Recent controversy over statements made on the Spotify podcast The Joe Rogan Experience has focused on many topics such as the pervasive influence of big tech, the growing influence of libertarianism and the decay of trust in institutions. One of the central issues of this evolving story is the ongoing struggle of musicians to make a living from music hosted by the tech giant. The decision of artists such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to remove their music from Spotify has created a conflict: Can musicians survive when Spotify prioritizes huge distribution deals with podcasters like Joe Rogan over its former bread and butter—music?
The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2019, Spotify signaled its intention to diversify beyond music streaming by acquiring podcasting company Gimlet and the next year cut a reputedly $100 million dollar deal with Rogan to exclusively host his podcast. Rogan, well known to UFC and “Fear Factor” fans, used these platforms to launch his incredibly popular podcast in 2009. By the time Spotify adopted The Joe Rogan Experience, it was reported to have 190 million monthly downloads, making it the most downloaded podcast in the world and generating tremendous advertising revenue and Premium subscriptions.
The podcast features long interviews with mostly male guests about wrestling, nutrition, conspiracy theories and drugs (namely MDMA) among other topics. Recently, Rogan has hosted guests who espoused vaccine skepticism and encouraged now debunked alternative treatments for COVID-19. This forum for pandemic-related suspicion culminated in Dec. 2021 with the interview of Robert Malone, a physician and biochemist who was involved in developing the mRNA vaccine. While initially in favor of it, Malone has become a vaccination skeptic banned from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. According to the New York Times, Malone stated the COVID vaccines are “experiments,” comparing them to Nazi medical practices, and promoted the debunked drug Ivermectin and questioned (with no basis) COVID death statistics in the U.S. Rogan did not challenge Malone’s inflammatory statements and even agreed with some of them.
This controversial interview led 270 science and health professionals to write an open letter admonishing Spotify for enabling COVID-related misinformation and calling for the company to introduce measures to address these falsehoods. The letter gained traction when Neil Young protested by publicly asking his label to take his music off Spotify, a demand which was quickly followed by his contemporary and fellow Canadian American singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. In response to the backlash, Rogan stated he would invite guests representing a greater diversity of viewpoints. Spotify then announced it would add a warning to podcasts that discuss COVID, directing consumers to accepted sources of information.
Maybe these so-called measures would have ended the controversy, but a video compiling the many times Rogan has used racial epithets on his podcast prompted another round of musicians to abandon Spotify, including Stephen Stills and David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash. While some newer musicians such as India.Arie have jumped ship, it’s harder for them to participate in the protest; the immediacy and ease of the Internet and music streaming is the backbone of their success, while more established artists can survive on their name and brand alone. Responding to the new wave of pressure, Rogan removed about 70 episodes of his podcast back catalog.
Where will this story go now? Things are still developing, so it’s hard to speculate. Young and Mitchell, though they are canonical artists, represent the older generation of music and its pre-streaming implements (vinyl, CD, cassette). Artists who have grown symbiotically with streaming as the industry took new shape, like The Weeknd, Billie Eilish and Drake, seemingly hold the only meaningful sway over Spotify’s future steps. So far, Spotify has made clear that it is sticking with Rogan, as advertising and subscription revenues that Rogan’s massive audience brings in dwarf the profits Spotify makes from music. Spotify states that it gives back 70 percent of its revenue to rights holders, but with Rogan’s podcast, the corporation gets to keep all the revenue after paying Rogan.
This takes on even more significance in the context of the ongoing struggle between musicians and Spotify over who gets profits from the distribution of music. Despite Spotify maintaining that the rights holders make the lion’s share of revenue, most of that money goes to only a few artists and labels. Spotify pays from .0033 to .0054 cents per stream, all but ensuring the most downloaded musicians receive only a pittance from the company. Based on Spotify’s own figures, it is estimated that only 0.2% of artists on Spotify earn over $50,000 a year from their music on the platform. Therefore, when Spotify pays Rogan $100 million and then sticks by him through this controversy, artists and musicians should be justifiably outraged. This was pointed out by India.Arie in a Yahoo! interview, who stated, “[A]rtists are underpaid and Joe Rogan gets paid all this money and it’s hard for me to, these days, just sit back and go, ‘Oh, well, that’s how it goes.’’’ Without meaningful action from Spotify, it is clear where its priorities are—and these priorities are not with paying artists well or preserving its music catalog.
Young sings on his titular 1979 single, “My my, hey hey / Rock and roll is here to stay / It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away,” protesting the punk movement that had stormed the musical zeitgeist and reasserting the immortality of tradition. Spotify’s bold move to abandon the musical establishment and follow profit wherever it leads may be more than a burning bridge; it might spell the change of the guard, a death blow for the progenitors of streaming.
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