Spotify responds to Joe Rogan uproar, and a growing trend in controversial content

Late last week, after a series of open letters to Spotify imploring the streaming audio site to cut host Joe Rogan loose from its podcast roster over vaccinated-related misinformation, legendary musician Neil Young voluntarily removed his music from the platform. The uproar caused by Young’s protest prompted Spotify to finally issue a statement on Sunday.

On Jan. 30, in a blog post credited to Spotify founder Daniel Ek (that does not mention either Young or Rogan), Spotify announced that it was “working to add a content advisory to any podcast episode that includes a discussion about COVID-19” which, when implemented, direct listeners to a COVID hub where they can find updates from the BBC, Politico, CNN, and other mainstream news sources.

“A decade ago, we created Spotify to enable the work of creators around the world to be heard and enjoyed by listeners around the world,” Ek writes in the post. “To our very core, we believe that listening is everything. Pick almost any issue and you will find people and opinions on either side of it. Personally, there are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly. We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

Young’s condemnation of Spotify echoes the whirlwind around the release of Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The Closer, which led many creators and internal employees to slam the streamer over anti-trans content. And both instances feel part of a bigger, growing conversation: How much responsibility do content platforms have for their biggest stars?

There are differences between the controversies. Chappelle was heavily criticized in October 2021 for bragging during his special The Closer he was “team [trans-exclusionary radical feminist]” and comparing trans presentation to blackface. At the time, trans and LGBTQ comedians spoke out about Chappelle’s Netflix special, but the highest-profile action consisted of dozens of Netflix’s own employees performing a walk out. That protest had its own counter-protestors, and when Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief executive, admitted that he “should have recognized the fact that a group of our employees was really hurting,” the issue seemed to fade into the background of a constantly humming news cycle.

Neil Young no longer wanting to be on the same platform as Chappelle’s fellow comedian Joe Rogan presents a different type of problem: one major artist calling out another. In his first letter, now deleted, Young now-famously laid down an ultimatum: Spotify could have “Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Citing Rogan and Spotify’s 2020 multiyear licensing deal, where Spotify gets exclusive access to The Joe Rogan Experience in exchange for what many reports have said is over $100 million, Young’s initial letter noted that JRE “is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence,” while the company “has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

In the Spotify blog post, Ek emphasizes that Spotify has been “biased toward action” when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. But there’s a caveat: “I trust our policies, the research and expertise that inform their development, and our aspiration to apply them in a way that allows for broad debate and discussion, within the lines. We take this seriously and will continue to partner with experts and invest heavily in our platform functionality and product capabilities for the benefit of creators and listeners alike. That doesn’t mean that we always get it right, but we are committed to learning, growing and evolving.” There is no mention of Joe Rogan or Neil Young or specific issues that have entered the public discourse. The post was published in response to “a lot of questions.”

In this photo illustration the Spotify logo seen displayed... Photo: Onur Dogman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Bullish investors believe that Spotify’s investment in original and exclusive podcasts will make it an omnipresent cultural force, similar to how Netflix became an “and chill” cultural touchstone when it started making shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.

But just as House of Cards was forced to enter strange permutations when working with Kevin Spacey became untenable, Spotify could enter similarly uncomfortable territory with Rogan as the centerpiece of its business strategy. Even though, according to Young’s second letter, Spotify represented 60 percent of his global streaming, the app had become “a very damaging force via its public misinformation and lies about COVID.”

Spotify initially announced in response to Young that the company had “great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators,” and had removed “20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID since the start of the pandemic,” But after the episode purge, Spotify left up JRE #1757 with Dr. Robert Malone, whose claims of mass societal hypnosis and comparisons of the pandemic response to the Holocaust prompted over 200 medical professionals signed a letter stating its airing was “medically and culturally dangerous.”

Here’s another difference between Netflix and Spotify: While the former has tight control over what appears on its platform, it’s easy for anyone to upload a podcast to Spotify. The company cites in a promotional video that getting a podcast from a hosting platform to Spotify listeners around the world can take as little as 15 minutes. Any aspiring Joe Rogan could enter the fray with just a computer and a microphone.

This ease, coupled with the equally swift removal of 20,000 podcast episodes, could create the feeling of a two-tiered Spotify system: one for the big celebrities, who can say and do whatever they want, and one for everyone else. Claims of a double standard have haunted another popular platform, YouTube, for years.

It seems unlikely that either Netflix or Spotify will remove the work its two major stars who sell out stadiums. But Young’s involvement gives protestors something that didn’t appear in the varied responses to Chappelle: star power. Young is popular enough to have his very own streaming service, the Neil Young Archives, and is a double-inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both as a solo artist and as part of Buffalo Springfield. He’s almost a triple-inductee, as another band in which he played a crucial role, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, is also there.

If former President Donald Trump and the #FreeBritney movement have shown anything, it’s that causes become much easier to rally around in the social-media era when their focal point is a celebrity. Crucially, beyond their large fan networks, celebrities can influence other celebrities. Shortly after Young’s announcement, folk legend and fellow Rock Hall-er Joni Mitchell joined him in a blog post titled “I Stand With Neil Young!”

Clive Davis And The Recording Academy’s 2012 Pre-GRAMMY Gala And Salute To Industry Icons Honoring Richard Branson - Roaming Inside
Young and Mitchell at a pre-Grammy gala in 2012
Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage

Young and Mitchell have been joined by Bruce Springsteen collaborator Nils Lofgren, but what if they were joined by Springsteen himself? Unsubstantiated rumors are flying on Twitter over who will be the next to step away from the platform, from Springsteen to Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam. In the media industry, there’s a common belief that three examples of anything establishes a trend.

Some musicians have been waiting a long time for a moment to put Spotify on the defensive. Another difference between Netflix and Spotify are the standing of labor within their respective mediums. Television and movies have long used powerful labor guilds like Screen Actor’s Guild and the Writer’s Guild of America to set industry standards. Netflix couldn’t be successful in Hollywood without meeting the various pay requirements of SAG-AFTRA, the WGA, and many others. In fact, Netflix signed a contract with SAG-AFTRA for expanded coverage in 2019.

No such standards exist in the music industry, which allows Spotify to work out deals with major labels without much input from artists themselves. Groups like the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers have specific demands for the company, like paying at least one cent per stream, adopting a user-centric payment model, and crediting all workers involved in production.

Young’s second open letter expands on the musician’s several beefs with Spotify. Young derides the “shitty degraded and neutered sound” of the app. So far, these three complaints about Spotify — a seeming double standard on free speech, poor payouts to musicians, and inferior technical quality — have remained mostly separate. If Young’s movement can unite all three, gain momentum through artists large and small, and present clear, actionable goals, than Spotify may have more than a few weeks worth of bad headlines on its hands.