Untangling the Neil Young vs. Joe Rogan-Spotify situation

Click to play video: 'Joe Rogan addresses Spotify controversy'
Joe Rogan addresses Spotify controversy
In a lengthy comment posted to his Instagram page, the popular podcaster and former stand up comic and UFC colour commentator addressed the recent spate of artists pulling their music from Spotify over concerns regarding his podcast spreading misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. Rogan proposed that "controversial" episodes of his podcast would now feature a warning before each episode, and he promised to be more "balanced" in whom he pursued as far as guests, allowing those from the mainstream medical community to more immediately address other guests who propagate non-mainstream views. – Jan 31, 2022

When Neil Young announced he was pulling his music from Spotify in protest over COVID-19 disinformation espoused on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, I expected the story to cause a splash for a day before fading away. Young, the revered but grumpy aged rock star, wanted to make a statement, but like Grandpa Simpson, his complaints would soon be swept away. That’s not what happened.

Instead, Young picked off a scab hiding a multitude of issues involving Spotify. It may be the biggest streaming platform in the known universe, but it’s also the most criticized, from the payouts sent to artists to delays in implementing new technologies, causing them to fall behind their competitors. A snowball effect? More like an avalanche.

Fans began cancelling their Spotify subscriptions in such huge numbers the company’s customer service system was overwhelmed, resulting in “sorry, we can’t help you right now” messages. Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren (a former guitarist for Bruce Springsteen), Brené Brown (a Spotify podcaster), and the remainder of CSN&Y (David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash) have all chosen to stand with Neil.

Story continues below advertisement

Given the streaming numbers generated by those artists, Spotify can take the hit. But then there are rumours that Paul McCartney, Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, and The Foo Fighters might be tilting the same way. Imagine if Drake, The Weeknd, or Justin Bieber decided to take a similar stand. If that happens, it could trigger a mass exodus from Spotify, further hurting its stock price which has already taken a beating this year.

They won’t, of course, because they can’t afford to. The majority of their income comes from streaming and leaving Spotify would cripple them. Same thing for a lot of lower- and mid-level artists who depend on Spotify for a significant portion of their income. Some, like Belly, have maintained their page on the platform but with DELETE SPOTIFY all over it.

Taylor Swift might. Joni Mitchell is her hero, so she might decide to emulate her. She’s also got plenty of money and her fans, The Swifties, will follow her wherever she goes and do whatever she tells them.

Click to play video: 'Spotify grapples with artist backlash over COVID-19 misinformation on platform'
Spotify grapples with artist backlash over COVID-19 misinformation on platform

No wonder both CEO Daniel Ek and Joe Rogan put out statements last Sunday promising to do better. With US$4 billion wiped off the company’s valuation and with a financial report coming on Feb. 2, they had to say something.

Story continues below advertisement

But there’s more to this story than just music. Let’s unpack a few things.

First, some people insist that Neil Young is “censoring” Joe Rogan. He’s not. He can’t. He’s just taking his business elsewhere.

Second, some Rogan defenders are saying that this is an abrogation of Rogan’s First Amendment rights. It is not. If they’d care to read the U.S. Constitution, they’ll see that it only protects against the government coming down on the speech of its citizens. Such an argument is not applicable here.

OK, then what about the concept of free speech? This is one of the most cherished values of developed nations worldwide. Is Rogan’s right to free speech being trampled? No. People are merely using the Spotify controversy to express an opposing view. He should not be cancelled. An important tenet of free speech is that speech is free for all, regardless of the viewpoint, unless it veers into promoting hate or shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

Here’s where it gets a little murky for some. Companies have their own standards and values and require that their employees and contractors adhere to them. I’m writing this knowing full well that Global News specifically and Corus Entertainment more broadly expect me to follow certain guidelines when I’m creating content. Your employer most likely has the same kind of rules.

Story continues below advertisement

When it comes to the three million podcasts distributed by Spotify, the vast majority originate outside the company. Spotify acts as an aggregator of third-party content. But because The Joe Rogan Experience is a Spotify exclusive — he was reported to have been paid US$100 million to use Spotify alone for his podcasts — the company has essentially become a broadcaster, which can carry different legal and moral responsibilities and obligations. That includes being aware of what’s going out to the public under their name.

Rogan, too, has responsibilities. With between 11 and 14 million downloads per podcast, he has tremendous influence and power. He is (or should be) under pressure to get things as right as possible as often as possible. That includes proper fact-checking (something that’s lacking with him), research into guests (he famously brags he does no show prep), and at least aspiring to the same standards as professional journalists when it comes to information that can affect people’s lives. True, he’s a comedian, reality show host, MMA expert, and entertainer and not a journalist. But when you step into territory like opining on dangerous and debunked COVID-19 material, things can get weird real fast.

Yes, Spotify says it has de-platformed 20,000 podcasts that don’t conform to their internal standards. But Rogan? He’s its $100-million-dollar man. The company put itself into an awkward double standard. The contortions involved in Spotify extricating itself from this situation are formidable. Rogan will have to think about holding himself to the standards of actual journalism.

Story continues below advertisement

It’s important that we’re exposed to ideas and concepts that we find strange and even distasteful at first. Some of the greatest innovations in society come from the fringes of discourse and thought. What was once thought insane may eventually be hailed as brilliant. How we get there, though, is important, which is why we should pay attention to what Spotify is going to do next.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

Sponsored content