Spotify's new 'Upstream' podcast taps top brand execs for culture forecasting

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Debut run of seven episodes includes leaders from Dropbox, Airbnb, Gimlet and IBM.

As Spotify preps to go public later this year, the streaming platform’s CMO Seth Farbman is stepping into the spotlight with a new podcast to put Spotify on the branded-audio map.

As the host of "Upstream," whose initial seven episodes landed late last week, Farbman guides a series of thought leaders from a broad spectrum of services through conversations about how and where culture is happening, and where it’s heading. The podcast is nestled under Spotify for Brands, a service launched in July to provide marketing insights based on user data.

"Upstream" takes a wide view of culture, speaking to big, open-ended questions currently in the news and likely to remain there for at least the next four years: New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson discusses how his organization is adapting to the digital landscape while defending itself against a hostile president; Jon Iwata, IBM’s chief brand officer, tackles the looming problem of humanizing AI and connects it to the company’s long history making intelligent machines; and one of Refinery29’s co-founders, Justin Stefano, addresses balancing growth with authenticity. The final episode approaches culture from the creator, rather than brand side, in a conversation with activist and songwriter Madame Gandhi. 

"It’s never felt more vital to talk about culture—where it’s headed, and what it means for all of us," said Danielle Lee, the VP and global head of partner solutions at Spotify. "With 'Upstream,' we have created a space for listeners to discover how marketers and creatives are redefining their industries by embracing the culture around us."

Although Spotify has quietly hosted podcasts, which it calls "shows," since early 2016, it’s now making an effort to take a bite out of Apple’s domination of the booming podcast market. "Upstream" is one of several original programs currently in the works, and Spotify has started partnerships with popular podcasts including "Pod Save America" and "Reply All" for cross-marketing through social media and in-episode promotion. "Reply All" producer Gimlet Media, whose CEO Matt Lieber is, in an ouroboros of collaboration, also an "Upstream" guest, has recently begun producing music-focused podcasts for the platform. 

Expanding beyond its initial success with music streaming is exactly the sort of growth-focused, "future of media" thinking Spotify hopes to spark with "Upstream." While the platform boasts 140 million users who average 148 daily minutes of engagement, a music-reliant model has also tethered the company to heavy licensing outlay, with 75 percent of costs devoted to royalty payments.

Diversifying with podcast content, which doesn’t (currently, at least) require similar per-stream fees, offers Spotify a more profitable revenue channel and a potential shift in perception from being a music streaming service to simply a streaming service. Hopefully, adding an additional audio stream will succeed for Spotify where video has not.

All episodes of "Upstream" are available now