Neil Young and Joni Mitchell took their music off of Spotify last week in protest of The Joe Rogan Experience, the ultra-popular podcast hosted by comedian and former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan, citing his long track record of spreading vaccine misinformation to his millions of viewers.
“They can have Rogan or Young,” Young wrote in a since-deleted blog post. “Not both.”
It would certainly be less expensive to keep Young and Mitchell happy. Neither of the legendary folk musicians is paid to exclusively stream on Spotify. But Joe Rogan is. Spotify bought exclusive rights to Rogan’s show in 2020, part of the Swedish audio giant’s broader push to buy up big players in podcasting, like The Ringer and Gimlet.
In response to the growing boycott fronted by Young and Mitchell, Spotify has promised to amend its protocols, applying a “content advisory” to podcast episodes that discuss covid-19, which the company says will link to reliable sources about the pandemic. It’s a move straight from the social media company playbook, reminiscent of Facebook and Twitter’s efforts to rein in misinformation that could cause real-life harm to its users. It’s a response that might befit Spotify if an unknown podcaster uploaded an episode exclaiming the benefits of ivermectin, the horse-deworming drug that Rogan has falsely claimed helps treat covid-19.
But Rogan isn’t an unknown podcaster uploading to a platform, getting paid fractions of a cent per stream. Rogan is on Spotify’s payroll to the tune of $100 million.
Free speech and vaccine misinformation
Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of Spotify, said in a blog post that the company supports “creator expression” and balances that value with a commitment to the safety of its users. “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,” he wrote
Ek did not mention Rogan in his post, all but missing the point of the critique. Spotify is a private company that does not owe anyone a platform for their content; free speech protects individuals from government censorship, not corporate content policies.
The uproar around Rogan is not that he streams on Spotify, per se, but first and foremost that he is paid to be Spotify’s podcasting poster boy. “The more Spotify fails to confront the actual PR crisis of Rogan himself, by writing platitudes about applying rules to all creators equally, their customers will continue to demand corporate accountability,” Harvard misinformation researcher Joan Donovan told The Washington Post.
Similar debates have plagued Substack in recent months, as the newsletter company has become a home for popular controversial writers. The company shelled out large advances for writers under its Subtack Pro initiative while preaching the virtues of “free expression.” Advances are not only business contracts, though. They are endorsements of the people deemed worthy enough to be offered one.
In the internet economy, many of the most successful companies are the platforms, which host, bundle, and distribute content made by third parties (e.g. users, creators, and artists).
Every platform has rules on what kind of content is allowable. Their restrictions sometimes are legal in nature—for instance, protecting against copyright infringement or banning illegal sexual material—but most of what they come down to is moral.
What constitutes racist speech? Does the content discourage people from voting? Might this violate public health standards? Could this cause real-world harm? These are all appropriate—and difficult—questions for companies considering how to treat the massive volume of user-generated content posted on their platforms. Moderating this is even harder when it comes to audio. But the nature of the relationship between the platform and the speaker changes considerably when there’s money involved.
YouTube, which pioneered paying content creators pennies per view under ad revenue sharing agreements, commonly de-monetizes creators that break their site rules. Spotify’s dilemma is entirely different. Its $100 million deal with Rogan is, by nature, an endorsement of him—not everything he says or does, but as an overall testament to his value. Spotify gets Rogan, warts and all, and makes lots of money from him. But the flip side is that Spotify is now responsible, in a moral sense, for what Rogan says and if listeners get physically hurt because of what he tells them.
Spotify is applying rules to “all of [its] creators” when what it really needs to do is deal with one highly paid, rogue employee.