More Americans are listening to podcasts than ever. That could be one reason why Spotify is trying grow its podcast network. But if you’re like me, no matter how much you enjoy podcasts, you’ve never spent a dime paying for any of them.
Turns out, that’s quite different from how millions of people in China listen to podcasts on the country’s hottest platform, Ximalaya -- known as Himalaya elsewhere.
Case in point: Ximalaya’s “123 Knowledge Carnival” in November 2018. During the annual mega sales event, Ximalaya said more than 21 million people shelled out some US$64 million on podcast lectures and audiobooks. That’s more than the sales of audiobooks in the US in one week.
To be clear, a huge chunk of content on Ximalaya is actually free. Amateur DJs run live music channels. Parents of young kids can find bedtime stories and nursery rhymes. History buffs can revel in podcasts about the Qin dynasty or World War I. And English learners can listen to TED talks or speeches by famous Americans. There seems to be something for everyone: The last time I checked, the most popular free podcast was by an acclaimed stand-up comedian.
But Ximalaya also hosts plenty of premium content.
Want to be emotionally intelligent? For US$29 you can download a 201-episode series that helps you deal with your personalities and feelings. (It’s currently the top-selling paid podcast on Ximalaya, having raked up over 78 million listens.)
Don’t have time to read but still want to impress at dinner parties? Ximalaya produces a podcast series that invites academics and professors to summarize classic books. It comes with a US$3 monthly VIP subscription that gives you access to a variety of content, including a bilingual Chinese-English version of Peppa Pig.
There seem to be no lack of people who are willing to pay for these educational content. In 2017, Ximalaya said it earned an average of over US$13 per user each month. In comparison, all content on Apple Podcasts are free, while a premium Spotify monthly subscription costs US$9.99. Ximalaya claims it earns more from user fees than ad revenue.
It’s a big turnaround for a country where music and video piracy once ran rampant. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that the majority of paying customers on Ximalaya belong to the younger generation. It’s estimated that in 2018, more than 80% of Ximalaya users were aged 35 or under.
While most of Ximalaya’s content caters to a Chinese-speaking audience, the Shanghai-based startup is looking abroad. Early 2019, it set up a beachhead in the US through a San Francisco-based venture called Himalaya with an initial funding of US$100 million.
Just like Ximalaya, Himalaya is loaded with a a variety of content. But instead of focusing on selling premium podcasts like its Chinese counterpart, Himalaya is exploring other ways to get users to pay -- like letting fans tip their favorite podcasters.
Still, Himalaya plans to take a page from Ximalaya’s book whenever it’s ready. A company executive told Variety that a plan is in the works to add paid content eventually.