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Neil Young may have given Spotify the kick it has long deserved

Exit by veteran rocker amplifies both streamer’s misinformation and artist exploitation

As the Neil Young vs Joe Rogan Spotify confrontation heads into its second week, the dispute is being forced into the well-worn tropes of so many online platform disputes.

As you likely know, veteran rocker Neil Young announced he would withdraw his music catalogue from Spotify’s music streaming platform if it continued to host Joe Rogan, a controversial broadcaster who has welcomed anti-vaccine campaigners and conspiracy theorists to his popular podcast. Young’s move came after hundreds of doctors asked Spotify to better moderate and remove pandemic misinformation.

Accommodating harmful misinformation is not a basic speech right on a privately owned platform that can host whomever it chooses

Spotify refused to jettison the man they've paid $100 million as an exclusive podcaster for their premium (meaning paid) Spotify audience. Young, whom the Washington Post helpfully described as "a Canadian rock star", departed with his music, joined by Bruce Springsteen's guitarist Nils Lofgren and the legendary Joni Mitchell. The Washington Post described her as a "songwriter who hails from Canada and enjoyed wide success in the 1970s". You just might have heard of her.

Some swiftly pushed Young’s demand as a “freedom of speech” issue. Really, it isn’t. This is one of the online world’s most tedious accusations. Accommodating harmful misinformation is not a basic speech right on a privately owned platform that can host whomever it chooses, and others have a right to publicly protest those choices by removing their own creative content. And who better than Neil Young to push back, the writer of one of the great protest songs of the past half-century, Ohio (about the 1970 Kent State shootings).

Market capitalisation

Others portrayed the face-off as a Quixotic effort by a 1960s rocker who no longer tops the charts. This argument suggests Young’s is a relatively weak and pointless stand because he gets “barely” seven million streams compared to the 30 million monthly of Spotify’s most popular artist, Drake. The kids don’t go to Spotify for Young and Mitchell, in other words. But Spotify also has a diverse listenership, with about half over 35, and quarter over 45.

Investors tend to be older, too. Within days, Young’s move likely contributed to wiping somewhere between $2 to $4 billion off Spotify’s market capitalisation compared to the previous week, and shares had dropped 12 per cent before slightly recovering.

That said, Spotify has been sliding steeply in value for months. Its share price this week is about half its peak last February. Young and friends perhaps heightened the nervousness investors have had for some time with a platform with a market cap that some analysts have warned doesn’t reflect feasible prospects for paid subscriber growth. Especially not when set against the multimillion dollar payments for exclusive podcasters such as Rogan, the Obamas, and Harry and Meghan, in an arena that swerves away from its original music-focused remit, in an area burgeoning with free offerings.

Change is badly needed and may at last be on the way. The UK is investigating the economics of the streaming industry with an eye to regulation

On top of that, even though it faces serious and deep-pocketed competition from the likes of Apple and Amazon, Spotify is regularly dissed as a kind-of monopoly. Its streaming market share is double that of its nearest competitor (Apple), and artists feel they need to be there, but Spotify has a battered reputation for artist remuneration, paying a pittance – the lowest, it seems, in the streaming business – per stream to the music creators. A tiny number of artists eke a living from Spotify streams. The rest are beholden simply to get "exposure", the derided non-currency of the gig and online economy.

Mainstream platform

The streaming business has so many problematical aspects. It's a complex entity that has returned sweeping power to just three dominant recording conglomerates, after a brief, ultimately unrealised threat from the likes of Napster.

And as the Young episode has reminded us, the streaming business is not just about music. A former upstart like Spotify has become dominant, morphing into a mainstream platform. And we all should be worrying when the reason a company isn’t technically a monopoly is because its most significant competitors are the same old enormous tech platforms already under antitrust scrutiny, not fresh, innovative challengers.

In music, as in so many other areas of creative production, the new online business paradigm continues to exploit the vast majority of artists and performers even as the platforms and services lure users with impossibly cheap or free music. Your monthly subscription – if you pay at all – does not reflect the value of anything but the easy, exploitative monetisation of others’ work by giant platforms.

Change is badly needed and may at last be on the way. The UK is investigating the economics of the streaming industry with an eye to regulation. And, in its new Digital Markets and Digital Services Acts, the EU has the tools to define powerful, controlling platforms as “gatekeepers” with additional responsibility, subject to greater oversight. The US needs to put on its thinking cap here, too.

How ironic that old-guy counterculture rocker Young just might have given this exploitative industry the kick it has long deserved, drawing fresh attention to its elusive transgressions.