Last week was a turbulent and surprising one in the world of podcasts. Just over a month after announcing its second-largest third-quarter financials in history and a massive reduction in operating losses, Spotify unexpectedly made a sweeping round of layoffs affecting 17% of its total global workforce.
In addition to the cuts, which affected a number of podcast-related roles, the company also revealed that it would not be renewing the contracts for investigative true-crime podcast Stolen and fan-favourite show Heavyweight. While this decision was apparently unrelated to the wider cuts (according to Spotify), I’ve seen a number of people who seem to be mystified at why Spotify cancelled such a beloved and high-quality show.
I’ve got an enormous amount of sympathy for any workers who find themselves having to go through a redundancy process; I’ve been through a couple myself, and I know first-hand that it’s not a fun experience whether or not you lose your job. However, I’ve found the confusion about Heavyweight’s cancellation to be particularly surprising, because from where I’m sitting, it looks like a fairly straightforward explanation.
Spotify is a business, and one that has so far struggled to get its balance sheet under control. The company first turned a profit in 2019 - more than a decade after it launched - but its financials have been up and down since then, and the recent filings represent the first quarter in two years where it wasn’t losing money.
Corporate entities are often deceptively simple creatures - while they may wax lyrical about their values and principles, at the end of the day, they exist to make profit. In Spotify’s case, this comes down to fairly simple mathematics: is a project bringing in more revenue than it’s costing to run?
A mercurial show that somewhat defies genres, Heavyweight is a critical darling of the podcast community - it consistently comes up in our weekly podcast recommendation feature - and part of the reason is that it’s lavishly produced, with a ton of original music and a fairly sizeable team behind it. The result is a podcast that, while engrossing and artistic, certainly sounds expensive to produce.
Without having any special insight into the inner workings of Spotify’s commercials, I can only assume that the costs of producing the podcast haven’t been sufficiently matched by advertiser interest, and as Spotify pulls away from its previous focus on using exclusives to drive subscriber acquisition, that makes the economics of continuing to run the show a bit more questionable.
If Spotify’s new podcast strategy is to prioritise advertising revenue, then chat podcasts like Call Her Daddy are infinitely easier to produce with fewer overheads, and don’t have to be seasonal to accommodate long production lead times. It’s also notable that on Spotify’s own end-of-year list, the top five most popular podcasts globally were all chat-based, rather than the kind of investigative podcasts typified by Heavyweight.
I’m sure there are some people reading this who will bridle at the idea of Spotify replacing thoughtful, creative podcasts like Heavyweight with more chat shows - after all, podcasting is an art form, and Heavyweight is one of the best examples of why. I would agree, but Spotify is under no obligation to fund shows based solely on their cultural or creative merits if they're not delivering in a business capacity.
Indeed, expecting a corporate entity to do so is to ignore its fundamental raison d’etre. In my experience, most corporations do not inherently value creative works for their own sake - only for the revenue they generate. We see this time and again in mediums like films, books and games.
Personally, I think cancelling the show outright is a little drastic; I would have tried to implement a subscription strategy around the podcast, as its highly devoted and passionate fanbase seems like the ideal fit. It appears to inspire the kind of loyalty that would lead listeners to want to financially support it, and the opportunities for bonus content and extended cuts are obvious.
With that being said, however, I’m not surprised that Spotify has axed the show. True creativity often doesn’t translate to blockbuster revenue, and there will always be easier opportunities for organisations with a ruthless focus on growth and efficiency. Even in the vital world of public service broadcasting where you’re not beholden to revenue targets, podcasters still find themselves having to jump through hoops in the service of someone else’s strategy.
If creatives want to invest in making art on their own terms, there’s only one route that I see as a stable and sustainable option: fan-funded worker cooperatives. Only by maintaining control of the reins can workers ensure that they’re not subject to unreasonable targets and can give projects the breathing room to organically grow and develop over time, rather than pushing for ever-higher reach with ever-fewer resources.
Once their final seasons wrap up, Spotify says it will help both Stolen and Heavyweight find new homes - and while I’m certain there’ll be no end of interested networks eager to capitalise on Spotify’s decision, I’m hoping that the Heavyweight team follow the example set by peers in other sectors and launch their own venture that they can run in their own way, with a focus on sustainable creativity. That’s something that I could certainly get behind - and I strongly suspect that I’m not the only one.