The era of the political-protest artist may not be dead, but the ones protesting will need to be bigger now than Neil Young if they're going to spur Spotify to cancel Joe Rogan.
Toward the end of January, singer-songwriter Young, who rose to fame in the 1960s and '70s, pulled his music from Spotify, the world's largest streaming-music service by subscribers, over objections to COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on Rogan's popular podcast. Young's ultimatum -- Spotify "can have Rogan or Young," he wrote -- came after hundreds of medical professions pointed to Rogan as they called on Spotify to tackle COVID misinformation more aggressively.
Folk icon Joni Mitchell and a smattering of others joined in Young's boycott in the following days. And this week Grammy-winning singer India.Arie widened the protest to address racial slurs made on past episodes of Rogan's podcast.
But without a revolt smoldering among the artists topping its charts today, Spotify is rejecting the role of "content censor," as Spotify CEO Daniel Ek framed it in a blog post last Sunday. And even if chart-toppers speak up, Spotify may not uproot Rogan. Spotify makes the vast majority of its revenue from music streaming, but it's betting its future on being the world's No. 1 source for all audio, including podcasts -- with a reported $100 million staked on Rogan's show as a Spotify exclusive.
"We are talking about a catalog music artist versus a superstar, frontline audio creator," Mark Mulligan, an analyst at Midia Research, said in a note. "Rogan is one of Spotify's biggest audio bets, and audio is Spotify's biggest strategic bet, so it would take a lot -- a real lot -- to see Spotify consider pulling the plug on the controversial podcaster."
That "real lot" could include protests by today's musical superstars. The Weeknd, for example, was the most played artist on Spotify's service globally for the bulk of January. Bad Bunny, Taylor Swift, BTS and Drake rounded out Spotify's top five recently -- and they were Spotify's most played artists worldwide all of last year. Ultimatums from recording artists of their rank could force Spotify's hand. None has weighed in publicly yet. (Representatives didn't respond to messages seeking comment.)
Spotify is grappling with the dilemma that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other internet giants have struggled to contain: how to balance freedom of expression with effective moderation of the most objectionable material on their platforms. While the likes of Facebook and YouTube must reckon with policing content at unprecedented scale, Spotify has the challenge of carving out an identity of neutrality after it sank $100 million into a political lightning rod.
A large part of Rogan's appeal to his audience is courting controversy. Long before bringing on Peter McCullough and Robert Malone to voice opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, Rogan hosted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and far-right Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Comments on his podcasts have also been lambasted as transphobic and racist.
On Saturday, Rogan apologized for videos circulating online that show him uttering racial slurs on past episodes of his show. Singer-songwriter India.Arie, who's pulled her music from Spotify, had shared the videos and said Rogan was problematic not just because of his COVID interviews but also because of "his language around race." Young, she said, "opened a door that I MUST walk through."
Last Sunday, Rogan said he had "no hard feelings towards Neil Young and definitely no hard feelings towards Joni Mitchell." He defended hosting guests like McCullough and Malone. But if he could do anything differently, he said, he would bring on experts with counterpoints directly after "controversial ones." COVID-19 vaccines, specifically, have been proven safe and effective against severe disease, hospitalization and death.
Protest versus profit
But even when headliners pull out of Spotify, it hasn't slowed its momentum for long.
Power couple Jay-Z and Beyonce stonewalled Spotify for years. Beyonce held back her 2013 self-titled LP for one year; 2016's Lemonade was on strike from Spotify for three years. Jay-Z pulled most his solo work off Spotify from April 2017 until the end of 2019. Their beef with Spotify was centered on the economics of streaming and competitive advantage, rather than misinformation, but their absence made headlines all the same.
Regardless, Spotify more than doubled its number of listeners, to 271 million, during the three years Jay-Z boycotted and Beyonce withheld Lemonade and other recordings. Since then, that number has continued to grow, surpassing 400 million listeners at the end of the last year.
Swift also famously blackballed the service. Objecting to streaming as an "experiment" that didn't fairly compensate creators, she pulled her entire music catalog off Spotify in 2014. Her music returned in 2017. Last year, she was the second most played artist on Spotify worldwide.
Spotify's CEO spoke out last Sunday about misinformation for the first time since Young stoked the latest outcry over Rogan, in a blog post that never referenced Rogan specifically. Spotify won't act as a censor, Ek said then, but it will be more transparent. That includes publishing its policies on dangerous content and other rules, as well as adding a content advisory with links to an informational hub to any podcast episode that discusses COVID-19.
Ek said Wednesday that it's "too early to know" whether the backlash to Rogan would spur cancellations, but "I feel good about where we are."
And unless you start hearing from the likes of Bad Bunny or The Weeknd that the informational hub just isn't good enough, you're sure to keep hearing from Rogan on Spotify for a while.