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Why Spotify can’t afford to lose Joe Rogan

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The thinking behind an easy decision

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This story originally ran in Hot Pod, The Verge’s preeminent audio industry newsletter. You can subscribe here for more scoops, analysis, and reporting.

You’ve probably seen this by now, but to catch you up if not: On Monday, Neil Young issued an ultimatum to Spotify: keep Joe Rogan or me. It can’t have both on the service.

“I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines — potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” he wrote in a now-deleted letter, according to Rolling Stone. The chief issue, he said, is Joe Rogan, Spotify’s star podcaster to whom it reportedly paid up to $100 million for an exclusive license to his show.

Yesterday, Young made good on his word and, along with his record label, removed his music from the service. Young then issued another letter on his website to illuminate how he learned of the issue, thank his label, and encourage others to follow suit. “I sincerely hope that other artists and record companies will move off the Spotify platform and stop supporting Spotify’s deadly misinformation about COVID,” he says.

This marks a critical turning point in Spotify’s company narrative. It’s no longer a music company but one committed to podcasting to the point that it’ll compromise relationships with musical artists to ensure its strategy’s success. And, to be fair, we could have assumed this would play out like it did. Who was Spotify going to pick: a musician whose heyday was decades ago or a zeitgeisty comedian who causes PR headaches but also commands a minimum ad spend of $1 million?

I’m processing the situation in a couple ways, but one is assessing the economic incentives. Spotify’s thinking is obvious. What does losing Young mean? The company’s not financially dependent on his streams or subscribers — Drake or Taylor Swift might be a different story — and barring a mass exodus of subscribers over his missing catalog, things remain business as usual. In fact, the company loses money every time someone streams Young’s songs, which is why Spotify wanted to get into podcasting in the first place. It makes money every time someone listens to Rogan.

On the flip side, I’m not sure what Young’s label, Warner Records, gets out of this. Maybe it wants leverage in a negotiation or to change the conversation around streaming? I’m not sure, but I do assume some sort of politicking is happening behind the scenes that could somehow net a win for Warner. Maybe people listen to more Young elsewhere? Buy some CDs? Unclear.

Still, the takeaway from the skirmish is clear: Spotify can’t afford to ostracize Rogan or his audience. The company specifically licensed his show with the goal of both converting listeners to the platform and making money through ad sales. JRE has become the lynchpin to its entire podcasting apparatus.

A source previously told me that if marketers buy ads on Rogan, they have to buy ads on the rest of Spotify’s catalog, too, meaning Rogan’s success brings more advertisers to the rest of Spotify’s investments. Without him, Spotify has Call Her Daddy and Armchair Expert, but neither reaches Rogan’s scale. It’s easy to see why Spotify didn’t cave so easily.

However, the thing that interests me more is what this says about Spotify’s approach to moderation. When we think about moderation issues on social media platforms, it’s typically one in which algorithms promote and monetize sensational, inflammatory, and problematic content. Up until now, podcasting has mostly remained out of the conversation. The industry relies on word of mouth and curated lists, and the hope is that software recommendations will do more some day in the future.

We aren’t there yet, though, meaning Spotify not only sided with its star podcaster but is also completely financially motivated to push his content to users and can’t even blame a bad algorithm.

Maybe this core issue wouldn’t be such a big deal if Spotify wholly communicated its content guidelines. The best we have is a statement I last received in December that it “prohibits content on the platform which promotes dangerous false, deceptive, or misleading content about COVID-19 that may cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat to public health.” It also added that when “content is flagged for possible violations of our policies, it is thoroughly reviewed by our in-house team and outside experts, if necessary. If that content is found to be in violation of our policies, the appropriate enforcement action is taken.”

Even more oddly, Spotify told The Wall Street Journal yesterday it has taken down 20,000 podcast episodes in violation of “detailed content policies” related to COVID-19. It’s unclear if what I quoted above is the detailed policy or if it goes beyond a sentence. Regardless, the open question is what Spotify considers crossing its line. Has Rogan not crossed it? What did these other podcasters say to be taken down? Also, who is this in-house team? Who’s flagging these violations — software or humans?

I’ve reached out to Spotify for comment and will update if I hear back.

Ultimately, Spotify might think Rogan doesn’t cross a line, which it needs to clearly say. At the same time, we all can acknowledge its incentive to look the other way or move the moderation line. Spotify cannot afford to lose its star — even if it means tanking its reputation.

Anyway, Spotify employees, I’m here for you if you want to vent or share what you’re thinking because I imagine this is a lot. I’m on email at ashley.carman@theverge.com.


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