Sometimes it is difficult to predict the future.
The second time is really easy: it was in the spring of 2020 unbelievable obviously that by paying Joe Rogan a ton of money for exclusive rights to his podcast, Spotify would inevitably find itself under attack. Because much of Rogan’s attraction – we don’t know how large his audience is, but double-digit millions seem reasonable – is courting controversy by interviewing like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Of course, the list of people criticizing Spotify for his dealings with Rogan – and content Rogan has posted since then – includes Spotify employees, who complained that his podcast was transphobic, and 270 doctors and other health professionals, who wrote an open letter saying that Rogan’s podcasts were “events of mass disinformation” that “provoked distrust of science and medicine” during the pandemic because they hosted Robert Malone, an anti-vaxer banned by Twitter.
And now rock star Neil Young, who said an open letter from those doctors opened his eyes to “life-threatening lies about Covid found on Spotify programs”, removed his music from the service in protest.
So. How big is this thing?
Here’s one piece of information: My son-in-law just sent me a message asking for recommendations for a new streaming service. Young’s argument – that by paying for Rogan’s podcast “Spotify has become a home of life-threatening misinformation about Covid.” Lies are sold for money “- he guessed for him. (For the record, you can still find Young’s music on Amazon, Apple, and all the other streaming platforms.)
Here’s a competing data point – a list of prominent musicians who follow Young’s leadership and download their catalogs from Spotify:
It is possible, of course, that things can change. Even when Neil Young was creating popular music in the 1960s and 70s, famous musicians routinely presented political arguments, and sometimes even endangered their own existence in it. The Nixon administration, for example, put John Lennon under FBI surveillance and at one point tried to deport him for his work by protesting against the Vietnam War.
But that level of activism is almost completely absent in today’s line-up of popular musicians, who will sometimes tweet about things they don’t like, but mostly leave it at that. Taylor Swift argued with Spotify, Apple, and the music manager who bought the rights to her catalog, but those disputes were over money and control, not ideology or vaccines.
To his credit, Young – a famous irritable character who has complained about streaming for years – clearly sees what his withdrawal will mean: “I sincerely hope other artists can take a step, but I can’t really expect it to happen,” he wrote. on its website this week.
So unless there are none a lot from people like my son-in-law, expect Spotify to do what it did every time people complain about their deal with Rogan: nothing.
Spotify is betting billions of dollars that podcasting will be a significant business, and Rogan is the largest podcast in the world. It would take much, much more than the absence of a legacy group that hasn’t released a popular song since 1989 to change course.
Spotify will, of course, have trouble with that characterization. He says that he takes all these things very seriously and routinely examines the content on his service to see if he is violating the rules on content, which has yet to be made public. Here are the company announcements for the minutes:
“We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes a great responsibility in balancing security for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed rules on content and have removed over 20,000 episodes of podcasts related to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but we hope to welcome him soon. “
It is worth emphasizing here that Spotify, like other technology companies that distribute media, is basically embarrassed to make decisions about what types of media it does and does not want to distribute. Take, for example, his 2018 decision to remove musicians like R. Kelly – who has long been accused of sexual misconduct – from his playlists, but not from the service itself. After several weeks of criticism from artists and managers, this policy was abandoned. (Kelly was convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking charges three years later; his music remains on Spotify.)
And while Spotify often claims that, just like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, it’s simply a neutral platform that connects creators with people who want to do the things those creators do, that argument doesn’t work in Rogan’s case: although he doesn’t technically work for Spotify, he’s heavily paid by them, to do things you can’t hear anywhere but Spotify.
But so far that difference has not mattered. Every now and then, Spotify wonders about Rogan, and the company responds with a shrug. “It’s about us having a different voice, for a global audience,” content manager Dawn Ostroff told me a year ago. “And it just happens to be wildly popular.”
Expect more questions to come up next week, when Spotify announces its quarterly earnings. Don’t expect a different answer.