National / Media | Japan Pulse

Spotify has one eye on untapped podcast market in Japan

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Spotify paid nearly $340 million to acquire podcast producer Gimlet Media and services provider Anchor in deals disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission last month, prompting analysts to start considering what this all meant for the industry.

The growth of podcasts in recent years has taken on a life of its own, with a wide variety of media organizations pouring resources into the creation of such content in an attempt to target a younger demographic.

Spotify’s investment in the industry underlines just how serious such content is being viewed abroad.

Japan has been late to the party insofar as podcasts are concerned, and Spotify seems to be looking at making a grab for a piece of this untapped domestic market.

The music streaming giant recently unveiled several platform-exclusive programs for the domestic market, highlighted by “The Nakajima Hiroto Show: Life Album” and “Pop Life: The Podcast,” which is hosted by Soichiro Tanaka and Yuki Mihara.

Both programs appear to attempt to replicate a model that has taken off in the West in Japan, even though the local landscape has also evolved in its own way.

Spotify’s investment in such content isn’t the first time a company has tried to jump on the podcast bandwagon in Japan.

As interest in podcasts started to grow in the mid-2000s, several creators managed to produce episodes on a regular basis that garnered a following. These ranged from niche offerings such as a show dedicated to some guys discussing every single episode of “Dragonball” to something like Hotcast, a podcast that started in 2005 featuring conversations about, er, whatever the presenters wanted to talk about.

Such efforts probably fall more in line with a utopian view of podcasting that is trotted out from time to time. Like most visions of the internet, this perspective initially treated podcasts as a platform that independent creators and alternative voices could use to discuss issues that are being ignored by mainstream media.

Spurred on by the success of crime series “Serial,” podcasts have subsequently leaned toward narrative storytelling. Numerous radio shows have been created to talk about pop music, but only the podcast ecosystem can really justify multiple creations devoted entirely to abrasive Japanese noise artist Merzbow.

Podcasts have since evolved into something with more substance, increasingly relying on celebrities and advertising to function.

True crime stories dominate narrative offerings to the point of bordering on macabre parody. The next wave for podcasts appears to be a Netflix-inspired subscription model. That said, plenty of independent creators and voices continue to thrive — or, at the very least, keep on creating.

In Japan, though, podcasts quickly became associated with radio. News outlets such as NHK, Nikkei and terrestrial broadcasters have mostly just repackaged existing shows into on-demand options (complete with Geocities-quality webpages to promote them).

There’s probably little difference between what media organizations in Japan produce when compared to networks such as National Public Radio or the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which appear to publish contents along the same lines. As radio remains strong in Japan, they also have less of an incentive to change. While fewer young people listen to radio in their cars (mostly because they can’t afford to buy a motor vehicle), apps such as Radiko allow digital natives to tune in to their favorite stations via a smartphone. There isn’t much of a demand for something new because the old systems have just slid over to new tech.

If there’s one caveat regarding Japan’s unique podcast environment, it pertains to language learning, English in particular.

Look at rankings on iTunes, Spotify or whatever this podcast list is, and note how many focus on English education. The biggest players include “Hapa Eikaiwa Podcast” and “Bilingual News.” The prior offers something resembling traditional lessons, while the latter features casual conversations that jump between Japanese and English.

Most Japanese podcasts resemble a news show, an English-language show or a news show that doubles as an English-language show. And that’s why Spotify’s recent foray into the market is so intriguing.

The company’s two flagship exclusive productions offer something different than the normal audio programs that can be found on the market. “Life Album” finds Nakajima interviewing musicians about their albums, an accomplishment in and of itself given how icy some domestic artists can be about their work. It also offers a deeper dive into a wide array of art in a way few domestic podcasts (or much media, really) can, even if it’s presented in a friendly tone.

Bigger still is “Pop Life,” which was initially inspired by a playlist but has since been transformed into a standalone show. The two hosts are joined by a variety of guests and they discuss pop-culture issues in a timely fashion. And that’s about it. The program’s received positive feedback and now sits at the top of Spotify’s own charts.

The buzz that the first few episodes of “Pop Life” has generated perhaps hints at potential for the domestic podcast market, which has thus far been largely ignored.

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