Last November, my favorite podcast—The Last Podcast On The Left—signed a 2-year exclusive distribution agreement with Spotify, for what was very likely a very substantial sum of money. That deal meant that as of February 2020, the show would only be available for Spotify users. And it wasn’t just The Last Podcast On The Left, but the entire Last Podcast Network (LPN) and all of its millions of listeners. They would have to download Spotify to listen to new episodes of LPN’s many popular shows, and they would no longer be able to do so via traditional podcast feeds (the exception being LPOTL Patreon subscribers, who can still access a traditional feed by paying $10/month).
This news upset more than a few of the show’s fans—this was inevitable—but in general I think Marcus, Ben, and Henry (the flagship show’s three hosts and LPN’s co-founders) did a great job getting fans on board with the transition. I was right there with them, and supported the move. I am a Spotify Premium subscriber, I use Spotify fairly regularly, and while I have my issues with the app, I also have perspective: independent content publishing is a hugely challenging business, and an opportunity like this was a massive win for LPN. They’d have been silly to say no, and netted big perks like health insurance for all of their employees and complete creative control over their product. Sure, I couldn’t listen in Pocket Casts anymore, but I was prepared to give that up knowing that LPN’s staff and creators were getting paid more and taken care of better.
Broadly speaking, I’m still supportive of that move today. On various streams, the hosts of LPOTL have said that Spotify is allowing them to move away from their current ad network partner, which is winding down, to Spotify’s lineup of advertisers, which almost certainly means more money. I’ve already seen the obvious effects—the show has moved up from online direct-to-consumer products like Quip toothbrushes to virtual advertising juggernauts like the Epic Games Store (and, uh, Trolli gummy worms… seriously). This almost certainly gets LPN a lot more money and affords it access to much bigger spenders, all while increasing the brand value of the show itself. While I find it a bit sad that most of the ad reads are often no longer done by the hosts themselves and are instead programmatic Spotify ads, I understand that this is a business, and the hosts have limited time to devote to this sort of thing. Reading ads sucks! I speak as someone who has read ads. But it was that first time I heard an unfamiliar voice talking to me about Squarespace that I had a feeling things were changing.
One day a few weeks ago, I began to notice something strange: I was listening to LPOTL less often. Sure, I still get through every episode, but sometimes I let them sit for a few days, or get halfway through, forget I started listening, and then come back a week later to see I have another episode to finish before starting the latest one. It’s curious, because when I consumed LPOTL using Pocket Casts, I almost always listened to the latest episode within 24 hours. I came to realize something had changed. The something was Spotify, and its genuinely terrible podcast experience.
The Spotify fly trap
To understand why Spotify Podcasts are bad (and yes, I know: they aren’t podcasts anymore by definition), you first have to understand what makes Spotify, as a business, tick. Spotify makes most of its money from its Premium subscribers, but it also makes a tremendous and growing amount on ads. That’s a business it wants to greatly expand, and a critical piece of that strategy is its Spotify exclusive podcasts, which contain ads from Spotify—even if you’re a premium subscriber. Spotify is promoting these shows more and more aggressively inside the app, because it wants to gain subscribers to increase the value of those ads and the number of people who hear them.
All of this is, to use an industry term, an engagement issue. Spotify wants you opening the app more, because it increases the likelihood you’ll find more shows to listen to, which in turn creates value for Spotify. If you simply silo yourself away as a subscriber to a single Spotify exclusive show, just receiving notifications when new content you’ve specifically asked to be notified about is available, you’re less likely to engage with the Spotify app and discover new content. I am increasingly confident this is big part of why the podcast UX on Spotify is such an agonizing slog.
Here is the complete list of options available in Spotify once you follow a podcast. I am not joking.
Take, for example, simply getting notified if there’s a new episode of your favorite show. This seems almost fundamental to the podcast app experience… unless you’re Spotify. You see, “following” a podcast on Spotify doesn’t subscribe you to notifications about new episodes of that show, oh no. Rather, Spotify has a single notification control for all artists (meaning music and podcasts) you follow. And, by the way, they’ll also use it to promote “artists you might like.” This immediately gets back to the issues I expressed above—Spotify’s ulterior motive for notifying you of new content is the hope that you will also want to listen to other new content that you didn’t actually ask for. It wants permission to advertise to you, and get you back in the Spotify app. The notification is incredibly nebulous by design: Spotify could just as easily create a notification channel specific to podcasts (or even for individual shows and artists, a la Pocket Casts), but I strongly suspect it won’t. It wants carte blanche to tell you about any and everything it thinks might make you tap on a notification. But it doesn’t end there.
Spotify’s notifications are as nebulous in their function as they are apparently useless—I’ve never even received one.
How easy do you think it is to get to your podcasts in the app? Well, it depends. The Spotify Home UI is a confusing smorgasbord of algorithmic suggestions. The “Good [time of day here]” tiles seem to show you things that you’ve recently played more frequently, while the “recently played” UI just shows a basic playback history. If you listen to enough podcasts, a “Your top podcasts” carousel appears. Sometimes it’s near the top. Sometime it’s not! Sometimes it displays podcasts you listen to, sometimes it shows ones it thinks you would like (I have noticed a very real correlation here with whether or not my subscribed shows have unplayed episodes). It all just depends on what Spotify wants to show you and when—you have no real control over, there’s no way to “sticky” anything in the home UI. So, if the podcast you want isn’t readily surfaced on the home UI, you have to go into the “Your Library” tab, tap the “Podcasts” header, and select which way you want to browse. Spotify shows all of your unplayed episodes in one list (the only real way to see what’s “new”), downloaded episodes in another, and a third list which allows you to access the feeds of individual shows. If you’re thinking that’s a pretty asinine way to bury things, you’re not wrong! I don’t think this burying is intentional, necessarily, I just think Spotify doesn’t care. Spotify cares about the home UI, and that’s really it. Actually finding the specific thing you want is so 2010. Let the algorithms handle it—that’s the wave of the future.
There actually is one way to get instant access to a specific artist or show, but it’s basically Spotify throwing up a subtle middle finger at you. You can add homescreen shortcuts for specific artists, playlists, or shows by long pressing on the Spotify icon. You can’t choose which artists or shows appear in this list directly, but it’s easy enough to manipulate since it just shows the last three things you’ve played. The thing is, this in itself feels like Spotify just saying “FINE, you can go straight to your shows—if I get more real estate on your homescreen.” It underscores the inherently user-hostile nature of the experience Spotify has created here, one in which Spotify wants more, more, more: if I’m not willing to go through the convoluted podcast UI, Spotify demands tribute of a 1×1 lease on my homescreen. It’s silly.
Not down with downloads
The other big problem I see with Spotify’s podcast setup is in the music-minded approach it brings to the platform. One obvious example of this is downloading shows. Many of us download podcasts at home to save data, or listen on airplanes (remember airplanes?), or avoid worrying about connection speeds and buffering. But Spotify treats podcast downloads just like it does any other download, as in like music. There are a number of reasons this doesn’t work.
First, Spotify doesn’t support automatically downloading new episodes of shows. Obviously, this makes sense for music: downloading new content from any artist you follow would quickly fill up your storage. This kind of feature would be pretty terrible in a streaming music player. But it’s absolutely table stakes for a podcasting app, and it’s positively brain dead not to have it.
The second big miss on downloads is data management. As I said in the previous section, Spotify does have a “Downloads” section for podcasts, but it’s set up in the most bizarre way. There are no bulk actions, and there is no toggle to automatically erase episodes from your local storage once you’ve finished listening to them. This means you have to manage each and every episode you download end to end. You must individually choose to download an episode, then once you’re done, you have to go in and delete that one episode. This is just plain stupid.
Spotify offers basic quality of life features like playback speed and sleep timers, but zero effort has been placed in downloads.
Finally, the one thing we all know: Spotify downloads are genuinely terrible. They constantly pause mid-transfer, fail, or go ridiculously, painfully slowly. There is no reason an 80MB podcast should take 3 minutes to download on my 300Mbps home internet, and yet! Meanwhile, on Pocket Casts, I can have 30 episodes of a show downloaded in well under half that time. (I don’t think there’s any conspiracy to this part, I just think Spotify sucks.)
My suspicion is that Spotify thought its current download model for music (read: only do this as a last resort) worked well enough for podcasts. I also believe it gets back to the simple fact that automatically downloading episodes, or automatically clearing them after listening, makes it easier for you to stay outside the Spotify app. If Spotify notified you when new episodes of your followed shows were released, automatically downloaded them, queued them, and then automatically cleaned up that download when you were finished, you might not ever open the Spotify app at all. I may be a little paranoid on this point, I admit (ok, more than a little). But it all really does feel strangely convenient. Surely, Spotify conducted competitive analysis on other podcasting apps. Surely, it saw that features like notifications, automatic downloads, automatic deleting, and automatic queuing were popular. They also seem like incredibly trivial ones to implement. But Spotify has none of them.
No other choice
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you’ve already mentally told me several times to just use a different podcast app. But, if I want to listen to Last Podcast On The Left, I no longer can. I can’t export downloads from Spotify to anything else, I can’t just use a different streaming service: my favorite podcast and all its back catalog now exist on Spotify and Spotify alone. My only option is to pay another $10 a month via Patreon on top of what I already pay for a Spotify Premium account (which I want to keep for music), something I’m really not prepared to do just to get one podcast back in my Pocket Casts app.
Now, Spotify has signed one of the world’s most popular podcasters, Joe Rogan, to its platform. I think Rogan marks a turning point for Spotify, one which will see it more rapidly accumulate high profile shows eager to shelter under the financial safety of Spotify’s podcast umbrella. As Spotify’s clout as a podcast publisher and podcast advertising company grows, it will be able to exert more and more leverage over a landscape that, for the moment, really isn’t ruled by any major company (standing in stark contrast to traditional online advertising). It is undoubtedly Spotify’s goal to become that company as podcast ad spending heads through the roof.
Unfortunately, Spotify doesn’t actually seem very interested in being a good podcast app. It seems very interested, however, in being a good app for Spotify to promote podcasts. Like Netflix, Spotify doesn’t want to be a big, easily navigated list without any unnecessary distractions or promoted content. Its entire goal is to distract you, and to get you to listen to what it wants you to listen to, and to listen more, because it is financially motivated to do so. The best way to do this is to throw content you haven’t seen before in front of you, but that Spotify thinks you’re going to like. That seems destined to lead to a compromised podcast experience for end users, especially those forced onto the platform by exclusive show deals. And all this is aside Spotify’s general crappiness and tendency to forget what you’re listening to, often plain refusing to work with Google Home and smart displays, and the playback notification controls vanishing for no apparent reason. Spotify has a long and storied history of just being kind of bad. So, if you’re thinking “Oh, I’m sure this is just a lot of individual oversights—Spotify will get around to these issues eventually,” allow me to provide a single data point: Spotify launched its first podcasts in 2015. But yeah, I’m sure they’re just getting around to it.