Spotify removes episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience for racism, misinformation￼
Streaming service faced public pressure
Media streaming platform Spotify has been in the news for the last several weeks, mostly in connection with their position on and handling of controversies surrounding the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, hosted by Joe Rogan. Rogan, who has always been known for providing a platform for people with unconventional, somewhat fringe opinions, invited Robert Malone, a controversial infectious disease researcher for a podcast episode in December. Malone has been vocal in his criticism and opposition of mRNA vaccines, and the three-hour episode involved him making multiple unsubstantiated claims and sweeping statements.
Shortly thereafter, dozens of medical experts and healthcare professionals wrote to both Rogan and Spotify, stating their concerns about the misinformation being spread through his podcast not just by Malone, but other invited guests as well. Their petition included an appeal to Spotify to remove some of the episodes that shared unsubstantiated information about COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and the efficacy of public health measures. Spotify management clearly ignored these calls, leading to the next act of this story.
In the first weeks of January, Canadian musician Neil Young – himself a survivor of the last major outbreak of polio in Ontario – wrote an open letter to Spotify emphasizing that he does not wish his music to be available on the same platform as someone who is spreading information detrimental to public health and safety. Young essentially gave an ultimatum, saying Spotify will have to choose between having his content or Rogan’s podcast, but not both. Within a couple of days of this letter, Spotify issued a statement saying they were sorry Neil Young feels that way and hope he will reconsider his opinion, while removing all his music from their platform as requested by the artist. Shortly thereafter another Canadian musician, Joni Mitchell, joined Young and requested that unless Spotify was willing to remove Rogan’s podcast, they remove all her content too. Once again, Spotify sided with Rogan and complied with Mitchell’s request.
In the weeks since then, several other artists expressed solidarity with Young and Mitchell. Not all artists were able to make requests to have their music removed, however, due to complicated distribution rights that allowed only their studios to make that request. At this point, Spotify made the bare minimum concession of saying that they would be adding a disclaimer before any content that presents claims about medical issues. The streaming service also removed more than 100 episodes of Rogan’s podcast where he was openly racist.
Rogan himself went on his social media to issue a statement, claiming that he just likes to use his show to provide a voice to those who hold anti-establishment opinions and have interesting conversations. He qualified his position by saying that going forward, he would take care to provide greater balance in the type of people he invites to speak. Just when it looked like Rogan might be able to ride out this issue, an old episode resurfaced where he repeatedly uses a racial slur. In the wake of this event, more than 100 episodes of the podcast were quietly removed from the Spotify library. In fact, this was only discovered when diehard Rogan fans noticed old episodes missing and took to social media to discuss this development. Spotify has since claimed that removing these episodes was Rogan’s personal decision.
This was the situation until about a week ago, where it seemed clear that Spotify would stand firmly by Rogan and were willing to lose a substantial number of artists as a consequence of that choice. This bizarre loyalty to Rogan made sense to those who understand the revenue mechanism for Spotify. Put succinctly, Spotify earns a lot more from three-hour episodes of Rogan’s podcast than they do from the much shorter length songs from musicians. Further, most musicians have their content available on competing music streaming solutions like Apple Music, Amazon Music, and YouTube, to name a few. In contrast, Spotify reportedly paid Rogan $100 million for exclusive streaming rights, making the show a significant investment and revenue source.
In the week since then, two things happened that are thus more pertinent to the revenue bottom line. First, Spotify stock prices fell nearly 19 per cent, with forecast of slow recovery in the next quarter. While Spotify insists this fall in stock value has reasons more to do with their subscription model, the timing is surely indicative. Further, over the last few days traffic to the subscription cancellation page has increased substantially, indicating that many are choosing, for whatever reasons, to not give their money to Spotify. Also, rival podcast platforms have been making competing offers to Rogan. It will be interesting to see how Spotify handles this issue in the coming days, even from a purely financial perspective.