On Spotify, an Arranged Marriage Between Music and Podcasts
Danyel Smith did a podcast in her kitchen. Smith, author, journalist, and former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, took on her husband, Elliott Wilson, a fellow journalist and founder of Rap Radar, between the sink and a bowl of fruit.
As you would expect from a show hosted by longtime music journalists, the “Relationship Goals” podcast, which ran from 2015 to 2016, contained a lot of music – between playfully controversial jokes about domestic and professional headlines. Like the show itself, the song placements were done off the peg – without much foresight, professional support or official permission.
“It was a little bit of pirate podcasting,” said Smith. “We weren’t part of any network, and that was before podcasting became very popular. We’d just sit at our little kitchen table and play music and talk about it. “
Due to the lack of authorized music, “relationship goals” were not uncommon – the process of licensing music from legal rights holders often requires resources that many independent podcast publishers do not have. But when Smith decided to start a new podcast last year, inspired by her work on an upcoming book on the history of black women in popular music, she knew she wanted to do things differently.
As it happened, Spotify did too.
Black Girl Songbook, Smith’s new podcast, is one of several music-focused shows launched on the platform last year that takes a novel approach to one of the industry’s oldest problems. It uses a hybrid format that Spotify refers to as “shows with music” or “music and entertainment” that allows developers to add full songs from the service’s extensive catalog to their podcasts for free. (Spotify reduces the ads placed through the service by 30 percent.) The format gives podcasters easy access to music that would be difficult or expensive to get on their own, and provides listeners with a seamless interface to learn more about a song or learn a song by adding it to their library.
These listeners must use Spotify – the format in which Spotify’s existing contracts with music companies are to be exploited is not compatible with other platforms. And only users with a premium subscription will hear full songs. Everyone else gets a 30-second preview. But for Smith and others, the compromises have so far been worth it.
“Full songs are the place of magic,” said Smith. “There’s nothing like playing a song that means so much to me and that I know means so much to others, if only they have the chance to hear it.”
All podcasters who want to use pre-existing third-party music face the same obstacle. Unlike radio stations, who can purchase blanket licenses that give them rights to the most popular songs, copyright law requires podcasts and other forms of on-demand media to license songs individually. The costs, which can range from $ 500 to $ 6,000 per use for a typical three-year term, add up quickly. Last fall, Hrishikesh Hirway, the host of the popular music podcast “Song Exploder”, announced on Twitter that he would have to remove some episodes of the show due to rising license fees. (The tweets were later deleted. Hirway declined to comment.) “Relationship Goals” faced similar challenges – most episodes of the show are no longer online.
Many music podcasts bypass licensing through a copyright exception called “fair use,” which allows small portions of the copyrighted material to be used for specific purposes, including comments and criticism. Fair-use defenses, however, have an inconsistent track record in court, and as podcasts grow in popularity, rightsholders have become more aggressive.
Deborah Mannis-Gardner, a music sharing expert – she worked with Rick Rubin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Bruce Headlam on the Broken Record podcast; and “The Midnight Miracle” with Dave Chappelle, Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli – said she saw a surge in inquiries from DIY developers.
“You have to determine how important the music is to you, how relevant it is to the podcast, and whether that’s worth the few dollars you have in your budget,” said Mannis-Gardner. “I always tell people, ‘If you just want something that sounds cool, let a composer rent a work or use a music library.'”
When Smith conceived the Black Girl Songbook, she wanted to create a platform to celebrate and uplift artists, especially the overlooked or underrated. Her book “Shine Bright”, due out in September by One World, is partly a memoir, partly a reassessment of black female musicians throughout history, from Big Mama Thornton to Rihanna.
The podcast takes a similar approach, but combines not only music but also personal reflections, archive recordings and artist interviews. One episode shows Sade’s journey from a London-based immigrant studying fashion design to an international superstar. another takes up Natalie Cole’s media-driven rivalry with Aretha Franklin; An interview with Corinne Bailey Rae combines her exuberant hit “Put Your Records On” with her early experiences with a natural hairstyle.
“So often when I interview someone, women will say to me,” Nobody has ever asked me about this, “said Smith.” Even when black women are in the spotlight, they rarely get the critical attention they deserve. “
As with all music and talk shows on Spotify, the themes of the “Black Girl Songbook” not only receive the usual press presence, but also compensation: Artists are paid for plays within the show as elsewhere on duty. (Many musicians say these payments stay too low.) Courtney Holt, VP of Spotify, compared the format to Spotify playlists and described it as a new way to deepen the company’s relationship with users.
“We think more people want this kind of content-based conversation around music,” he said. “It ultimately drives more musical engagement, it drives more artist love, and it makes Spotify so much stickier.”
Spotify lets anyone create a music and talk show through Anchor, the podcast production software that was purchased in 2019. There are currently over 20,000 music and talk shows on service, many of which are similar in tone and structure to FM radio. Most of the more ambitious shows to date are produced by Spotify or its subsidiaries: “Black Girl Songbook”, for example, is produced by The Ringer; and Gimlet’s “Murder Ballads,” a historic series that highlights garish folk songs covered by Nirvana and Johnny Cash.
Rob Harvilla, a longtime music critic and host of another wrestler music and talk show, “60 Songs That Explain the ’90s,” said the podcast, his first, offered him a more tactile relationship with the music it covers. Each week the show immerses itself in a different 1990s song – Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” – with an opening monologue from Harvilla and a chat with a special guest.
“What the show put me up to was the ability to interact with the songs,” said Harvilla. “The people who listen can hear the tone of voice, the lyrics, the guitar solo – it makes things so much livelier, whether I’m doing astute critical analysis or just a stupid joke.”
For Smith, who, as editor of Vibe in the late 1990s, was an early proponent of artists like Master P and Lauryn Hill, the new format means a return to old principles.
“Vibe has been all about getting people on the cover that other magazines wouldn’t have – people who couldn’t be booked to appear on The Tonight Show,” she said. “I wanted to create more space to serve the underserved, not just for the women being introduced, but also for the audience who can’t get enough of what makes them happy.”