What Neil Young’s departure from Spotify means for investors in his music

Rockin’ in the Spotify-free world.
Rockin’ in the Spotify-free world.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Spotify removed Neil Young’s music yesterday (Jan.26) after the singer called out the streaming service for allowing covid-19 disinformation to circulate on the platform.

Young briefly posted a letter on Jan. 24 accusing Spotify of “spreading fake information about vaccines” through podcast host Joe Rogan, and asking to have his music removed from the platform. Rogan has drawn criticism for elevating false claims about coronavirus and the covid-19 vaccine on his show, The Joe Rogan Experience, which streams on Spotify. 

“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” the singer wrote.

Spotify chose Rogan, and honored Young’s wish. The decision could have financial implications not only for Young, but also the investors who purchased a 50% stake in his songwriting catalog last year.

Young expected to lose 60% of streaming revenue

The singer, who has more than 6 million monthly listeners on Spotify, wrote in a public letter that he stands to lose 60% of his worldwide streaming income from the decision. While artists typically generate just a fraction of their total income from streaming, Young has fewer revenue streams than others: He’s never licensed his songs for commercial use, and hasn’t played a live show since September 2019. “He’ll take a hit,” says George Howard, a professor of music management and business at Berklee College of Music. “It’s not immaterial.”

As for Hipgnosis Songs Fund, the Blackstone-owned firm that bought a 50% stake in Young’s songwriting catalog for an estimated $150 million last year, they’ll likely see their investment in the artist’s music depreciate as well. “They were betting on recovering their massive investment through the continuing growth of streaming,” Howard says. Now any streaming royalties that Young and Hipgnosis were collecting from the world’s most popular streaming service will be gone.

Howard says he hopes this will serve as a wakeup call for investment firms that have been aggressively pursuing artists’ catalogs in recent years, with musicians from Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Nicks selling the rights to their music. “I hope this does send a chilling effect out through the marketplace so they stop viewing this art as just any other kind of commodity.”

Decision points to where Spotify’s loyalties lie

Spotify’s decision to side with Rogan speaks to where their business focus is directed as they pursue a shift to podcasting, which helped boost the platform’s subscriber base by 24% in 2020. The company paid more than $100 million back in 2020 to license Rogan’s content, which has since become the most-streamed podcast on Spotify.

The company has previously said it bans “false or dangerous deceptive content about covid-19, which may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health,” but it doesn’t list such a policy in its user guidelines or summaries of prohibited content.

Spotify said in a statement on Jan. 26 it regretted Young’s decision but hoped to welcome him back to the platform soon. The company said it’s removed 20,000 podcast episodes related to covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.