The Spotify controversy, explained

An old Neil Young playing his guitar. Tore Sætre via Wikimedia

Why Neil Young and other influential content creators are boycotting the media magnet

Over the last week or so, the music streaming platform Spotify has been on the news for not the best of reasons. Joe Rogan has been hosting his podcast exclusively on Spotify since 2020 and has often courted controversy by hosting guests that challenge mainstream views. His selection of hosts in the past include the founder of the far-right group Proud Boys, as well as an author known for making transphobic statements. On December 31, Rogan hosted an episode with Robert Malone, a scientist and prominent anti-vaccine influencer. A former researcher into the mRNA technology that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on, Malone is now an opponent of these vaccines and insists that anyone who has had covid already should not be getting vaccinated.

Shortly after this episode went on the air, a group of nearly 300 scientists and doctors wrote to Spotify, urging them to not provide a platform for medical misinformation. In the past, Rogan has also hosted individuals who deny the predictions of climate scientists about the concerning direction of climate change. It should also be mentioned here that Robert Malone is banned on Twitter because the claims he had been making did not pass the bar of fact-checking.

Spotify, who have reportedly paid in the neighbourhood of US$100 million for exclusive rights to Rogan’s podcast, chose to essentially ignore the petition by medical experts. This prompted Neil Young to go public about his concerns, saying that Spotify must choose between having his music or Rogan’s podcast, but not both. Young mentioned that he doesn’t want to be hosted on the same platform as someone who is spreading information that could be detrimental to public health and safety. Spotify responded by removing all his music within a couple of days, clearly choosing sides, even though they expressed their regret at having to do so and said they hope Young would change his mind in the future.

Soon thereafter, Joni Mitchell became the first major artist to follow suit, expressing solidarity with Young and requesting that her works also be removed if Spotify does not address the misinformation being spread on their platform. A number of other artists, including former bandmates of Young, have joined in in abandoning Spotify, citing ethical concerns[1]. In addition, some artists have stated that they stand with Young and but are unable to remove their music because the distribution rights belong to some third party, usually the record label.

While Spotify has in effect refused to remove any episodes of the Joe Rogan podcast, they have taken some remedial actions. They announced that they would be adding disclaimers to podcasts that discuss COVID-19 – a move that has been dubbed “a positive step” by the White House Press Secretary, who also expressed hope that other major tech platforms and news sources also consider adding such disclaimers and in general be vigilant about the accuracy of the information they help disseminate.

For anyone wondering why Spotify would choose to side with Rogan despite the protest by artists, it all comes down to their revenue model. Rogan posts an episode nearly every weekday, each generally running for longer than three hours, and his podcast has around 11 million listeners. In comparison, Young has around six million listeners, a count that includes those who listened to one of his tracks just once. Spotify also doesn’t have exclusive rights to his music, which is also available on every other major music streaming solution. Meanwhile, as mentioned, Spotify invested $100 million to secure exclusive rights to Rogan’s work. The situation is also bringing attention to the compensation model Spotify uses, which many artists find unfair. According to some data, the average artist makes $1 from Spotify for around 300 streams of their music.

Rogan himself has spoken out about the issue, saying it was not his intention to spread misinformation. He claimed he just enjoys conversations with people who offer different perspectives, but that going forward he will do a better job having guests who offer counterarguments to the controversial opinions he has hosted in the past.

If more artists are willing and able to join the boycott, it will be interesting to see at what point the revenue-focused approach tips over and whether Spotify chooses to change their stance at that point.

[1] Brene Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston who had a podcast hosted by Spotify, writers Roxanne Gay and Mary Trump, and even Prince Harry and Megan Markle.


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