Sometimes it’s hard to predict the future.
Other times it’s really easy: Back in the spring of 2020, it was incredibly obvious that by paying Joe Rogan a ton of money for the exclusive rights to his podcast, Spotify would inevitably find itself under fire. Because a big part of Rogan’s appeal — we don’t know how big his audience is, but double-digit millions seems reasonable — is courting controversy by interviewing the likes of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Sure enough, the list of people criticizing Spotify over its Rogan deal — and the content Rogan has put out since then — includes Spotify’s own employees, who complained that his podcast is transphobic, and 270 doctors and other health experts, who wrote an open letter saying Rogan’s podcasts were “mass-misinformation events” that have been “provoking distrust in science and medicine” during the pandemic, for hosting the likes of Robert Malone, an anti-vaxxer who’s been banned by Twitter.
And now rock star Neil Young, who said those doctors’ open letter opened his eyes to the “dangerous life-threatening Covid falsehoods found in Spotify programming,” has taken his music off the service in protest.
So. How big a deal is this?
Here’s one data point: My brother-in-law just texted me asking for recommendations for a new streaming service. Young’s argument — that by paying for Rogan’s podcast, “Spotify has become the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation. Lies being sold for money” — has 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 competing data point – a list of prominent musicians following Young’s lead and pulling their catalogs from Spotify as well:
It’s possible, of course, that things could change. Back when Neil Young was making popular music in the 1960s and ’70s, famous musicians routinely made political arguments, and sometimes even put their own livelihoods at risk in doing so. The Nixon administration, for instance, put John Lennon under FBI surveillance and at one point tried to deport him because of his work protesting the Vietnam War.
But that level of activism is almost completely absent from today’s lineup of popular musicians, who will sometimes tweet about things they don’t like but generally 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 all about money and control, not ideology or vaccines.
To his credit, Young — a famously cantankerous character who has complained about streaming for years — is clear-eyed about what his pullout will mean: “I sincerely hope that other artists can make a move, but I can’t really expect that to happen,” he wrote on his website this week.
So unless there are a lot of people like my brother-in-law, expect Spotify to do what it has done every time people have complained about their deal with Rogan: nothing.
Spotify is betting billions of dollars that podcasting will be a meaningful business, and Rogan is the biggest podcaster in the world. It would have to take much, much more than the absence of a legacy act that hasn’t released a popular song since 1989 to get it to change course.
Spotify will take issue with that characterization, of course. It says it takes all this stuff very seriously, and routinely examines content on its service to see if it violates content policies, which it has yet to disclose publicly. Here, for the record, is the company’s statement:
“We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon.”
It’s worth pointing out here that Spotify, like other tech companies that distribute media, is fundamentally uncomfortable making decisions about what kind of media it does and doesn’t want to distribute. See, for instance, its 2018 decision to remove musicians like R. Kelly — who had long been accused of sexual misconduct — from its playlists but not from the service itself. After a few weeks of criticism from artists and managers, it abandoned the policy. (Kelly was convicted on racketeering and sex trafficking charges three years later; his music remains on Spotify.)
And while Spotify often argues that, just like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook, it’s simply a neutral platform that connects creators with people who want to engage with the stuff those creators make, that argument doesn’t work in Rogan’s case: While he’s not technically working for Spotify, he is very much getting paid by them, to make stuff you can’t hear anywhere but Spotify.
But so far that distinction hasn’t mattered. Every so often, Spotify gets asked about Rogan, and the company answers with the equivalent of a shrug. “For us, it’s about having a diverse voice of people, for a global audience,” content chief Dawn Ostroff told me a year ago. “And he happens to remain wildly popular.”
Expect more questions to arise next week, when Spotify announces its quarterly earnings. Don’t expect a different answer.