For anyone invested in independent musicians' ongoing fight to make a decent living in the streaming era, Spotify's public reckoning over the last week has been encouraging, but also strange and bittersweet. Thanks to the interventions of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, critiques of the world's most popular music streaming platform have become water cooler conversation, not just for musicians and journalists but for anyone who follows the news. A U.S. congressman urged people to leave the platform. Tech blogs published explainers on how to cancel your account. #CancelSpotify even trended on Twitter. But we aren't talking about the fact that musicians earn tiny fractions of a cent per stream from Spotify and its competitors. We're talking about Joe Rogan.
Last Wednesday, Young began pulling his discography from Spotify after publishing an open letter regarding the spread of "fake information about vaccines" on The Joe Rogan Experience, the massively popular podcast that the streaming platform acquired in a $100 million deal in 2020. (Rogan's relationship with Spotify had previously been the target of a campaign by hundreds of medical professionals who objected to falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine espoused by Dr. Robert Malone, a guest on the show.) "They can have Rogan or Young," Young wrote. "Not both." Not long after, Mitchell announced that she, too, would be removing her catalog from Spotify. "Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives," she wrote.
Young and Mitchell are right to be critical of the disinformation that Rogan has allowed on his show, and of Spotify's role in enabling it. As artists with millions of monthly streams each, they will presumably lose money with their boycott, and their willingness to make a material stand is admirable. Still, I can't help but wish that they'd broadened their public critiques to include causes for which musicians with far less leverage have been advocating for years. One group, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, petitioned Spotify for higher payment rates for musicians in a series of protests last year. "The company has tripled in value during the pandemic, while failing to increase its payment rates to artists by even a fraction of a penny," organizer and musician Mary Regalado told Pitchfork at the time. "Musicians all over the world are unemployed right now while the tech giants dominating the industry take in billions. Music work is labor, and we are asking to be paid fairly for that labor."
It may be tempting to view Young and Mitchell's boycott of Spotify as a tacit endorsement of the aims of an organization like UMAW. But Young, at least, has made quite clear that his issues with the platform lie with Rogan in particular. In his open letter, he referred to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek - who has said that musicians who believe their payments are too low should simply release more music - as a friend. And days after removing his catalog from Spotify, Young announced a promotional deal for his fans involving a four-month free trial of Amazon Music, apparently content to endorse a company that fired workers for protesting pandemic-era safety conditions at its fulfillment centers, as long as his music isn't sharing virtual space with Rogan's show.
The current discussion of Spotify appears to be centered around music and musicians, given that Young and Mitchell are two of history's greatest songwriters. But the substance of the conversation - about free speech and its limits, falsehoods masquerading as facts, and the responsibility of platforms to regulate the content they host - is essentially the same as the one we've been having about YouTube and Facebook (and Twitter and Substack) since the 2016 presidential election. It isn't about musicians; it's about a media company.
Rogan differs from your average conspiracist YouTuber in the size and dedication of his audience, and in the fact that Spotify pays him directly and handsomely for the privilege of hosting his show. And in that sense, the special emphasis that Young, Mitchell, and the coalition of medical professionals before them have given to the Spotify-Rogan relationship isn't misplaced. But it says something depressing about the level of public concern for the plight of working musicians that Spotify's ethics became the object of mainstream scrutiny only after the company was forced to defend its position on long-simmering anxieties about online media in general, rather than the issues of fair compensation that activists have raised about music streaming platforms in particular.
It is fitting, in a darkly ironic way, that Spotify would face what CNBC termed its "Facebook moment" over the actions of a superstar podcaster. With its $100 million bet on Rogan, and even larger investments in the podcast networks Gimlet, Anchor, and The Ringer, Spotify began a pivot from being a music-centric company to an all-purpose purveyor of digital audio content. Rogan is much closer to the heart of its business than either Mitchell or Young, not to mention the thousands of less famous musicians who have signed UMAW's "Justice at Spotify" petition since it was launched in 2020. (Demands include a raise in the per-stream pay rate to one cent, and an end to legal actions that Spotify and other streaming companies have taken in an attempt to lower the government-mandated royalty rate paid to songwriters.) The brouhaha's focus on Rogan only serves to underscore for musicians that their needs are not Spotify's primary concern, a reality many have already deduced from the size of their checks.
It's probably naive to expect Young or Mitchell, two artists who are decades removed from any uncertainty they might have ever faced about how to pay rent, to take up the banner of working musicians. And the increased scrutiny they've brought onto streaming is good for the cause, regardless of the how or why. Still, they could make the concerns of musicians into Spotify's concerns, or at least try to. So could Bob Dylan, or Taylor Swift, or any other artist with a major profile and a willingness to speak up. It wouldn't necessarily require pulling their music, which may be complicated or impossible for anyone who doesn't own their masters. Thanks to Young and Mitchell's efforts to put Spotify at the center of public attention, musicians, for now, have a powerful bully pulpit on the streaming issue. Even a simple public statement in support of higher payments could have a magnified impact at this moment.
Spotify lost nearly $4 billion in market value when its share price nosedived after Young's initial boycott announcement last week. The price eventually bounced back, but only after the company said it would add a content advisory to every podcast episode that discusses COVID-19, and Rogan pledged to "do my best to make sure I have researched these topics." These are not exactly earth-shattering gestures, but they betray a certain gravity in Spotify's approach to the situation that has been absent from Ek's glib dismissals of complaints about payouts to musicians over the years. With Spotify in the hot seat, a musician like Young could use the opportunity to demand that the company treat those complaints with the same seriousness. It won't be long before the news cycle moves past these two septuagenarians who took a noble stand as musicians. But while they have the world's attention, why not take a stand on behalf of musicians, too?
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