure at $100 million but it’s been reported to be as high as $200 million. There’s more to the plan, of course. Spotify also licenses Call Her Daddy, another insanely popular podcast, and creates shows with Barack and Michelle Obama and the former British royals, Prince Harry and Meghan Markel. It acquired production studios The Ringer, Gimlet and Parcast. Two acquisitions, ad-tech company Megaphone and podcast creation app Anchor, have given Spotify an army of independent podcast creators and the means to put advertising in their episodes. But beyond all else TJRE helps give podcasts a high profile at Spotify and is likely an effective magnet that attracts and retains some subscribers.
The show’s enduring popularity isn’t a surprise. Podcast listeners tend to stick with their favorite personalities and franchises. Back in Sept. 2016, when Podtrac began releasing its top 20 podcast list, many of the today’s top podcasts were also popular back then: This American Life, Radiolab, Stuff You Should Know; Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me; Hidden Brain; Fresh Air; Planet Money; and TJRE are still top 20 podcasts more than five years later.
The risk to Spotify is that competitors can follow the same playbook by building around an English-language podcast with a well-known host. Amazon-owned Wondery produces Smartless, a two-year-old podcast created by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes — three Hollywood actors with sudden downtime during the pandemic. Less than two years after launching, Smartless ranks No. 6 on Chartable’s global chart. It’s No. 4 in Canada and No. 6 in the U.S. But it’s a steep drop-off from there: No. 30 in France, No. 49 in India and No. 67 in Brazil. It’s not TJRE, but Smartless has tentpole potential for Amazon or another streaming company.
Finding another Rogan won’t be easy, though. In recent years, the most popular new podcasts have been limited series that aren’t among today’s top shows. Wondery’s The Shrink Next Door, The New York Times’ Nice White Parents and Wondery’s The Apology Line were tops in 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively, but aren’t hits today. A publisher such as Wondery and iHeartRadio can have multiple hits from year to year, but they’re usually short-lived. And when a publisher scores a new hit, like iHeartRadio did in 2021 with Chelsea Handler’s Dear Chelsea, success means a top-200 rank, not TJRE status – at least so far.
Still, Spotify and its competitors have a few options for new licensing or acquisitions. If a streaming service wanted to corner the true crime market, there’s audiochuck, the creator of Crime Junkie, a top 5 podcast in the U.S. and top 100 in Great Britain and Canada. The Daily Wire has the conservative favorite The Ben Shapiro Show, which ranks No. 4 globally on Chartable. Pushkin Industries has two popular podcasts by well-known authors, Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis. And just this week, TV host Bill Maher launched an interview podcast, Club Random. A good podcast strategy requires hits, putting these creators and others like them in a good position. Sure, there are more Maher-type personalities out there with the potential to quickly build a loyal fan base – but not many, and they probably won’t be cheap, either.
Through March 25, the % change over the last week, and the year-to-date change.
Tencent Music Entertainment: $4.96, -2.0%, -27.6% YTD
Spotify: $146.05, +0.9%, -37.6% YTD
Universal Music Group: 23.43 euros, +2.9%, -5.4% YTD
Warner Music Group: $37.91, +1.9%, -12.2% YTD
Reservoir Media: $10.09, +12.6%, +27.6% YTD
CTS Eventim: 58.26 euros, -0.3%, -9.5% YTD
NYSE Composite: 16,792.68, +1.1%, -2.2% YTD
Nasdaq: 14,169.30, +2.0%, -9.4% YTD