Everyone knows money makes the world go round, and in 2022 Spotify once again proved just how true that statement is. You may have heard about this already, but in case you didn’t here’s a quick catch up — this January, rocker Neil Young started a boycott against Spotify. He was indignant by how the streaming service was refusing to de-platform Joe Rogan after the host had spread misinformation on COVID-19 through his podcast, and decided to take action. The protest sparked plenty of discourse online, with people trying to decide whether Spotify needs to censor the content it distributes in order to save its reputation, even at the cost of losing money. But enough teasing now, let me walk you through everything that happened.
Take it or leave it —– Neil Young vs. Rogan & Spotify
On the morning of January 24, Canadian-American singer-songwriter Neil Young came across an interesting NPR article. It detailed an open letter sent to the streaming service Spotify earlier that month from a group of teachers, scientists, and medical professionals who were worried about the COVID-19 harmful misinformation that was spread on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
If you have no idea who Joe Rogan is… I didn’t either before all of this happened! In a nutshell, he is a podcast host on Spotify, known for fostering debate on his show by inviting individuals of all points of view to share their side of the story. His podcast — The Joe Rogan Experience — attracts 11M listeners a month and is the no. 1 show in 93 markets on Spotify, making it one of the most influential platforms on the planet.
Early this year, Rogan hosted an episode that caused quite the kerfuffle — in the show, he suggested that healthy young people did not need the COVID-19 vaccine. That was the last straw for several people, as that podcast episode wasn’t the first instance of the host spreading harmful misinformation through his platform. Many began to accuse the podcaster of “promoting baseless conspiracy theories”. Amongst those were the 270 scientists who wrote the letter to Spotify that landed right on Neil Young’s radar.
The 76-year-old artist decided to take action on Jan. 24 by penning his own letter about the music service and posting it on his website (it was deleted shortly after, though it was still public long enough to draw the attention of several news media outlets). He addressed his management and his record label (Warner Records) asking them to remove his music from Spotify, in order to urge the platform to take responsibility for the misinformation spread via Rogan’s show.
“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” the singer added as an ultimatum. Spotify appeared to have made its mind quickly, since as early as two days later, Young’s music was taken down the service.
Shortly after, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell joined him in his crusade against misinformation, and announced she was quitting Spotify as well. Other peers of the two —– such as David Crosby and Graham Nash — quickly followed suit, and several podcasters also began to pull their show from the service.
As a response, Spotify decided to mitigate the waters by making public its policies on approaches towards COVID-19 (we will touch upon these in the following section*), and creating a COVID-19 hub. The way the latter initiative works is that now any COVID-19 related content is tagged with an advisory, which points users to a health-and-science hub. However, Spotify didn’t remove any of Mr. Rogan’s vaccine-related podcast episodes, as the service concluded he did not infringe any of its guidelines.
Spotify Chief Executive Daniel Ek stated he was committed to maintaining the platform as a place for open dialogue, adding that “it is important to me that [Spotify doesn’t] take on the position of being content censor.”
To censor or not to censor
Many people believe that it’s Spotify’s duty to introduce some level of censorship, in order to not platform misinformation. Just this January, Spotify reported it had 406 million monthly active users — that’s A LOT of people that could potentially be influenced by what is hosted by the service. And as Spotify seeks to expand its audience even further, one could argue that it can no longer be agnostic to what content it distributes. After all, it’s one thing to promote free speech by hosting people with varying opinions and viewpoints (even if controversial), but it’s a whole different thing to distribute outright falsehoods.
In all fairness, Spotify does have some sort of content-regulation policy, but as many have pointed out, it’s not too hard to work around it. According to those guidelines, creators are allowed to voice their skepticism on COVID-19 vaccines, as long as they don’t claim the treatments are *designed* to cause death, or deny the existence of the illness point-blank. Solely based on Spotify’s policies, it is then true that Rogan’s podcast episodes were not actually infringing any rules.
Still — it is undeniable that Rogan has platformed plenty of harmful propaganda through his show. Apart from his own comments, he also hosted an episode in December 2021 interviewing virologist Dr. Robert Malone, who claimed Americans had been “hypnotized” into getting vaccinated and wearing masks. How is such content allowed to continue to exist on a platform with massive traction like Spotify?
A matter of money
Actually, there might be a reason, and a very obvious one at that — money. Given the high number of paying subscribers (i.e., users who do not receive ads), the largest advertising revenue for Spotify is tied to podcasting. Meaning podcasts make Spotify earn a lot of money, and something like The Joe Rogan Experience with its 11M monthly listeners makes it earn A LOT of money.
Spotify has been pushing aggressively to expand its podcasting offer in the past few years, aiming at rendering itself as the main podcasting service. In 2020, it even spent $100M to ensure exclusive rights to Mr. Rogan’s podcast, according to The Wall Street Journal. Ergo, it was in Spotify’s best financial interests to hold onto Rogan’s show.
But isn’t it losing money because of Neil Young’s protest? The answer is yes, BUT not as much as it would have had it chosen Young over Rogan, and not vice versa.
For starters, Young and the other artists participating in the boycott are not streaming artists, i.e. their fans mainly consume their music via CDs, rather than on streaming services. If an artist such as The Weeknd or Justin Bieber (who have the most monthly listeners on Spotify) had chosen to participate in the boycott, it might have been a different set of hands.
However, even losing one of them wouldn’t hurt Spotify all that much. The platform now has enough active users that it could lose one or two of their top players and still come out unscathed, as it always has many other artists to fall back onto. That is why this boycott is different from Taylor Swift’s 2014 crusade to press Spotify for fairer artist wages — 2014 was the beginning of the Streaming Era, Spotify was a much smaller platform, and Swift was basically the only big fish in that pond. Her leaving it (even though no other major artist was backing her up) constituted a massive blow at the time — now, Spotify would survive without even batting an eye.
Plus, given that nowadays the majority of people consume music via streaming, deciding to remove your music from a streaming service (and with Spotify being the largest amongst them) is a risky move financially for artists, especially if there is no proper snowball effect and few others decide to follow suit.
The only boycott that would actively inconvenience Spotify is if the entire top 10 of the singers with the most monthly listeners decided to take their music off the service simultaneously. However, it doesn’t take too much brains to see that will never happen, as it would take massive amounts of organization and commitment to the cause. And if an artist does it alone, they’re only damaging themselves instead of the service — and what’s the point in hurting yourself while making no real impact on the battle?
Spotify’s ultimate price
All in all, this whole debacle is just a matter of money. Spotify knows that sticking with Rogan is taking some shots at its reputation, but at the end of the day it’s all outweighed by the financial benefits, and that’s all that matters. Yes, its reputation might be slightly tarnished now. Yes, several users and artists are boycotting the platform now. But it still has its real moneymakers, and earning money is always viewed as more important than having a good reputation in the eyes of a big company.
One might wonder where this move might take Spotify in the long run. By siding with Rogan in such a strikingly public manner, the platform has thrust itself on the culture-war frontline — the continuous support of Rogan’s podcast has placed the service against all of those who disagree with the host and his views. Ergo, albeit the attempts by Spotify to remain an impartial tech company and distribution platform, the events of last month have made it clear where the service’s values lay.
While it might make sense in terms of the balance sheet right now, supporting Rogan in his carousel of misinformation might end up costing Spotify way more than just money and its reputation — its soul may be the ultimate price to pay.
Feature image: Reet Talreja/Unsplash
Edited by: Katrien Nivera