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Spotify CEO defends Joe Rogan deal in tense company town hall

Spotify CEO defends Joe Rogan deal in tense company town hall

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He says Spotify is a platform for Rogan, but publisher for Gimlet

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek addressed employees about the Joe Rogan controversy in a 15-minute speech yesterday, of which The Verge obtained audio, defending the company’s choice to work with Rogan, explaining its reasoning, and defining why he believes Spotify is a combination of a platform and a publisher. Employees had been skeptically awaiting the discussion at the company’s regular town hall meeting for nearly a week: since things had escalated with Joe Rogan, the company’s star exclusive podcaster, employees had been venting inside the corporate messaging system and awaiting a response from leadership about why it chose The Joe Rogan Experience over Neil Young, setting off a domino effect of other musicians and podcasters pulling content off the service.

Joining Ek in-person at the company’s new Los Angeles headquarters, dubbed “Pod City,” were: Dustee Jenkins, Spotify’s head of global communications and public relations; Dawn Ostroff, chief content and advertising business officer; Gustav Söderström, chief R&D officer; and Paul Vogel, CFO.

“It all kind of ladders up to, ‘What’s the best for Joe Rogan and Joe Rogan’s audience?’”

The event had been a long time coming, given the amount of conversation happening internally. Employees shared last week in an ongoing thread that their friends and family came to them with questions about why Spotify supported a podcaster who continued to spread COVID misinformation and bring on controversial guests, while the broader backlash made them feel embarrassed to work at the company, according to two sources.

“Everyone’s a little upset, especially the people whose initiatives directly contradict what’s happening,” says one current employee who asked to remain anonymous so as to not compromise their job. “People are feeling increasingly frustrated that no matter what the company says messaging-wise, or no matter what people’s initiatives are, it all kind of ladders up to, ‘What’s the best for Joe Rogan and Joe Rogan’s audience?’”

This person notes that people working on trying to highlight other podcasting talent or showcase diverse creators for Black History Month have seen their initiatives sidelined while Rogan captured the company‘s attention.

The only message employees had received from leadership was on Friday, two days after Young pulled his music over misinformation he says Rogan spread, as well as an entire media cycle, complete with speculation about who might follow in his wake. In that message, which The Verge viewed, Jenkins shared the company’s moderation policies and said it didn’t move fast enough to make them public.

Do you have more to say about what’s happening at Spotify? Reach out to me at ashley.carman@theverge.com or through Twitter DM @ashleyrcarman. You can also always use SecureDrop or Signal to securely send messages and files to The Verge without revealing your identity.

So when it came time for the town hall, employees hoped they might come away with more clarity or understanding of the situation. Ek instead offered an impassioned pitch for why Rogan is critical to Spotify’s well-being. Despite Rogan’s show never being available on Spotify prior to its deal, the program was the most searched podcast on the platform, he says, and when the company decided to enter the podcasting industry, its catalog was “not that differentiated’’ from competitors. It had been struggling to make deals with “critical hardware partners like Amazon, Google, and even Tesla,” given that they were building “similar streaming services with essentially the same content.”

“To combat this, we needed to find leverage, and one way we could do this was in the form of exclusives,” he says. “To be frank, had we not made some of the choices we did, I am confident that our business wouldn’t be where it is today.” He says the company now operates the number one podcast app in the US.

Ek reframed the conversation, both in his speech and external press release on Sunday, around the idea that Spotify is a platform — pure distribution technology for various audio creators to use without input from Spotify on what they share. He explained why he doesn’t consider Spotify a publisher of JRE, meaning it would assume editorial responsibility for what Rogan and his guests say. “I understand the premise that because we have an exclusive deal with him, it’s really easy to conclude we endorse every word he says and believe the opinions expressed by his guests. That’s absolutely not the case,“ he said. Spotify doesn’t “fit neatly into just one category,” Ek says. “We’re defining an entirely new space of tech and media. We’re a very different kind of company, and the rules of the road are being written as we innovate.”

Ek believes Spotify will need to host content “many of us may not be proud to be associated with”

“A publisher has editorial control over a creator’s content — they can take action on the content before it’s even published,” he says, like editing episodes, removing guests, or preventing one from publishing at all. Ek noted that Spotify does have editorial control over the properties it owns outright, like The Ringer and Gimlet, but emphasized the distinction between those studios and Rogan. “Even though JRE is an exclusive, it is licensed content. It is important to note that we do not have creative control over Joe Rogan’s content. We don’t approve his guests in advance, and just like any other creator, we get his content when he publishes, and then we review it, and if it violates our policies, we take the appropriate enforcement actions.”

Notably, Ek did not defend Rogan’s views. “There are many things that Joe Rogan says that I strongly disagree with and find very offensive,” he said.

He adds that there are a “number” of JRE episodes Spotify has removed because they violate the platform’s rules. (It’s unclear what episodes Ek is referencing, but fans noticed some missing when Rogan made the move to the platform in September 2020, and Rogan acknowledged their removal last March.) 

During a question-and-answer session, employees pushed back on Ek’s position. They questioned whether the platform rules are stringent enough, if the company’s latest actions did enough to address the scientific community’s concerns, and how employees’ work to advance diversity within the company can reckon with some Rogan comments, like his questioning of Black identity. Ek responded with the same messaging he employed earlier but added that “exclusivity does not equal endorsement” and said the solution to this problem might be signing more exclusives: “The real thing here is to try to go for an even broader set of exclusives that represent even more voices.”

“If we want even a shot at achieving our bold ambitions, it will mean having content on Spotify that many of us may not be proud to be associated with,” he says. “Not anything goes, but there will be opinions, ideas, and beliefs that we disagree with strongly and even makes us angry or sad.”

For some employees, though, Ek and the team’s sentiments rang hollow. Throughout the town hall, they messaged internally, according to screenshots viewed by The Verge, expressing disappointment with the choice Spotify made in not only signing Rogan but also in defending him. They questioned how the company considers itself a platform while still actively promoting JRE and including its logo on the cover art and how what some consider an ethical issue is being put in pure business terms.

Ek stuck with the message, though, ending his speech with a word of encouragement to employees: consider the company mission.

“So I think ultimately, this really comes down to two things. First, do we believe in our mission: 50 million creators and 1 billion users? And finally, are we willing to consistently enforce our policies on even the loudest and most popular voices on the platform? And I’m telling you, I believe both.”

We’ve reached out to Spotify for additional comment.

You can read a full transcript of CEO Daniel Ek’s speech below:

The debate around the conversations Joe Rogan has on his show about such issues, such as COVID-19, climate change, gender, race, has intensified and brought to light many questions around our role and responsibilities as a platform. And based on your own lived experiences and the way you may see this impacting your fellow colleagues and communities, I know some of you feel disappointed, or angry, or even hurt, by some of this content and the fact that it remains on our platform.

There will be a lot to learn from this moment for our company and for me. It is really important to me that you understand why we did this deal and the impact it’s had on our growth strategy and the way we think about our role as a platform. And for some, this won’t be enough, but I hope it’s a start. And we’ve also heard from the medical and scientific community, from the media, from creators, and other partners, and we’ve heard from free speech advocates, and this issue continues to play out publicly as people break down arguments of free speech and censorship, platforms versus media companies, and our association with Joe Rogan. And that’s one of the things that’s so difficult about the current debates. We don’t fit neatly into just one category. We’re defining an entirely new space of tech and media. We’re a very different kind of company, and the rules of the road are being written as we innovate. 

So I want to stop for a moment here and acknowledge that this is incredibly complicated, and that the push and pull of this process makes a lot of people uncomfortable. You know, even our critics can’t all agree on how we should approach this issue. But let’s take a step back and talk about the steps we’ve taken. It was important for us to share the work that we’re doing to combat misinformation and provide more transparency. And this included making our platform rules readily available, providing a first-of-its-kind content advisory to any podcast that includes the discussion around COVID-19, and pushing an advisory to creators and publishers to make sure they understand their accountability before their content goes live on our platform. Thank you all to the teams who work day and night to bring these to life. And as of today, we have begun shipping all three of these initiatives. It’s really an incredible feat for several of you to pull this together in just a matter of days. 

Regarding our platform rules, the fact that we hadn’t moved fast enough to make our policies available externally has made the situation especially difficult. And these policies have been in place for years, but it was a mistake that they weren’t public. And that’s on me, and something that I will learn from. That said I need to make something crystal clear, even in the face of the criticism over the last few weeks, our policies are still something we stand behind. And during this COVID-19 pandemic, these policies have resulted in the removal of over 20,000 episodes. We can’t write new or different policies based on news cycles or calls from individuals. If that was the case, what creator would ever trust us? And that means biasing towards and standing by creators. And that means including enabling their ability to be alternative, or even controversial, because that’s usually what important creators are. And this is about far more than just one voice, and to that very point, I want to remind everyone of our mission. We want to get to 50 million creators and a billion users, and to be a true platform and achieve this ambition, it’s really critical that creators are able to use their voice independently. And it’s also critical that we have diverse voices on our platform. 

We’re not in the business of dictating the discourse that these creators want to have on their shows. And if we only wanted to make content that we all like and agree with, we will need to eliminate religion, and politics, and comedy, and health, and environment, and education, the list goes on and on and on because these are really complicated issues. And if we limit these divisive topics, top creators will leave and users deprived of the choice in content would flee from our platform and seek other alternatives. And this, of course, would mean that we would never achieve our mission. So then we do this at what cost? 

Well, Spotify is for allowing conversation and sparking thought. We have long said we want to entertain, inspire, and educate, but to do that, we have to find the best possible way to balance creative expression with the safety of our listeners. And those two things are rarely in conflict, but when they are, that’s when we step in and take the appropriate action. And no creator is exempt from that position. None. 

But let’s take a step back and talk about our relationship with Joe Rogan specifically. And I know some of you have raised questions about why we have him exclusively on the platform. Back in early 2019 when we made the choice to [enter] podcasting, we were really an afterthought in the market. To declare intentions to lead in this space, we had to invest in product capabilities, the support of the business, and of course content needed to build and maintain an engaged audience. So over the last few years, we’ve been aggressively bringing on a number of voices from around the world, including some of the world’s biggest voices. For those of you who aren’t aware,The Joe Rogan Experience is currently the top podcast in 93 markets, so it’s impossible to ignore its scale and reach. Or to put it plainly, he’s the number one podcaster in the world by a wide margin.

Just over a year ago, Joe wasn’t even on our platform, but despite this, JRE had long been one of the most searched for requested podcasts for Spotify users. Another important point for you to know is that in 2019, our music and podcasting catalog was not that differentiated, and because of this, we were locked out of deals with some critical hardware partners like Amazon, Google, and even Tesla. They had or were working to build their own streaming services with essentially the same content, so there was really no reason for them to integrate our service. And their users weren’t necessarily demanding access to Spotify, either. They were demanding access to content. 

To combat this, we needed to find leverage. And one way we could do this was in the form of exclusives, specifically with voices like Joe Rogan’s, the Obamas’, Brené Brown, Dax Shepard, just to name a few. And Spotify now had something our partners needed to keep their users satisfied and coming back for more, and the benefits of these exclusive partnerships have been significant. Look no further now than the fact that we’re the number one podcasting platform US listeners use the most. And we continue to gain market share in this important market and others around the world. So to be frank, had we not made some of the choices we did, I am confident that our business wouldn’t be where it is today. 

People argue, though, that with the exclusivity that we‘re in fact a publisher and not a platform. So I wanted to take a step back and explain how I think about that. Let’s first define what a publisher is. A publisher has editorial control over a creator’s content. They can take action on the content before it’s even published. They can edit, they can curate, they can change the guest, they can even decide not to publish altogether. And even though JRE is an exclusive, it is licensed content. 

It is important to note that we do not have creative control over Joe Rogan’s content. We don’t approve his guest in advance, and just like any other creator, we get his content when he publishes, and then we review it, and if it violates our policies, we take the appropriate enforcement actions. This is not an unusual position at all in the media industry. It’s the same actually we have with our licensed music content. And it’s the same approach with other podcasters, like Dax Shepard and Brené Brown, too. So while we don’t fit neatly into one category, for instance, given our studios — Gimlet, Parcast, and The Ringer — where we are the publisher, I think our relationship with Rogan is clearly that of a platform, but to be clear, Joe is held to the same standards, rules, and policies that every creator on our platform is held to, no matter how big or how small, no matter how much we pay for that content. And creators like Joe, they know how to walk really close to the lines, and sometimes they cross those lines, and when it’s in violation of our policies, we act. 

And there are a number of Joe Rogan episodes that you won’t find on Spotify because [they come] in violation of our rules. And we have a history here. We’ve long had content on our platform that gets into tough, tough [areas], like violence, misogyny, and even murder. So carefully allowing for greater expression isn’t new territory for us. 

And we do see an opportunity to further educate creators on our policies, which is what we’re aiming [to do] with our new accountability efforts in our creator tools. So even if you can appreciate why we did this and the importance it had for us, and now understand why we consider our role in the Joe Rogan episodes and podcast as a platform and not as a publisher, I realized that the association with Joe Rogan is still a hard pill for many to swallow. 

And I understand the premise that because we have an exclusive deal with him, it’s really easy to conclude we endorse every word he says and believe the opinions expressed by his guests. That’s absolutely not the case. There are many things that Joe Rogan says that I strongly disagree with and find very offensive. But let me go back to what I said earlier, if you want even a shot at achieving our bold ambitions, it will mean having content on Spotify that many of us may not be proud to be associated with. Not anything goes, but there will be opinions, ideas, and beliefs that we disagree with strongly and even makes us angry or sad.

We now have 11 million creators, 3.6 million podcasts on our platform, and these numbers will only continue to increase, and that means that these issues will continue to persist as we welcome more and more voices and more dialogue. 

So I think ultimately, this really comes down to two things. First, do we believe in our mission: 50 million creators and 1 billion users? And finally, are we willing to consistently enforce our policies on even the loudest and most popular voices on the platform? And I’m telling you, I believe both. 

In closing, we will continue to invest heavily in our platform functionality and product capabilities. And on this topic, you will hear more rather than less from us. So I wanted to end where I began. I know this is hard and that especially for those of you in historically marginalized communities, it feels deeply personal. And I truly wish there was something I could say today that will make you feel satisfied and address everyone’s concerns. But I know it’s not that simple. If we’re going to navigate these challenges together, we need your brilliance, your patience, and your thoughtful, constructive criticism. Thank you.