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Spotify's 'Music + Talk' shows capture the magic of early podcasts

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's certainly no shortage of podcasts about music, but podcast critic Nick Quah says he found a few casual yet compelling shows in perhaps an unlikely place.

NICK QUAH: Music podcasts have a tricky history, primarily for copyright reasons. Sure, the cliche remains true that anybody can theoretically make a podcast. But few can make ones about music that actually use the music in question without potentially drawing the ire of music labels. There have, of course, been prominent exceptions "Switched On Pop" and "Song Exploder."

(SOUNDBITE PODCAST, "SONG EXPLODER")

HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: There's some songs that you've heard over and over and over again throughout your life. "Closing Time" by Semisonic is one of those songs for me and I think for a lot of people. And I always figured I knew what the song was about - closing time at a bar. But it turns out, there's more to the story. And in this episode, Dan Wilson, the singer and songwriter of the band Semisonic, tells the whole story.

QUAH: But those productions rely heavily on the fair use doctrine, an important but often wobbly legal standard that allows part of a song to be played for limited purposes, or on direct (ph) coordination of music labels, a process that can be prohibitively time consuming and arbitrary.

A recent development marks a possible step forward on this matter. One of the bigger podcast stories over the past few years has centered on Spotify, the music streaming platform that has spent tons of money to date on podcasts as part of a strategy to become much more than a music streaming platform. Most of the attention has focused on Spotify programming deals like the one with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's content studio. But given Spotify has built an audience of music fans, there is also a strong argument to be made that the company is also uniquely positioned to reshape the prospects for music podcasts.

So far, Spotify has mostly capitalized on this potential by producing a torrent of music documentaries. But the most intriguing of its efforts here revolve around a whole new format created specifically for its platform. Generically called Music and Talk, the format, which debuted late last year, allows podcast makers to play full songs from Spotify's catalog in between talk segments that they produce.

There is a catch, of course. Such shows can only be created and distributed over Spotify-owned platforms. At this point, there doesn't seem to be very many Music and Talk shows created just yet, and what shows you can find tend to either be produced or financed by Spotify itself. These include No Skips, a show hosted by the writers Shea Serrano and Brandon "Jinx" Jenkins that revisits iconic hip-hop albums, and "Black Girl Songbook," a show hosted by Danyel Smith, the former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, which positions itself as a platform celebrating Black women in the music industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BLACK GIRL SONGBOOK")

DANYEL SMITH: Rihanna's journey is wild. It's wild, and it's beautiful. Rihanna is from Barbados, a Caribbean island of just like 166 square miles, and she is currently the ultimate influencer globally. She's one of the most famous people in the world. And I just want to say about Barbados, 166 square miles is tiny. Have you been to Washington, D.C.? Washington, D.C. is like 70-something square miles. So basically, Barbados is like a little bit bigger than two D.C.s.

QUAH: I found myself taking a strong liking to these Music and Talk shows, at least at this very early stage. In its current form, the format is still being used in a way that feels pleasantly experimental. The shows feel tentative and awkward. They sound lo-fi and intimate. The vibe's relaxed, the editing gloriously loose. Sure, it's people sitting around talking about stuff, but it's people sitting around talking about stuff that they really love in a way that feels genuine, fun and real.

It's an experience where the lack of polish is the very quality that makes it so compelling. Take, for example, another Music and Talk show, "Bandsplain," which examines the popularity of various cult bands through episodes that can last over three hours. Here, host Yasi Salek speaks with guest Alex Pappademas about the fandom surrounding Steely Dan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BANDSPLAIN")

YASI SALEK: Seriously, though. There is a stereotype that all Steely Dan fans are like white men. But in this resurgence, it's showing us that that's not really true, right? In fact, recently I read this piece in The New York Times by journalist Lindsay Zoladz, who is, in fact, a woman. I think it was called "I'm Not A Dad, But I Rock Like One" - all about her Steely Dan fandom. Did you read that?

ALEX PAPPADEMAS: I did. I mean, I think the whole resurgence is much less white and male than maybe the fandom was at one time. But I also think that that's a stereotype unto itself. But I understand where it comes from.

QUAH: When it hits, and it isn't always, these shows capture a little bit of the magic that reminds me of community radio or early podcasting, which I know is a blasphemous thing to say, given the larger context that these programs are all funded by a for-profit corporation trying to market a new product. I won't dispute this point. And, in fact, I believe broader concerns are on Spotify to be of considerable importance.

There has long been conflict between Spotify and musicians over equitable streaming revenue payouts. And it remains an open question whether that tension can ever be resolved. But something has to be said about the creative possibilities of this experimental Music and Talk format. Whether or not it actually catches on and sticks around over the long term, and despite the business context, the tool is compelling as it theoretically opens up a space for more podcasts that can engage freely in music curation and criticism - more All Songs Considered, by more people, for more people.

GROSS: Nick Quah is a podcast critic for New York Magazine and

Vulture. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, for Veterans Day, we talk with Elliot Ackerman, a marine who was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan five times from age 24 to 31 and received a Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor. He wrote a memoir that's a meditation on war and its consequences. He imagines the future of war in a novel called "2034" that he co-wrote with NATO's former supreme allied commander. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.