The streaming wars have opened a major new front with the news that Spotify has lured the Joe Rogan Experience away from YouTube and iTunes.
For those unfamiliar with the JRE podcast, it is the defining long-form, open discussion show, featuring completely unstructured conversations between host Joe Rogan and usually one other guest. As a comedian and martial arts commentator, those two topics are covered frequently, but the guest list is very eclectic, ranging from academics to politicians to showbiz figures.
JRE has 8.4 million subscribers on Google-owned YouTube and while that’s a massive number it’s nowhere near the top of the list of all YouTube subscribers. But if you strip out the music and TV brands, it must be right up there. The real traffic for podcasts, however, is from audio streams and downloads, which Rogan himself estimates are around ten times greater that video views. The biggest single platform for that is probably Apple iTunes, on which JRE is the second biggest in the US.
The raw numbers only tell half the story, however, with Rogan’s cultural influence extending even further, especially in the US. US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used a claimed Rogan endorsement for political capital at the start of this year while, more recently, Rogan’s negative assessment of the eventual winner of the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, sent shockwaves across the country and beyond. Most recently, his criticism of how California is handling the coronavirus lockdown seems to have made many residents consider fleeing the state.
So for Spotify to lure Rogan away from these two internet giants with a deal that will be exclusive from the start of next year is a major victory and a significant blow to its competitors. The WSJ reports that it cost Spotify $100 million, which is serious money. While that’s great news for Rogan, we will probably never know if it pays off for Spotify, but if Netflix (where you can find Rogan’s excellent standup) is anything to go by, paying for big names is the way forward.
This changes everything. This will be remembered as the day Spotify became Netflix for audio. https://t.co/bnipT5elOC
— Mustapha Hamoui (@Beirutspring) May 19, 2020
As you may have gathered your correspondent is a big fan of JRE. At a time when public discussion seems to be more shrill, polarised and dumbed-down than ever, Rogan offers the kind of honest, nuanced, agenda-free discussion that is desperately needed. JRE fans not currently on Spotify will have some serious thinking to do at the start of the year and the Swedish streaming giant is betting a lot of the new users Rogan brings will upgrade to premium services.
The only thing that could go wrong is for Spotify to in any way try to alter the format or censor the often colourful content. Netflix hasn’t and it would be very surprising for Rogan to agree to any such interference. “While Spotify will become the exclusive distributor of JRE, Rogan will maintain full creative control over the show,” assures the Spotify announcement.
To date the streaming wars have largely focused on video content, but this move brings audio to the fore. Once people start commuting again, podcasts will be more important than ever and it increasingly looks like you need to be a Spotify user if you want access to the best ones.
Incidentally the only pod more popular than JRE in the US is currently in the middle of a drama over switching platforms. It may be no coincidence the YouTube recently lured its biggest star, PewDiePie, back from a rival platform. In these fractious times, authenticity has become a precious commodity, one that the internet giants are prepared to pay top dollar for.