This story was originally featured in Hot Pod, The Verge’s premier audio industry newsletter. You can subscribe here for more firsts, analysis and reporting.
You’ve probably already seen this, but just to catch up, if not, on Monday, Neil Young issued an ultimatum to Spotify: keep Joe Rogan or me. It cannot have both on the service.
“I’m doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines and potentially causing death for those who believe the disinformation is being spread by them,” he wrote in a now-deleted letter. rolling stone. The main issue, he said, is Spotify’s star podcaster Joe Rogan to whom it has reportedly paid up to $100 million for an exclusive license to his show.
Yesterday, Young took his word for it and, along with his record label, removed his music from the service. Young then posted another letter on his website highlighting how he learned of the issue, thanking his label, and encouraging others to follow suit. “I sincerely hope that other artists and record labels leave the Spotify platform and stop supporting Spotify’s deadly misinformation about COVID,” he says.
This marks a crucial turning point in Spotify’s business story. It is no longer a music company, but one so committed to podcasting that it jeopardizes relationships with music artists to ensure the success of its strategy. And to be honest, we could have assumed this would turn out the way it did. Who would pick Spotify: a musician whose heyday was decades ago or a contemporary comedian who causes PR headaches but also imposes a $1 million minimum ad spend?
I’m processing the situation in a few ways, but one of them is assessing the economic incentives. Spotify’s thinking is obvious. What does losing young mean? The company isn’t financially dependent on its streams or subscribers — Drake or Taylor Swift might be a different story — and other than a massive subscriber exodus from its missing catalog, things remain as normal. In fact, the company loses money every time someone streams Young’s songs, which is why Spotify wanted to do podcasting in the first place. It makes money every time someone listens to Rogan.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what Young’s label, Warner Records, is getting out of this. Maybe it wants some leverage in a negotiation or to turn the conversation around streaming? I’m not sure, but I assume there’s some sort of politics going on behind the scenes that could somehow bring a win for Warner. Maybe people elsewhere are listening to more Young? Buy a few CDs? Not clear.
Still, the conclusion of the skirmish is clear: Spotify cannot afford to ban Rogan or its audience. The company specifically licensed its show with the goal of both converting listeners to the platform and making money through ad sales. JRE has become the hub of his entire podcasting device.
A source previously told me that if marketers buy ads on Rogan, they need to buy ads in the rest of Spotify’s catalog as well, meaning Rogan’s success brings more advertisers to the rest of Spotify’s investments. Without him, Spotify call her daddy and armchair expert, but neither reaches Rogan’s scale. It’s easy to see why Spotify didn’t collapse so easily.
What interests me more, however, is what this says about Spotify’s approach to moderation. When we think about moderation issues on social media platforms, it’s usually one in which algorithms promote sensational, incendiary and problematic content and monetize it. Until now, podcasting has largely 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 in the future.
We’re not there yet, though, which means Spotify isn’t just siding with its star podcaster, but it’s also fully financially motivated to push its content to users and can’t even blame a bad algorithm.
Perhaps this core issue wouldn’t be such a big deal if Spotify fully communicated its content guidelines. The best we have is a statement I last received in December that it “prohibits any content on the platform that promotes dangerous false, deceptive or misleading content about COVID-19 that could cause offline harm and/or pose a direct threat.” forms for public health. It also added that when “content is flagged for potential violations of our policies, it will be thoroughly reviewed as necessary by our internal team and outside experts. If that content is found to violate our policies, appropriate enforcement action will be taken.” .”
Even stranger, Spotify told The Wall Street Journal yesterday it removed 20,000 podcast episodes in violation of its “detailed content policy” regarding COVID-19. It’s unclear if what I quoted above is the detailed policy or if it goes beyond a sentence. Anyway, the open question is what Spotify is considering crossing its line. Didn’t Rogan get over it? What did these other podcasters say to get removed? And who is this internal team? Who signals these violations: software or people?
I’ve reached out to Spotify for comment and will update if I hear anything.
Ultimately, Spotify may think Rogan isn’t crossing a line, which it should clearly say. At the same time, we can all recognize that it has led us to look the other way or move the moderation line. Spotify can’t afford to lose its star – even if it means tarnishing its reputation.
Anyway Spotify employees, I’m here for you if you want to vent or share what you think, because I can imagine this is a lot. I’m on email at [email protected] Smart City.com.