Will Neil Young’s protest over Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast really hurt Spotify?

Neil Young vs. Joe Rogan seems like the strangest of cultural clashes.

The 76-year-old rock star’s protest over coronavirus-related content on Rogan’s popular Spotify podcast has ignited a debate about misinformation and free speech, attracting scrutiny to a streaming service used by millions of people around the world.

“Rockin’ in the Free World”? Not on Spotify. Here’s what’s going on.

Why is Young upset?

The musician’s protest came after dozens of doctors and scientists wrote an open letter to Spotify, complaining about Rogan’s habit of inviting anti-vaxxers and Covid conspiracy theorists onto his show.

Accusing Spotify of being complicit in spreading misinformation about coronavirus, Young told the company that it could have his music or Rogan’s podcast — “not both.”

Soon after, Spotify agreed to remove his music from the service, prompting a backlash from critics.

Is the protest spreading?

And it is. Joni Mitchell also asked her music for her to be removed “in solidarity” with Young. So did Nils Lofgren, a guitarist who plays in one of Young’s bands, Crazy Horse, and also with Bruce Springsteen. Podcaster Brene Brown also said she was halting new podcasts without specifying the reason. The rock band Belly put the message “Delete Spotify” in the background of its Spotify page, although their music is still available on Spotify.

Pulling music off Spotify isn’t necessarily easy, as often it’s the record company, not the artist, who controls that.

Spotify dominates the streaming marketplace. It had 31 per cent of the 524 million worldwide music stream subscriptions in the second quarter of 2021, more than double that of its closest rival Apple Music, according to Midia Research.

However, Spotify is not always popular with musicians, who have criticized the company for not paying them enough in return for streams of their work.

“Spotify has a huge amount of cultural capital that is itself power,” Midia Research’s Mark Mulligan noted. ”And that is what is at risk if more artists essentially tried to push their fans to other places.”

While losing Young and Mitchell is certainly a blow, what could really have an impact is if a bigger mainstream artist – such as Drake, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran or Dua Lipa – takes up the cause.

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For those artists, and for Spotify, taking a stand with Young could cause serious concern among the company’s executives.

Why choose Rogan over Young?

Music accounts for the vast majority of Spotify’s revenue, but Rogan represents its future.

Spotify reportedly paid over £71m ($100m) to license Rogan’s podcast, which is the most popular on the service. He’s the centerpiece of the company’s strategy to become as in-demand for podcasts as it is for music. In the long term, Spotify has more control over potential revenue from podcasts than it does for music, Mulligan said.

The Swedish company is gunning to be the premiere podcasting platform, investing hundreds of millions of dollars since 2019 to buy podcast companies like Gimlet and Anchor, and sign top hosts like Rogan and Dax Shepard.

It was set to overtake Apple last year as the biggest podcast platform in the United States, the world’s largest market, by number of listeners, according to the research firm eMarketer.

Popular podcasters, particularly the outspoken ones, are likely to be watching this protest very closely to see if Spotify will stick up for the right to speak freely.

What is Spotify doing to quiet the protests?

The company announced that it would add a warning before all podcasts that discuss Covid, directing listeners to factual information on the pandemic from scientists and public health experts. It did not discuss Rogan specifically in its statement.

Spotify has shown more transparency in the past few days about how it deals with questionable content, and the new policy is a good first step, John Wihbey, a Northeastern University professor and specialist in emerging technologies, told The Associated Press

Yet it’s not clear that anyone has effectively dealt with the issue of misinformation spread through podcasts, I added. Will Rogan’s audience actually listen to an advisory and then hunt down other COVID information?

“This could be just window-dressing,” he theorized.

Rogan first addressed the backlash on Sunday (30 January), saying he’s sorry his critics feel the way they do, and it wasn’t his intention to upset anyone or spread misinformation. He said he likes to have conversations with people who offer different perspectives, and said that some things once considered misinformation – that cloth masks were not good at protecting against Covid, for example – are now accepted.

But he said he could do a better job having people who dispute controversial opinions like Malone’s on faster so his listeners will hear the different perspective.

The calculus for Spotify can change if the protest snowballs, Billboard magazine’s news director Colin Stutz said. “I think they just ride this out and hope that it goes away.”

Does Rogan need to listen to more music?

Probably. He talked in a video posted on Instagram about how he loved Mitchell’s music from her.

“’Chuck E’s in Love’ is a great song,'” he said, mistaking Rickie Lee Jones’ song for Mitchell’s music. To Rogan’s credit, he quickly corrected himself on Twitter.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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