That question above is not hypothetical, because Spotify has done just that — it was announced a couple of weeks ago that Schumer had secured a deal worth more than $1m to host and produce a comedy podcast for the music platform. It seems likely that the actual budget for the show will be substantially more than a million, since it looks like Schumer will take home at least that much as her fee.
Whether or not you like Amy Schumer is irrelevant for the purposes of this letter: she is officially a big enough thing for whatever deals she signs to make news, and it seems like — as far as anyone has been able to work out — this is the first (disclosed) million dollar deal for a podcast (I don’t know how much Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis are being paid, but I bet it’s a lot!!). For me, this news brings together three different podcasting trends I’ve been following for a while, and I thought I’d lay them out here.
1. Celebrities are bankers
Yes, podcasting can turn you into a celebrity (I refuse to believe Marc Maron was a big deal before WTF, well certainly not outside the US). But increasingly, networks and producers are turning to the age-old trick of getting someone already famous in to host their podcast as a short cut to lots of listeners. Put a well-known face on the show’s artwork, and you’re automatically going to tap into that performer’s existing audience and increase your chances of being featured on the front of the Apple Podcast store (they love famous people, as anyone who has ever tried to pitch a show to them that doesn’t involve one will tell you). Now, as much as one can judge from the scanty details about so far, it sounds like Schumer does intend to be involved in the concept and production of her show as well. But that wouldn’t have to be the case for it still to be a hit — and that worries me. I’ve always liked the apparently democratic nature of the audio world, in which a successful podcast can catapult someone like Jon Lovett or Jamie Morton into a position where they’re selling out huge venues. An increasing emphasis on big money deals for celebrities could squash that effect, as producers and networks become less interested in whether the podcast itself is good and more concerned about how already famous the talent involved in it is.
2. Comedy still rules
Comedians were among the earliest adopters of podcasting; it’s almost become a cliche that a little-known standup can kick start a bigger career if they manage to make a hit podcast with their comedian mates. The unregulated nature of on demand internet audio has freed up a lot of people to say some pretty regrettable things (see: shock jocks fired from US satellite radio networks for being too offensive) and comedians like Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand have made that work to their advantage. Because it’s such a staple of the medium, I feel like comedy podcasts don’t get much attention these days — understandably, much of the press focus is on the constant flow of true crime podcasts and more innovative new shows that experiment with genre and form. Yet the good old comedy podcast hasn’t gone away while we’ve been looking elsewhere, and the fact that this mega deal involves a traditional comedian who made her name on the stand up circuit and via a TV sketch show is proof of that.
3. Spotify wants Apple’s lunch
For a long time, Apple had a de facto monopoly on podcasting — they didn’t host or make any shows, but their podcast store was the primary distribution platform for the world. They’re still a big player, but other platforms are now aggressively moving into their space. Spotify is leading this charge, but they’re pursuing a different model. They aren’t seeking to be a universal distributor, and are instead being selective about what podcasts appear on their app as well as producing their own shows (I’m not aware that Apple have ever commissioned and produced an exclusive podcast? I don’t count Stephen Fry waxing lyrical about how great the iPhone is.) We don’t know yet whether Schumer’s podcast will be exclusive to Spotify, or if it will be held back just for paying subscribers. Either way, it represents a major statement by Spotify: Apple can’t drift on as podcasting’s primary gatekeeper for much longer.