Sometimes it is difficult to predict the future.
Other times it’s really easy: back in the spring of 2020, it was Incredibly Clear With Joe Rogan paying a ton for the exclusive rights to his podcast, Spotify will inevitably find itself under fire. Because a large part of Rogan’s appeal – we don’t know how big his audience is, but the double-digit million seems reasonable – is creating controversy over the preferred interview of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Of course, the list of people critical of Spotify’s Rogan deal – and the content that Rogan has since published – includes Spotify’s own staff, who complained that his podcast was transphobic, and 270 doctors and other health professionals who wrote an open letter. Says Rogan’s podcasts were “mass misinformation incidents” that “provoked disbelief in science and medicine” during the epidemic, to host the choice of Robert Malone, an anti-waxer who has been banned by Twitter.
And now rock star Neil Young, who has said he has opened his eyes to the doctors’ open letter “dangerous life-threatening covid lies found in Spotify programming” has shut down his music service in protest.
So. How big is this deal?
Here’s a data point: My brother-in-law just texted me asking for a recommendation for a new streaming service. Young’s Argument – Paying for Rogan’s podcast, “Spotify has become a haven for life-threatening covid misinformation. Selling lies for money ”- hit home for him. (For the record, you can still find Young’s music on Amazon, Apple and every other streaming platform.)
Here’s a list of prominent musicians following a competing data point – Young’s leadership and pulling their catalogs from Spotify:
It is possible, of course, that things may change. When Neil Young was making popular music in the 1960s and 70s, famous musicians regularly engaged in political debates and sometimes even risked their own livelihoods to do so. The Nixon administration, for example, placed John Lennon under FBI surveillance and at one point attempted to deport him for his actions in protest of the Vietnam War.
But that level of activism is almost completely absent from today’s lineup of popular musicians, who sometimes tweet about things they don’t like but usually leave it at that. Taylor Swift has fought with Spotify, Apple and a music manager who bought the rights to her catalog, but those disputes were about money and control, not norms or vaccines.
To his credit, Young – a well-known controversial character who has complained about streaming for years – has a clear vision of what his withdrawal would mean: “I sincerely hope other artists can take a step back, but I really hope it Can’t happen, “he wrote on his website this week.
If not A lot From people like my brother-in-law, I hope Spotify will do what it did every time people complained about their deal with Rogan: Nothing.
Spotify is betting billions upon billions of dollars that podcasting will be a lucrative business, and Rogan is the world’s largest podcaster. It would take much more than the absence of a legacy law that has not released a popular song since 1989 to change its course.
Spotify will definitely take issue with that characterization. It says it takes these things very seriously, and regularly checks the content of its services to see if it violates content policies, which it has not yet disclosed. Here, for the record, the company statement is:
“We want all the music and audio content in the world to be available to Spotify users. With this comes the great responsibility of balancing both the safety of the audience and the freedom of the producers. We have a detailed content policy and have removed more than 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID-19 since the epidemic began. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but we hope to welcome him soon. “
It should be noted that Spotify, like other media distribution technology companies, is fundamentally uncomfortable deciding what kind of media it does and does not want to distribute. See, for example, its 2018 decision to remove musicians like R. Kelly – who has long been accused of sexual misconduct – from its playlist but not from the service. After weeks of criticism from artists and directors, it abandoned the policy. (Kelly was convicted three years later of racketeering and sex trafficking; his music remains on Spotify.)
And while Spotify often argues that, like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook, it’s just a neutral platform that connects creators with people who want to be involved with the things their creators created, that argument doesn’t work for Rogan: though. He works non-technically for Spotify, he gets a lot of money from them, to create things that you won’t hear anywhere else except Spotify.
But so far that difference doesn’t matter. Often, Spotify is asked about Rogan, and the company gives a shoulder equivalent answer. “For us, it’s a diverse human voice, for a global audience,” content chief Don Ostroff told me a year ago. “And he has become extremely popular.”
Next week, when Spotify announces its quarterly earnings, expect more questions. Don’t expect a different answer.