EXCLUSIVE: Top Spotify Dealmaker Leaving Company
Courtney Holt signed Joe Rogan, and helped orchestrate deals with the Obamas; Meghan and Harry
Courtney Holt is departing Spotify, The Ankler has learned, ending a four-year-run during which the digital-media veteran helped lure a bevy of A-list talent to Spotify’s podcasting originals and exclusive content, including controversial host Joe Rogan, the Obamas, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Holt’s imminent exit as head of studios and videos comes
just days after Lydia Polgreen announced that she would be stepping down from her post as managing director of Gimlet, a podcast studio at Spotify that Holt had acquired under his watch. Polgreen is returning to former employer The New York Times as a columnist. Polgreen and Holt were known to have a good working relationship.
Contacted by The Ankler, Holt referred a request for comment to Spotify. A spokesperson for Spotify declined comment. A source close to the matter characterized it as an amicable decision prompted by Holt looking for other creative opportunities. According to this source, Holt will stay as an advisor for 12 months; his work flow and team will be overseen by Max Cutler, head of new content initiatives at Spotify, and Julie McNamara, head of U.S. studios.
The executive turnover comes amid growing internal questions around a string of monster eight and nine-figure podcast deals overseen by Dawn Ostroff, Spotify Chief Content & Advertising Business Officer, that have — at least so far — not delivered expected outcomes, or driven commensurate audience (muted response to high-ticket deals is an industry-wide podcasting problem, but Spotify dwarfs the competition in sheer spend). In January, Spotify closed down its founding podcast studio, Studio 4, which was also known as Spotify Studios, leading to the layoffs of several employees.
Amid the Rogan controversy in early February, the streaming service came under scrutiny for its transition from platform music streamer to media producer, seemingly ill-equipped to deal with the kinds of questions around original content faced previously by platforms including Facebook and Netflix. A source also says that the company has had only limited success with its handful of scripted series.
Spotify stock has tumbled, plummeting to nearly half its value in the past year, closing yesterday at $139 a share.
The move into podcasting, and beyond music streaming, began as a financial strategy to mold a more profitable business model than just playing songs, where about two-thirds of every dollar goes to rights holders. In 2016, Netflix’s now co-CEO Ted Sarandos joined the Spotify board of directors. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the company’s interest in pursuing Joe Rogan, a strategy that began in 2018, was about “developing a portfolio of podcasts unique to Spotify, as Netflix had built a walled garden for video.” Spotify stock soared after news of the acquisition.
“The Joe Rogan Podcast” is by far the most popular podcast on Spotify and reportedly cost the streamer $200 million to acquire. In February, the former mixed martial arts commentator and comedian caused an employee revolt inside Spotify after inviting a controversial doctor, Robert Malone — one of the leading voices spreading COVID-19 misinformation — on to his show. In response, musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulled their respective music catalogs from the platform. Ava DuVernay also quit the platform around the same time, taking with it her first look deal through her Array shingle. Markle and Prince Harry, whose $25 million podcasting deal is through their Archewell Audio shingle, issued a statement expressing ‘concerns’ about misinformation without naming Rogan explicitly. The 54-year-old Rogan’s problems — and by extension Spotify’s — only intensified when assorted clips of him using the N-word in the past went viral and even though he apologized the damage was done. He remains the top podcaster in more than 50 countries.
Holt’s career in the music industry started at Atlantic Records, before moving to A&M Records and later to Interscope. After a spell at MTV Networks, he joined MySpace Music starting in 2008 where he was a key figure. In 2011 he became COO of Maker Studios, which was acquired by Disney in 2014 for $675 million.
Tall, with a shaved head and a long beard, Holt carries himself with a Rasputin-like air. Several acquaintances describe him as a kind and gentle family man but also as someone who has a ruthless side when it comes to deal-making and business.
Recently, the streamer has poured huge sums of money to achieve scale via owned and managed IP. The drive started with Rogan, but Spotify’s stable now also includes Kim Kardashian, and more recently Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert and Alexandra Cooper’s Call Her Daddy. To give a sense of numbers, the cost to acquire Call Her Daddy was reportedly $60 million. Despite all these high-profile signings, to the outside audience, it appears that many of the big name hosts have released little, if anything, on the platform. In the case of the Sussexes, there's just one 33-minute holiday special to listen to since their reported $25 million deal was signed in 2020 (Markle recently announced that her next podcast, Archetypes, will debut this summer).
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