Where to start with the latest developments in the row over Spotify, Joe Rogan, Covid-19 misinformation and Neil Young’s decision to remove his music from the streaming service? There is a lot to talk about this morning.
The key development is a response to the controversy from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, published last night (Sunday). His post did not mention Rogan or Young directly, but it did announce three things.
First, Spotify has published its ‘Platform Rules’ governing content (music as well as podcasts) on its service, with Ek admitting that “we haven’t been transparent around the policies that guide our content more broadly” until now.
Second, it is adding a ‘content advisory’ to any podcast discussing Covid-19, pointing listeners to Spotify’s own Covid-19 Hub of “data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources”.
Third, Ek said Spotify will start testing ways to highlight those platform rules in its tools for creators and publishers “to raise awareness around what’s acceptable and help creators understand their accountability for the content they post on our platform”. Are these good moves for Spotify to take? Yes. Will they put the last week’s row to bed? Possibly not.
Spotify said last week that it had “removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid since the start of the pandemic” under its content policies. Ek did not say why some of the episodes of Rogan’s show that sparked the current situation were not taken down, although a leaked Slack message from Spotify’s comms boss Dustee Jenkins to staff suggested that they had been reviewed but “didn’t meet the threshold for removal”.
(While we’re here: don’t let that ‘20,000 podcast episodes’ stat slide. It’s an important figure showing the scale of moderation required for just oneproblematic topic. Spotify, like Facebook, YouTube and every other content-hosting platform, is grappling with a technological (and human moderation) challenge that goes well beyond its top podcast star.)
Rogan himself also surfaced last night to address the issue, apologising to Spotify but defending his choice of guests – two in particular, Dr. Peter McCullough and Dr. Robert Malone, whose comments are at the centre of the controversy.
However, Rogan also hinted at plans for a shift in his approach: to “have more experts with differing opinions, right after the controversial ones… to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people’s perspectives so we can maybe find a better point of view”.
All this came after Joni Mitchell joined Neil Young in asking for her music to be removed from Spotify as a protest. “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives,” said Mitchell.
As yet, none of the biggest artists on Spotify (in terms of streaming numbers) have followed suit, although two of its most prominent podcast signings, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, released a statement saying that they had “continued to express our concerns to Spotify to ensure changes to its platform are made to help address this public health crisis”, adding that “We look to Spotify to meet this moment and are committed to continuing our work together as it does”.
(A stance that would have rather more leverage if the royal duo’s Archewell Audio production firm had actually released any shows as part of their exclusive deal with Spotify since their first ‘Holiday Special’ in December 2020, as the partnership was announced.)
As for Neil Young, he came out swinging at Spotify again in a post published on his Neil Young Archives website, lambasting the company not over Rogan again, but over an issue close to his heart: audio quality.
“AMAZON, APPLE MUSIC and Qobuz deliver up to 100% of the music today and it sounds a lot better than the shitty degraded and neutered sound of SPOTIFY. If you support SPOTIFY, you are destroying an art form. Business over art,” wrote Young.
He later touched on the Rogan issue again. “I support free speech. I have never been in favour of censorship. Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.”
Rivals continue to circle. Young tweeted a link to a four-month Amazon Music trial arranged with that company; Apple Music now has ‘We Love Neil’ and ‘We Love Joni Too’ shelves of albums and playlists on its service; and Tidal owner Jack Dorsey tweeted a link to playlist-transferring site FreeYourMusic – albeit with an unfortunate auto-pulled thumbnail showing someone switching from Spotify to YouTube, not Tidal.
Are many people churning off Spotify to rivals? It’s still way too early to know. However, the media are starting to wonder whether this controversy is affecting Spotify’s share price. Witness Variety’s note that Spotify’s market cap (its value) fell by around $2.1bn in three days last week after Young’s announcement.
As we’ve noted before, the bigger picture is that this market cap peaked at $57.65bn at the start of November 2021, then fell to $44.83bn by the end of the year, and $37.45bn by 21 January, before the current row broke out.
Joe Rogan and Covid-19 misinformation is undeniably a fire that Spotify needs to fight, but wider market confidence in its ‘audio-first’ strategy may be the bigger challenge for Spotify as a business, and its hopes for growth in the years ahead.
Spotify’s next financial results are announced this Wednesday (2 February), so we expect to hear more then – both about the short-term firefighting and longer-term strategic challenges for the company.