Aggregation defined an era. The aggregation throughout media, retail, and service platforms determined the economic viability of many in the vendor-class throughout the modern digital economy. Uber began as a luxury black car service. Spotify streamed music. Youtube published silly videos. Amazon began by selling books. And Netflix rented films by DVD. Imagine a world without these companies as aggregators. Companies grew market share by adding products and services, rendering their analog competitors incapable. Like the inevitability of westward expansion, the aggregation theory continues to move certain platforms towards critical mass.
The theory is akin to the digital version of Manifest Destiny. For a time – platforms maintained an advantage, much like physical retailers possessed an early advantage over e-tailers. In the traditional retail model, individual product brands were less important than the shelves that they were marketed on. Consumers came for product selection, ease, and the universal checkout process. The one stop shop was the draw; product loyalty was a secondary feature. In this way – content publishers, product brands, and services were merely value-additives for existing platforms. Few learned this hard lesson like popular musicians at the beginning of the streaming era. Podcasts seemed to have learned from those difficult lessons.
Gaining leverage is the mission.
The market-making opportunities that began with early digitally vertical native brands (DNVBs) began to influence adjacent industries as that sales model had its success. For decades, it was nearly impossible to achieve critical mass in retail without partnering with a brick and mortar retailer or a department store. To defend against what seemed (for a time) to be physical retail’s Manifest Destiny, digitally natives circumvented the infrastructure and went direct to consumer (DTC). This meant that they had access to increased margins, efficient customer acquisition, access to data, and stronger relationships with the consumer.
With little access to mainstream consumer channels, physical brands launched native channels with the help of platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce. It’s unclear whether or not the intent of the DTC industry was their indefinite independence from big box retail. I’d argue that it wasn’t the goal. But, regardless, the result of the last ten years has been palpable: product brands have never possessed more leverage than they do right now. Even if that leverage is temporary.
As newer platforms go to market, vertical brands are beginning to notice a shift in leverage from platform to the vertical. This is an untimely shift in momentum for platform companies, businesses that once had the leverage to act indiscriminately.
DNVB-speak in digital media
In early April, comedian Russell Brand was interviewed by the host of the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), a wildly popular podcast that covers everything from combat sports and geopolitics to archaeology and sociology. It’s important to note that JRE is consistently ranked in the top five of the most downloaded podcasts. Toward the end of the discussion between the two men, Rogan prompted Brand to promote his business interests. And though it was a subtle promotion, this is where things became interesting.
Luminary is the premium audio publisher and content aggregator that has set out to become the Netflix of podcasting. Founded in 2018 by Lauren Sacks, the company raised $100 million from New Enterprise Associates. The funding equipped Sacks and team to recruit several sizable podcast networks and high visibility media personalities to include: The Ringer, Guy Raz, Trevor Noah, and Wondery Media. Wondery is the last remaining podcast network known for its original programming and Ringer, a successful podcast network in its own right, is still in search of Barstool Sports-level network effects. In hindsight, Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet and Parcast were as defensive as they were offensive developments.
In the episode – Russell Brand promoted his latest venture, a podcast with Luminary. The elevator pitch had somewhat of a dual purpose: (1) use one of the most influential platforms in audio to promote a business interests and (2) recruit Rogan into the fold of the Luminary-faithful. The second part did not work, the jury is still out on the first proposition. But the effects of that conversation were immediate. Within 72 hours, JRE was pulled from Luminary’s catalogue. From Hotpod News:
The [JRE] team explicitly cites licensing issues as the reason behind the intent to withdraw. “There was not a license agreement or permission for Luminary to have The Joe Rogan Experience on their platform,” a representative from the team told me last night. “His reps were surprised to see the show there today and requested it be removed.”
The Joe Rogan Experience wasn’t the only big name in podcasting that removed content from the platform. Spotify denied Luminary access to their shows and the New York Times pulled The Daily. PodcastOne, Barstool Sports, Endeavor Audio, and many others followed suit. From No. 304: In-app audiences:
The pending acquisition of Gimlet Media is about more than building a direct-to-consumer podcasting powerhouse, it’s about monetizing DTC audio in new ways. Spotify doesn’t own the music that millions of us listen to, they license the rights from three music labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment Group and Warner Music Group. With Gimlet’s pending acquisition, Spotify is positioning themselves squarely as the Netflix of audio. And Gimlet’s portfolio of audio properties could be another tool that Spotify uses to convert casual subscribers to premium, paid users.
And here’s Luminary CoFounder and CEO Matt Sacks:
We want to become synonymous with podcasting in the same way Netflix has become synonymous with streaming. I know how ambitious that sounds. We think it can be done, and some of the top creators in the space agree.
Spotify and Netflix were exclusively aggregators before they began to pursue their modern subscription growth strategy. By acquiring popular properties (like Gimlet and Parcast Network) or by investing in the development of the native properties that Netflix is now known for, both companies moved further away from aggregation and closer to becoming digital natives. For Netflix, this was timely. Media companies like Disney have begun to pull their properties to develop their own digitally native businesses. Another sign of aggregation theory’s diminished role for newer companies.
Perhaps, the age of aggregation is nearing its maturity. According 2017’s Defining Aggregators by Ben Thompson:
Aggregation Theory describes how platforms (i.e. aggregators) come to dominate the industries in which they compete in a systematic and predictable way. Aggregation Theory should serve as a guidebook for aspiring platform companies, a warning for industries predicated on controlling distribution, and a primer for regulators addressing the inevitable antitrust concerns that are the endgame of Aggregation Theory.
Two years later, we’re witnessing a war over proverbial land rights. As platforms have begun to lose leverage over specific verticals, they’ve heavily invested into the development of their own properties (private labels / native brands / native media projects). In some cases, like Spotify’s acquisitions – they chose to acquire the properties to move consumers along the content-to-subscription funnel. For Luminary Media and their Head of Partnerships / Business Development Meaghan Quindlen, the stakes are much higher than they would have been 3-5 years ago.
She has an unenviable job; she must convince alienated podcasts to work with them by communicating her vision, by employing a new licensing compensation structure, or a combination of both. Even Spotify and Apple Music had their own similar episodes. But with $100 million in funding and grandiose aspirations – Luminary will have to out-Spotify Spotify on its way to becoming the Netflix of podcasts – a title that the first audio platform to achieve 100 million paid subscribers wants all to itself.
Who is to say whether digital media properties returns to the types of platforms that were once required for growth; there is now a dueling loyalty between independence and potential reach. This contradiction didn’t exist a few years prior.
Digitally native retailers are open to working with big box retailers (the original aggregators) as long as they can maintain a unique in-store appearance with access to some form of consumer data. In this way, DTC retail is a decent enough analog for what’s happening in podcasting today. Product and media brands now hold the levers – they’re the draw. Consumers walk through the door, proverbial or otherwise, for their beloved brands. Aggregators must learn to operate in a world where the leverage exists with digitally natives. At the very least, aggregators need to learn to develop real symbiosis.
Luminary may need to raise more money.
Report by Web Smith | Join the Executive Membership