Hugh Linehan: Spotify’s bottom line means Neil Young is unlikely to cancel Joe Rogan

Singer remains an admirable contrarian, but hasn’t troubled the charts in decades

Neil Young: the musician said his decision was motivated by The Joe Rogan Experience, which is  Spotify’s most popular podcast. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Neil Young: the musician said his decision was motivated by The Joe Rogan Experience, which is Spotify’s most popular podcast. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

 

In 1988 reedy-voiced Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young recorded This Note’s For You, a polemical attack on the commodification of popular music by commercial sponsors.

Riled by an ad campaign for Michelob beer that featured Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and others, Young released the song with a satirical video depicting Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston selling their souls for the marketing bucks. Young’s campaign had an immediate effect and intrusive commercial sponsorship was soon banished from music, never to return.

Just kidding. Asked at the time whether Young’s attack would affect his sponsorship deal with Toshiba, big-in-the-1980s singer David Lee Roth responded: “That’s just hippy bulls**t from the 60s. If your message is not strong enough to transcend a soda-pop commercial, you got problems!” The vast majority of his peers agreed. The commercial branding of tours, festivals and individual artists, along with the plundering of back catalogues to provide soundtracks for ads, would intensify further in the decades that followed.

Spotify’s response to that choice was swift. After all, with 11 million weekly listeners, The Joe Rogan Experience is the biggest podcast in the world

Undeterred, Young went on to agitate on other issues. 2006’s Let’s Impeach the President attacked George W Bush for invading Iraq. He has campaigned for many years against the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. Starbucks and genetically modified foods have also been the subjects of his ire. More recently, his dissatisfaction with the sound quality offered by Spotify caused him to launch his own online music service, the widely derided Pono, which ran out of cash within a year.

Young, who is now 76 and hasn’t troubled the charts for several decades, remains an admirable curmudgeon and contrarian. But he’s not just tilting at windmills. Most of the causes he has championed have remained relevant or increased in importance since he adopted them. Even Pomo provided a model for higher-quality uncompressed sound which has since been adopted by Apple, Amazon and others.

So when he issued an ultimatum this week to Spotify, it was worth taking note. In an open letter (since deleted), Young demanded that his music be removed from the streaming service because of the vaccine misinformation being spread by its star podcaster Joe Rogan. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” he wrote.

Spotify’s response to that choice was swift. After all, with 11 million weekly listeners, The Joe Rogan Experience is the biggest podcast in the world, which is why it paid him $100m in 2020 for exclusive rights.

“We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon,” the company’s press release stated blandly. “We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid since the start of the pandemic.”

None of which addresses Young’s point about Rogan, a former UFC commentator whose long (critics would say meandering, fans would say in-depth) discussions and interviews inspire intense devotion among followers and repel others.

Some 270 doctors, scientists, healthcare professionals and professors recently sent an open letter to Spotify, expressing concern about medical misinformation on the podcast. “This is not only a scientific or medical concern,” they wrote. “It is a sociological issue of devastating proportions and Spotify is responsible for allowing this activity to thrive on its platform.”

The only Young song left from his 1972 album Harvest was The Needle and the Damage Done, which at least suggests someone at Spotify has a dry sense of humour

The company’s decision is hardly surprising, given the relative importance of Rogan and Young to its bottom line. In fact, it’s hard to think of any musician who would have sufficient clout to have forced a different outcome. But the incident highlights yet again the ongoing tensions around editorial responsibility on digital platforms.

As its statement indicates, Spotify operates a takedown policy for disinformation on the thousands of podcasts which are uploaded to its site every day. Whether that policy is any more satisfactory than those operated by social media companies is hard to tell. But Rogan’s case is slightly different. Because of that enormous cheque in 2020.

Rogan effectively works for Spotify, so Spotify must surely carry greater   responsibility for his show’s contents. And yet a particularly misleading interview with virologist Robert Malone, which was blocked by YouTube, remains on Spotify. All of this has, of course, been grist to the mill of America’s anti-vax right. There is some danger for Spotify here. With increasing competition in the audio streaming marketplace, the last thing it needs is to be identified as being on one side or the other of the culture wars.

The company began removing Young’s music in midweek. When I checked on Thursday morning, most of his songs were already greyed out. The only one left from his classic 1972 album Harvest was The Needle and the Damage Done, which at least suggests someone at Spotify has a dry sense of humour.