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.

Why the golden age of podcasts may be coming to an end

You might look at it as the arrival of podcasts as a big business. My fear about what it really means is that the golden age of podcasts is coming to an end.

Anne Steele of The Wall Street Journal (one of our great Northeastern journalism graduates, by the way) reports on the looming podcast war between Apple, Spotify and a few smaller players. It sounds like it’s going to be just like video streaming services — if you subscribe to Spotify, as I do, you won’t be able to listen to podcasts that are exclusively on Apple, and vice-versa.

Steele quotes a business analyst named Daniel Ives as saying this about Apple:

Even though they have the keys to the kingdom in terms of overall customer base and the App Store and broader content, what’s going to differentiate them is not just aggregation, it’s exclusive content.

Just what we need — another walled garden. And look, I’m glad that this will enable podcasters to make some money beyond the ad revenue they get from the likes of MailChimp and Dollar Shave. But it also represents the end of something special — just as the rise of paywalls about a dozen years ago ended the open web.

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It’s no surprise that Google Podcasts include hateful content

I think there’s something of a category error in today’s front-page New York Times story on the hateful and false content you can find on Google Podcasts. Reporter Reggie Ugwu repeats on several occasions that Google Podcasts includes some pretty terrible stuff from neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists that you won’t find at Google’s competitors. He writes:

Google Podcasts — whose app has been downloaded more than 19 million times, according to Apptopia — stands alone among major platforms in its tolerance of hate speech and other extremist content. A recent nonexhaustive search turned up more than two dozen podcasts from white supremacists and pro-Nazi groups, offering a buffet of slurs and conspiracy theories. None of the podcasts appeared on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

The problem here is that Apple, Spotify and Stitcher are all trying to offer a curated experience. Google’s DNA is in search. If you Google “InfoWars,” you expect to be taken to Alex Jones’ hallucinatory home of hate and disinformation. And you are. So if you search Google Podcasts, why should that be any different? Indeed, that’s exactly the reasoning Google invoked when Ugwu contacted them for comment:

Told of the white supremacist and pro-Nazi content on its platform and asked about its policy, a Google spokeswoman, Charity Mhende, compared Google Podcasts to Google Search. She said that the company did not want to “limit what people are able to find,” and that it only blocks content “in rare circumstances, largely guided by local law.”

Let me be clear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Google could choose to keep its searches wide open while providing users of Google Podcasts with the same safe experience that its competitors offer. And maybe it should. It’s just that I find it unremarkable that a search company would run its business differently from those whose business model is based on creating a safe, walled-in environment.

I’m hardly a Google fanboy. I’d like to see it broken up so that it can no longer use search to leverage its advertising business to the disadvantage of publishers. But unless you think it ought to stop showing hate-filled websites when you search for them, then I don’t think you should be surprised that it also shows you hate-filled podcasts.

Extreme social sharing and the rising cost of free

Does your Flashlight know what you're doing?

Given that my life is too dull to be of much interest to anyone, I generally go along with the ever-increasing demands from the digital tools that I use to reveal my location or connect with Facebook. I don’t like it, but I don’t care enough to take a stand. (Yes, I’m well aware that that’s the road to hell.)

But three recent experiences have me wondering. I’ll take them in increasing order of ridiculousness.

I’ll start with Spotify, the free music service (premium versions are also available) that requires you to log in using your Facebook account, after which all of your Facebook friends can see what you’re listening to.

I had been using Rdio at the recommendation of Josh Stearns and found it was a little less bewildering than Spotify. Even better, there was no Facebook connection. But after I used up my free-music quota for the month, I switched over to Spotify, and joined the stream. I suppose a 55-year-old shouldn’t worry about whether his musical choices strike others as sufficiently cool, but I do.

Now, I don’t think Spotify’s social-networking policy is particularly outrageous, because it is offering an expensive service for free. So I have no real complaints. But I’m not crazy about having to do my listening in public. And if I get a sudden urge to listen to Barry Manilow (I’m kidding! Really!), I’ll be sure to do it on Rdio.

Considerably farther down the food chain, yesterday I wanted to download a PDF of a legal decision from a site that uses Scribd. With PDFs, you can usually just click and download. But with a Scribd-ified PDF, I had to register, either by creating a new account (ugh) or logging in with Facebook. Hmmm … I did as I was told and got my download.

In paging back through my Facebook status updates, I see no evidence of anything saying “Dan downloaded a document from Scribd!” But still.

Finally — and the mind still reels at this — I recently received a notification that there was an update available for Flashlight, an app that turns your iPhone into, yes, a flashlight. What, I wondered, could be new and improved about Flashlight? A brighter light? A setting that shines a Batman logo on the sides of vacant buildings?

I installed the new app, started it up — and was asked whether I wanted to provide my location information. Seriously. Well, that was easy. No. But is someone sitting in a room somewhere with a giant Google map, checking to see who’s looking for their car keys?

My prediction: Social sharing is here to stay, but not at this level. Businesses are going to discover that there’s no social-media pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. And as I said, though I’m not particularly obsessed with protecting my privacy, I think all of us should be concerned about living increasingly large chunks of our life in public.