Spotify’s Joe Rogan drama feels like a Facebook moment

Lionel Laurent
Bloomberg Opinion

“Neil who?” You can imagine the snickering from some quarters of the tech world after rocker Neil Young demanded in a now-deleted post that music-streaming platform Spotify choose between hosting his music or popular podcaster Joe Rogan — whom he accused of spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

Young (with 6 million monthly listeners on Spotify) has many classic albums to his name, but he’s no Taylor Swift (54 million) when it comes to streaming success. When Spotify chose to drop his music by request, it’s likely most users found out by reading the news rather than desperately searching for “Heart of Gold.”

However, it would be a mistake to shrug this off as just another episode in Spotify’s occasional tussle with talent, similar to when Swift removed and reinstated her music on the service or to Young’s temporary boycott in 2015 over its audio quality (which coincided with his promotion of music service Pono).

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Even if Young and Spotify patch things up, the situation highlights how the platform’s headlong expansion into podcasts (its deal with Rogan is worth more than $100 million) is dragging the firm into murky territory. It now has to contend with issues of polarization and misinformation that are usually associated with social media.

Just as tech firms such as Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook or Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube find themselves in hot water over responsibility for content, including false COVID information that the U.S. government says is “killing people,” Spotify’s hunger for a slice of the booming podcast market exposes it to far bigger fights than choosing what to listen to over brunch.

An open letter by 270 medical specialists recently accused Spotify’s lack of a clear disinformation policy of letting Rogan get away with promoting vaccine falsehoods and cheerleading the untested use of ivermectin to cure COVID. These are battle lines over public health, not whether to play “Almost Cut My Hair” at full blast. And the fact that Spotify funds Rogan’s podcast makes it hard to respond as a neutral figure.

This combination photo shows Neil Young in Calabasas, Calif., on May 18, 2016, left, and UFC announcer and podcaster Joe Rogan before a UFC on FOX 5 event in Seattle on Dec. 7, 2012. Young fired off a public missive to his management on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, demanding that they remove his music from the popular streaming service Spotify in protest over Rogan's popular podcast spreading misinformation about COVID-19. But by Tuesday afternoon, his letter had been removed from his website, "Heart of Gold" and other hits were still streaming. (AP Photo)

Mark Mulligan, an analyst at research firm MIDiA, tells me this feels like a “Facebook moment” for Spotify. While hardly Cambridge Analytica, what’s happening is reminiscent of the past decade’s pressure on social networks to face up to their responsibility over the media they host.

Spotify will have to confront hard decisions about its target audience and brand identity when it comes to podcasts. It has so far catered to a wide range with stars like Michelle Obama and Kim Kardashian alongside Rogan, and chased the kind of celebrities who can fire up the crowd in the way that music from the Woodstock generation once did.

The dream of serving all filter bubbles, from vinyl junkies to COVID truthers, now looks fragile. Given that regulators in the U.K. are already looking into the lopsided economics of music streaming, and Europe has new legislation in the pipeline to increase oversight of platforms, Spotify should consider getting ahead of the curve by toughening up its own policies regarding the content it produces — even if that means more cost.

This is already happening, but more can be done. Spotify says it has “detailed content policies” in place and removes information that poses a direct threat to public health and has removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID. Separately, dozens of Rogan’s past interviews with conspiracy theorists and alt-right figures were reportedly cut when the podcaster joined the platform. Beyond more transparency and explicit guidelines, Spotify could also help counter misinformation using its social audio discussion app, Greenroom. Take-downs aren’t the only answer, as Leiden University’s Sophie Veriter has argued.

Cynics will argue that Neil Young’s stance is a little convenient for someone who already sold half his catalog rights to Hipgnosis Songs Fund Ltd (for a reported $150 million) and who is going on tour. Spotify is also an easy target for artists, labels and rights holders hoping to extract more value from streaming platforms in the future. Podcasts are among the winners of the streaming wars, creating more competition and angst among artists.

But this is a fight that goes beyond economics. Feeding polarization may seem hip today, but advertisers can be fickle and Spotify’s current user base of 381 million might be more easily swayed than Facebook’s billions of customers who have kept their accounts open through every scandal. Especially if the next big critic of Spotify carries a bigger name — like Taylor.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.