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For all of the changes Spotify has gone through over the past year, there is still more to come. Those three-year podcast deals the company struck are coming up for renewal, and what Spotify decides to do with them could have reverberations across the industry. The Joe Rogan Experience — the first, the biggest, and the most consequential — will expire in 2024. Today, after speaking with podcasters, producers, analysts, agents, and executives (mostly on background, though a few brave souls went on the record), I take a look at how the Spotify / Rogan relationship could play out.
Let me be clear: this is purely a thought exercise. I did not hear back from Rogan’s management, and Spotify declined to comment on negotiations. But what is clear from my conversations is that, despite his issues, Rogan is seen as a vital part of Spotify’s podcast business. If he walks or (less likely) if Spotify chose not to renew, it would be another massive blow to the company’s podcasting editorial operation. If they cut a deal, Spotify is in a better position to rebuild, or at least maintain, its podcast arm. If Rogan goes to another platform, he could essentially be a kingmaker. And if he decided to launch his own network, he would have no trouble attracting listeners, advertisers, and talent.
As you can see, there are a lot of ifs! But that’s the fun of it.
Spotify really needs to find a way to make it work
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that it is in Spotify’s best interest to keep Rogan on board. After all the money the company has sunk into deals that went nowhere (Harry and Meghan) and acquisitions that were eventually dismantled (Gimlet), Rogan is still the best bet the company has ever made. He remains the top podcaster in the world, and it’s not close.
With Rogan, Spotify gets his very big and very loyal audience (though whether they have been able to translate those listeners into paying subscribers is up for debate). He is also a massive draw for advertisers, and there is an understanding in the industry that his presence on Spotify has a halo effect for ad sales on its other shows. And for all the hoopla over his scandalous comments on vaccines, race, and gender, he didn’t lose any earshare and Spotify didn’t lose subscribers.
But, and this is a big but, this is not 2020. Money is a lot tighter than it was several years ago — investors are pissed that Spotify’s podcast bet still is not profitable, and CEO Daniel Ek has pledged to focus on efficiency. Rogan’s current deal is reported to be worth as much as $200 million over three(ish) years. So then the question becomes whether Spotify can find the right price to keep him happy and mollify investors.
“It’s a situation where you are damned if you do, and you are damned if you don’t,” says Arete Research founder Richard Kramer. “If you do keep him, Spotify will be locked into paying Rogan as much or more than before, at a time when they need to contain costs. If you don’t keep him, then it’s really tough because your biggest property and source of sales within the ad business — walks.”
It is also worth keeping in mind that he will not be negotiating with the same team as last time. Dawn Ostroff, the former head of podcasting, is gone. So is Courtney Holt, who landed the deal in the first place. Spotify’s new head of podcasting, Sahar Elhabashi, worked closely with Ostroff, but unlike Ostroff, she reports up to chief business officer Alex Norstrom. Norstrom, who comes from the music side, is there as a check on wild podcast spending and has been unsparing in his cuts. How much Spotify will be willing to spend ultimately comes down to him. If competition from other platforms drives the price sky high, he may not have the tolerance for it.
Another thing agreed upon by the people I spoke with is that Rogan has the upper hand in this situation. He has a lot of power right now. Nobody has managed to knock him from his pedestal in the past several years, and it seems unlikely anyone will in the near future.
Rogan initially gained mainstream notice because of his ability to appeal across the ideological spectrum. I don’t think that is quite as true anymore, given his controversial statements and call to listeners to vote Republican in 2022. (Though it seems he may have found his weirdo independent of choice with RFK Jr.). But he does fill a gap in the media landscape. According to YouGov, Rogan’s listeners are overwhelmingly young men, many of whom say they reject politically correct stances, don’t trust traditional media, and really, really love to work out.
This is to say, he has a loyal audience who will follow him wherever he goes and are unlikely to have brand loyalty to Spotify. Rogan is the brand, and if he wants to expand that brand into a network, he has the money and influence to do so. He can develop new shows, promote them on his own, and likely transfer at least some of his audience. And with another presidential election coming up, there may be no better time to do so.
There is also the matter of exclusivity. Even as Spotify has loosened its grip on other shows, Rogan is still exclusive to the platform, minus promotional YouTube clips. And while Spotify has become one of the biggest players in the market (in no small part thanks to Rogan), it is still the podcast app of choice for only 17 percent of podcast listeners, according to a study from Cumulus, and continues to lose share to YouTube. His reach will be greater if he goes independent again, and he is a guy who likes to be everywhere.
If he isn’t all that interested in being independent, we could also see other platforms try to swoop in with more money than Spotify can afford. YouTube is finally making a big push into podcasting. It doesn’t have any major licensing deals yet, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t. Amazon could sneak in with some crazy money and fewer restrictions, as it has with shows like My Favorite Murder and SmartLess. Hell, Elon Musk could make a play for Rogan as he tries to make Twitter / X a creator platform. The two even reunited yesterday for an episode that was specially licensed to X.
This may be overly simple, but money is nice. Having a minimum guarantee during a period of turmoil is really nice. When that minimum guarantee is worth nine figures, it may be impossible to turn down, even for someone who already has more money than he knows what to do with.
For all of Rogan’s maverick cache, there is an ease to staying — all he has to do is show up and talk. Spotify has also made it clear that they will not place limits on anything he has to say. If they can come up with the cash to ward off competition and make it worth his while, it’s a sweet deal.
Rogan also values loyalty, according to those who have dealt with him. After his controversies in 2022, he was offered $100 million to switch to conservative streamer Rumble. He turned it down, saying that “Spotify has hung in with me, inexplicably.” That could also be a cover for not wanting to go to a dinkier platform / get sued, but there does seem to be a grain of truth to that.
I went into this thinking that, given all the options available to him, he couldn’t possibly stick with the same exclusive deal. Who needs another $100 million or two when you can bankroll your own thing and still make a boatload of cash? But Dan Granger, CEO of Oxford Road, made a point to me that made it seem shockingly simple.
“Rush Limbaugh stayed with Premiere Networks. Howard Stern has stayed with Sirius XM. And you better believe they had a lot of, you know, opportunities to leave,” he said. “But the house figured out how to keep them.”
Part of that could mean Spotify deciding to drop Rogan’s exclusivity with a renewal. The company has backed off exclusivity for most of its other shows and may figure there is more value (and certainly more ad revenue) in letting JRE distribute wide.
That model could be tweaked even further. With yesterday’s Musk episode, the licensing entailed making the first two hours available on X, with the last 45 minutes exclusive to Spotify. That is something that could easily be replicated on other platforms. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it does keep committed Rogan-heads coming back to Spotify.
If I had to place money on it (not $200 million, but you know, $50), I would say Rogan and Spotify manage to strike a deal. It may not look the same — in fact, it seems likely that it will be more flexible than the current deal structure. But bumps aside, it has been a remarkably successful relationship. Short of YouTube or Musk swooping in with $500 million, I think it will stay intact.
Hope you enjoyed this little experiment with predicting the future. I am sure I will be embarrassed by some of this when the decision does finally come down. (Be kind, future me!) Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org