Rogan-Young spat shows profits top Spotify agenda

While the argument has been made that Spotify is a tech company first and a music company second, it’s worth noting that another major tech company, YouTube, said it would remove all misleading claims and misinformation about vaccines.

By Gopika Nair

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Published: Sun 30 Jan 2022, 8:00 PM

Despite finding its footing and thriving as a music streaming service, Spotify doesn’t seem to care too much about its musicians.

Last week, a letter appeared on Neil Young’s website, asking Spotify to choose between him or podcaster Joe Rogan, who critics have called a “menace to public health” for using his platform to spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

Young’s was a rockstar move, one rooted in the kind of activism that is rarely associated with Spotify. He accused the streaming giant of selling lies for money by “spreading fake information about vaccines — potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them.”

Then, he issued the ultimatum: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Spotify's response was predictable and decidedly not a rockstar move. The streaming giant announced it would begin removing Young’s music, including hits such as ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Harvest Moon’, both of which have been streamed on Spotify more than 100 million times. But the number of Young’s streams and his 6 million monthly listeners pale in comparison to Rogan’s podcast power.

Not only did Spotify sign a $100 million deal with Rogan in 2020, but ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ also became the most-streamed podcast in 2021, averaging 11 million listeners per episode. That same year, Spotify scored another win when it became the largest podcast provider in the United States, trumping Apple Podcasts.

Spotify’s decision to choose Rogan over Young, then, was a no-brainer from the start. But the choice didn’t come without some consequences.

In an act of solidarity, another high-profile musician, Joni Mitchell, said she would remove her music from Spotify. “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives,” she said. “I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue.”

Earlier this month, hundreds of scientists, professors and public health professionals had published a letter online, urging Spotify “to moderate misinformation on its platform” by immediately establishing “a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform”.

“Mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications…This is not only a scientific or medical concern; it is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform,” the letter said.

In response to calls for moderation, Dustee Jenkins, Spotify’s head of communications and public relations, said Rogan’s comments didn’t meet the criteria for removal as per the company’s internal content guidelines, according to The Verge. But the guidelines themselves are questionable, seemingly crafted in a way that invites loopholes and multiple interpretations.

For instance, one of the guidelines prohibits content creators from “promoting or suggesting that the vaccines are designed to cause death.” This still allows podcasters to say that vaccines cause death, are ineffective or are simply not necessary for young and healthy people, as Rogan said on one of his podcast episodes.

While the argument has been made that Spotify is a tech company first and a music company second, it’s worth noting that another major tech company, YouTube, said it would remove all misleading claims and misinformation about vaccines. Twitter, too, did the same by introducing a “strike” system that would result in a permanent suspension of users’ accounts if they violated the company’s guidelines five or more times. Spotify, on the other hand, simply seems at a loss for what to do.

Though the company sided with Rogan, it reportedly took down lower-profile podcasts, citing Covid-19 misinformation. Australian podcast host Pete Evans told the Los Angeles Times that Spotify removed his show from the platform last year without any warning.

It’s true that misinformation needs to be curbed at every level, regardless of whether the source boasts 10,000 followers or 10 million. But if Spotify planned on taking a stance at all, it should’ve gone big and paved the way for an impactful change instead of attempting to course-correct in the meekest way possible.

By protesting publicly, Young gave Spotify an opportunity to stand tall and take real action. The move might’ve been derided by Rogan’s faithful following and affected Spotify’s ad sales, but it’s hard to say that picking Rogan over Young was the right choice for the company, even if we put aside the ethical dilemmas.

Spotify’s market capitalisation fell by about $2.1 billion over the past week after Young pulled his music from the platform. Many users have threatened to boycott Spotify altogether, while Grammy-nominated band Belly replaced their icon on Spotify with an image reading “Delete Spotify”.

And while there’s hope that popular artists, such as Taylor Swift, Adele and The Weeknd, might heed Young’s plea to abandon Spotify, none of them should have to sacrifice their royalties and bear the responsibility of helping a company build a conscience. Ultimately, it’s up to Spotify to decide whether it wants to be on the wrong side of history by profiting off of lies instead of prioritising lives. —

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