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On Spotify, an Arranged Marriage Between Music and Podcasts

  • May 15, 2021

As it happened, so did Spotify.

Black Girl Songbook,” Smith’s new podcast, is one of several music-focused shows introduced on the platform in the last year that take a novel approach to one of the industry’s oldest problems. It uses a hybrid format, which Spotify calls “shows with music” or “music and talk,” that allows creators to incorporate full songs from the service’s vast catalog into their podcasts free of charge. (Spotify takes a 30 percent cut of ads set up through the service.) The format gives podcasters easy access to music that would be difficult or too costly to attain on their own and presents listeners with a seamless interface for learning more about a song or adding it to their library.

Those listeners have to be using Spotify — the format, designed to exploit Spotify’s existing deals with music companies, isn’t 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 trade-offs have so far been worth it.

“Full songs are where the magic is,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like teeing up a song that means so much to me and that I know will mean so much to others if they just have the opportunity to hear it.”

All podcasters who want to use third-party, pre-existing music have faced the same obstacle. Unlike radio broadcasters, who can purchase blanket licenses that give them rights to most popular songs, copyright law requires podcasts and other forms of on-demand media to license songs individually. The costs, which, for a typical three-year term, can range from $500 to $6,000 per use, 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 because of mounting licensing 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 podcasts that feature music get around licensing through an exception to copyright law known as “fair use,” which allows for the usage of small portions of copyrighted material for specific purposes, including comment and criticism. But fair-use defenses have an inconsistent track record in court, and as podcasts have grown in popularity, rights holders have become more aggressive.

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