The Problem with Apple Podcasts Subscriptions

April 26, 2021

Last week Apple announce its podcast subscription service to help creators to monetise. With Spotify hot on their heels, here's my reaction one week in.

Last week, Apple announced Apple Podcasts Subscriptions:

Apple Podcasts Subscriptions is a global marketplace for listeners to discover premium subscriptions offered by their favorite creators, including The Athletic and NPR. The Midnight Miracle, the groundbreaking new original series hosted by Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey, and Dave Chappelle, will be available next month with a subscription to the Luminary channel on Apple Podcasts.

The news was met with mixed reactions in the podcasting industry and, inevitably, podcasters are scrambling for information on what this means for them.

I've been one of those at the centre of the developments, I've had direct briefings with Apple as CEO of a hosting company and I've been live tweeting a lot if it, too. 

Here's what you need to know and my opinions, too.

What this isn't

Apple Podcasts Connect re-launched last week, too. To say it was plagued with issues is an understatement. This isn't a piece discussing those issues, I did that pretty deeply on Twitter, and so I'd like to focus solely on the subscriptions product here.

I'm also not, for now, touching on the updated Apple Podcasts analytics or Podcasts Connect interface.

What is Apple Podcasts Subscriptions?

A service that allows you to sell paid-for subscriptions to your podcast content.

Similar to Patreon, Glow, Supercast and more this allows you to offer freemium, fully paid for or “extra” content to paying subscribers. You can use this for several things including ad-free versions of your episodes, bonus episodes that only paying subscribers get and so much more.

This is nothing new in the industry and Apple hosts that premium content for you whilst your podcast host such as Captivate continues to host your open, free content.

You may not use Apple's subscription service to make people pay for content that is otherwise free elsewhere.

You can also use Apple Podcasts Connect to create “channels” of content and to group your podcasts together to create, for example, a Star Wars channel that includes your five Star Wars podcasts or a Nerd Podcasts channel that includes your Star Wars, DC Comics, movie & TV and gaming shows.

You can upload artwork to these channels and decide on whether you want to keep them free via RSS and your host, intersperse Apple hosted paid content or even make them entirely paid-for channels.

They can only be consumed within Apple Podcasts, right now on Apple devices but I expect Windows and at least Android versions of Apple Podcasts to debut pretty soon, too, likely before the subscriptions service becomes publicly available for consumption in May.

Pricing

  • The Apple Podcasters Programme is $19.99 per year (which is a similar model (but lower price)) to the Apple Developer Programme.
  • Apple takes 30% from each paying subscription for the first year and 15% for each year thereafter. This is more expensive than some of the more open eco-systems out there such as Supercast, Glow and Patreon.

Advantages

  • Apple Podcasts is installed on iOS by default so theoretically this gives you access to anyone using an iOS device.
  • In-built, low-friction transactions with Apple Pay.
  • Management of paid content without running two RSS feeds.

Disadvantages

  • Management of paid content without running two RSS feeds. I've added this as a disadvantage too because it closes the eco-system.
  • Discovering your paid content is something that is just as hard as any other outlet. Apple cannot possibly promote everyone equally and of course, bigger brands that are sexier for them will take centre stage. You still have to do the exact same marketing as usual, your business growth doesn't get easier it's just the transacting that does and…
  • …no data on your buyers.

Closing the eco-system & centralising

Spotify will release this feature within weeks, if not days (if not hours!) and it's rumoured to be free to podcasters like you and me. 

That's zero cut of profits from you and zero annual fee to participate as a creator which of course is mighty attractive to you as a podcaster, especially because we all like money (that's ok, we don't have to pretend we don't) and because it's easier than giving a listener a paid premium RSS feed that they have to paste once into their podcast app of choice.

With Apple needing to release an Android app (and maybe a Windows one, too) in order to keep the experience for creators on par with Spotify, the word “choice” is the one to keep in mind here.

Spotify is all in on audio and subscriptions. Apple is all-in on hardware and getting more in on subscriptions (Fitness, TV, etc).

To Apple, the entire podcast industry's revenue is hardly worth bothering with given that it generates $1 billion per day during holiday seasons and posted > $64 billion in revenue during its fourth quarter in 2020.

So what's the point in going to all of this effort for Apple?

Well, it's a nice story to tell: Apple is for creators and for privacy.

Plus, it's some creator revenue; it's a way to show Apple is interested in the development of podcasting; because everyone slates Apple for not moving podcasting forward.

But Apple being Apple, its move into the business of podcasting is stifling for creators. We're expected to be thankful to Apple for taking so much and not giving us much back, even when we're doing all of the work.

We're expected to be exceptionally grateful to them for opening up access to their marketplace even though we'll still have to do as much marketing if not more in order to make any meaningful money from this.

A big challenge is that, once a person becomes a “customer” of yours, i.e. chooses to buy a premium subscription from you, you don't get any data on that customer.

Now, of course, there's a big and rightfully important conversation happening right now in the podcasting industry around listener privacy and what should be shared, tracked and utilised by podcasters and analytics companies in order to identify and potentially retarget anonymous listeners.

It's an issue that we'll figure out together as an industry.

But… that's not the same as customer data.

Someone is buying premium content from you. Except that according to Apple, they aren't. They're buying premium content produced by you, but sold by Apple and thus, each paying subscriber is a paying subscriber of Apple's and not yours.

Thus, they do not give you any customer data. This means that as a business owner which, if you sell content to someone you really are, you won't benefit from the exact same customer opportunities that Apple itself benefits from.

I have an iPhone, an iPad and a Macbook Pro. I have some AirPods, some AirPod Pros and an Apple Pencil. I also have an Apple TV.

I'm an Apple customer.

Apple sends me emails to my email address (which I also have through Apple) to market new products to me.

The manufacturers of the component pieces in my iPhone don't email me, even though they helped to make the product. And rightly so, it's an Apple product that is designed, marketed and conceptualised by Apple.

There are component pieces that are outsourced, of course, and if I wanted to I could also buy an iPhone, iPad, Mac and AirPods at Target, Best Buy, Currys (UK), Walmart, Tesco (UK) and a thousand other retailers online.

Each of which would enjoy the benefits of having me as a customer: they have the chance to see my information – information I'm opting into when I buy, nothing clandestine here – and to build a relationship with me.

These other, non-Apple outlets build relationships with customers and prospects in other ways, too – through their own marketing and through their content which, in turn, allows me to choose them as the place that I want to spend my money.

As a podcaster, we do the same: we make content that we market. 

That content allows us to attract people. Through continued production and marketing, we build relationships and so, at some point, someone may buy something from us like some coaching, a course, some merchandise, an event ticket or a book. 

During each of these purchases, we get the chance to treat the person as a customer and, just like the restaurant I enjoy on a Friday night, that customer can be step-sold other things: Hey you want a drink? What about olives? Bread, madame? Ah a starter, you say?

A book! Of course, here you are… also, what about a t-shirt to show your support or a nice sticker for your laptop to showcase your love of my podcast?

Capiche?

What if the thing that a listener buys from us first is a premium subscription or some ad-free content via Apple?

Apple is removing the ability for us to act like genuine creator businesses by restricting and controlling what we see about our customers in the name of “privacy”.

But when I buy an iPhone from Apple I have to input my Apple ID to really use it, the same when I buy from a third-party retailer. Either way, Apple gets my data.

Regarding Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, sure we get access to Apple's customer base in order to ply our trade but let's be honest, this is a busy market and you are the one that will need to do the work to convert your listeners to paying subscribers – Apple features Luminary, Nat Geo and the big sexy brands, not Dave and his Cat Herding network from Tamworth.

The argument that we're gaining access to Apple's reach and platform in order to sell our content is weak when you consider that you pay for that privilege every single year and with every single subscription sold.

Apple is having the cake, eating it and teasing us with more sales as long as we continue to bake that cake every single day, week, month etc.

It works for big creators because that's their job.

But for the small, indie podcaster, we still have to put ads in our ad-free content so that listeners come join our email list or buy other things from us – the ads are just for OUR stuff, not someone else's.

Given Apple's fights with Hey.com (email platform) and Microsoft (Xbox Cloud Gaming) recently and the well-documented challenges that App Store developers face due to Apple's policies, I worry that podcasters are just in for more of the same.

After all, I design, create and market my show – I outsource some of the components like editing and some design to experts, just like Apple does for its hardware – but people who buy from me are my customers and it's me that has put the work into converting them, not Apple.

I find this hard to write because I've been an Apple fan since I can remember but when you consider that Spotify is closing the podcasting eco-system that it owns and now Apple is beginning to close the eco-system that it enjoys, it's becoming clearer that podcasters are being baited:

“We'll give you access to our marketplace and write this up as a way to do the one thing that you always wanted to do as a podcaster much more easily: make money – because hey, look, everyone knows how to use Apple Pay.”

But is the price too high? 

As podcasters can we conscientiously build our businesses on an eco-system that doesn't give us a way to build continual relationships with our customers and that dresses that up as “privacy“?

I'm a pro-choice kinda guy and no one should be forced into working how someone else wants them to. Nor should customers be assumed to be free game – they also should have a choice.

Why can't a customer who chooses to pay a middle-person (Apple) for my exclusive content decide for themselves whether they want to give me their data?

Apple, with its Hide My Email functionality has everything already in place to allow customers the privacy they need and the choice to give trusted data to creators that they want to.

I want to use Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, I do – I really, really do, but as Spotify and Apple create their own eco-systems I think that, for now, I'll cope with the minor user-experience pain of giving my premium subscribers a paid feed from a more open source.

Because: choice.

What do you think?

Your next steps

I teach podcasting a lot, and usually for free. So, here's what I'd recommend you do next:

P.S. you can start engaging with your listeners using AWeber. It's free, no credit card required: https://www.MarkAsquith.com/AWeber


This is The Podcast Accelerator, helping busy podcasters to grow their audience in specific, actionable ways.

I’m your host Mark Asquith, The British Podcast Guy and CEO and co-founder of Rebel Base Media, the podcast tech company that creates the Podcast Success Academy, Podcast Websites, Poductivity, Rebel Base Studios & Captivate.fm, the world’s only growth-oriented podcast host where you can get your first month of podcast hosting for just one dollar and transfer an existing podcast in, completely free.

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Mark Asquith

That British podcast guy, Mark is CEO & co-founder of Rebel Base Media, a podcast tech and strategy company that owns Captivate.fm, Poductivity, Podcast Websites, Podcast Success Academy & Rebel Base Studios. He's a wildly approachable Brit and Star Wars/DC Comics geek.

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