How Spotify’s greed sparked an uprising

Neil Young in Oslo. Photo (cc) 2013 by Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3

Previously published at GBH News.

No sooner had Neil Young announced he was pulling his music off Spotify because of vaccine falsehoods on Joe Rogan’s podcast than we began to learn about other dicey content on the service.

Will Dunn had a list at The New Statesman. Among them: Steven Crowder, who’s been accused of racism and homophobia; Hearts of Oak, which has featured anti-Muslim interviews; and Taake, a Norwegian black metal band whose front man appeared on stage in Germany with a swastika on his chest.

“This is the great problem of the platform economy,” Dunn wrote. “In traditional broadcasting the platform publishes a small amount of material to a large audience, taking responsibility for its quality. In the platform economy, a vast amount of material is published — there are almost three million podcasts on Spotify — and the market for attention decides who wins.”

Well, no. In fact, Dunn’s article illustrates a significant misunderstanding that has permeated the furor over Spotify. And it underscores the sad reality that podcasting, like the open web in general, is being eclipsed by business interests focused on dollars rather than democratic discourse.

Most material on Spotify and competing services can be considered third-party content, no different from what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter. Podcasts are distributed to all the major platforms. You’ll find Crowder and Hearts of Oak at Apple Podcasts, for instance, and Taake is available on Apple Music. I may not like what they say, but they’re free to say it.

Starting last April, though, Spotify and Apple announced they were going to start signing celebrity podcasters to exclusive deals. Rogan reportedly got $100 million and is immensely popular — certainly more popular these days than Young and the other musicians who’ve joined him, including (so far) Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren.

In other words, Spotify now embraces two entirely different business models. On the one hand, it’s a neutral platform for most podcasters as well as independent musicians who upload their music to the service. On the other, it’s a broadcaster, as fully responsible for Rogan’s content as Fox News is for Tucker Carlson. That’s just as true for Spotify’s less controversial fare, such as “Renegades,” an exclusive podcast featuring Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama.

The difference has significant implications for free speech. It would be absurd for Young to demand that Spotify remove every bit of third-party content he finds offensive as the price for keeping “Like a Hurricane” in rotation. But it’s perfectly reasonable for Young to decide he doesn’t want to be associated with a company that pays and actively promotes a host who’s indulging in dangerous vaccine nonsense.

Even so, Young et al. have been accused in some quarters of failing to respect Rogan’s free-speech rights. For instance, Zaid Jilani, writing at City Journal, sneered at “Young’s transformation from countercultural champion of freedom of speech to corporate censorship advocate and defender of the public-health bureaucracy.” That’s an absurd argument because it suggests that Young shouldn’t exercise his own free-speech rights. He’s free to stay on Spotify or leave, and he’s chosen to leave.

“I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship,” Young said in a statement on his website. “Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information.”

That’s a refreshingly tolerant attitude toward free speech given the frightening wave of repression taking place in the broader culture — from the banning of LGBTQ books and “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, to legislation being debated among New Hampshire lawmakers to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, and to empower snitches who are eager to turn in teachers.

Then again, Young has also made it clear that he’d come back if Spotify got rid of Rogan’s program. Do Young and Mitchell, years past their heyday, really exercise that kind of clout? I think the answer to that is maybe. They’re still popular, especially with older listeners. Some other musicians with a profile higher than Lofgren’s may join them, though few own the rights to their recordings. (Bob Dylan and Springsteen are among the artists who’ve sold their catalogs recently.)

But the real economic challenge Young and his compatriots pose is to the idea of Spotify as the infinite jukebox. If you are a paying customer, you expect to be able to find anything you want, no matter how obscure. I wouldn’t pay for a service without Neil Young. (Yes, I am old.) And though I’m not a Joni Mitchell fan, I recently listened to five of her classic albums — on Spotify.

Besides, a sudden wave of negative publicity can bring a company under scrutiny in ways it had previously escaped. As I’ve been discussing the issue over the past few days on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve learned that Apple Music pays musicians double what Spotify pays. It’s still inadequate, and some smaller services like Tidal do better. But for a mainstream service with access to just about everything you’d ever want to listen to, Apple might be a superior choice. And that’s where I’m moving.

It remains to be seen how much harm the Rogan episode will do to Spotify. He and the company have both issued statements promising to improve their behavior, but there are no signs that they’re going to back down. And though there was some excitement last week over Spotify’s slide in the stock market, it was actually up 13.5% on Monday. (I’m finishing this early Tuesday afternoon, and the price is more or less flat.)

The original sin was Spotify and Apple’s move last year to try to turn podcasting into a walled garden for their economic benefit. Before that, podcasting was wide open. Whether a show was entirely a volunteer effort or supported by advertising, you could listen to it on any platform. Now, like the video-streaming services, you are forced to choose platforms based on which one has your favorite programs.

Spotify is now reaping what it has sown. Rogan has survived, at least for now. In the days ahead, we’ll learn what matters more to company executives — offering a one-stop platform for all the music and podcasts you want to listen to, or leaning on the drawing power of a few stars.

The answer, needless to say, will come down to which approach brings in more money.

One thought on “How Spotify’s greed sparked an uprising

  1. Marcus J Breen

    An engaginig column Dan.
    A point of debate – to privilege speech rights over every other right, is misplaced. There are many spurious arguments about free speech, none of which I will rehearse or attempt to restate here. Suffice to say, if fascists, Nazis, denialists (of COVID, vaccines, climate change and anything else that is objectivly true) want to argue their case on a single private platform that qualifies as propaganda because a range of views is not offered. It is time to ask the central critical comuncation question and that is, why should the public or user subscribers be subjected to a single point of view, to their own detriment? There is little-to-no discourse on Spotify or other private platforms, so no opposing arguments and rational claims can be made to pursuade listeners and viewers otherwise. (This is fundamentalism 101).
    Many of the people who have died in the US have died from the mistaken belief that COVID is fake news and that the vaccines are “evil” and should not be taken. Apparently most of them regret their choices as they take their last breaths. Arguably, free speech rights killed them because the free speakers failed to offer the range of points of view which is celebrated by liberal freespeech advocates. Liberalism is based on choice – it is impossible to choose when there is not a range of views exressed.

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