In one corner was Joe Rogan, the stand-up comedian and former “Fear Factor” host turned provocative podcaster.
Specifically, Young cited Joe Rogan — who hosts “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast — and has suggested healthy, young people shouldn’t get vaccinated. After catching the coronavirus, Rogan also praised ivermectin, a medicine used to kill parasites in animals and humans that has no proven anti-viral benefits. “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform,” he wrote. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”
Two days later, without a word from Rogan, Spotify began the process of removing the famed rocker’s music, including his best-known hits such as “Heart of Gold,” “Harvest Moon” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
The speed of Spotify’s decision to sideline Young was jarring. So why did the company do it?
The answer is simple: This isn’t really a story about Rogan or Young. It’s a story about Spotify. And, despite public perception, Spotify isn’t a music company. It’s a tech company looking to maximize profits.
Spotify’s quest to dominate the podcast space
The company hasn’t been shy about its desire — in 2019, Spotify announced it was planning to spend up to $500 million to acquire companies “in the emerging podcast marketplace.”
That year it purchased Gimlet Media, home of podcasts such as “Reply All,” “Homecoming” and “Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel,” for an estimated $230 million. It also spent more than $100 million on Anchor, a platform that lets users create and share their own podcasts.
The next year, Spotify spent nearly $200 million to acquire the Ringer and its suite of popular podcasts, such as “Binge Mode,” “The Press Box” and its founder’s “The Bill Simmons Podcast.” And, of course, it reportedly spent more than $100 million to acquire exclusive rights to a single show: the extremely popular, rabble-rousing “Joe Rogan Experience.”
“I think it comes down to, just frankly, business,” said John Simson, the program director for the business and entertainment program at American University. “In the music side of things, [Spotify is] paying out roughly 70 percent of all the revenue that comes in. It goes right back out as royalties. They’re looking for other places where the revenue split isn’t that dramatic. … Podcasts were certainly their go-to.”
The plan seems to be working. Spotify reportedly overtook Apple Podcasts last year to become the largest podcast provider in the United States.
Spotify’s strained relationship with musicians
As Spotify built its podcasting empire, it has been increasingly criticized by the musicians who use the platform. In December, rapper T-Pain tweeted a breakdown of how many streams it takes for a musician to make $1 on various services, pointing out that on Spotify it takes 315 while on Apple Music it’s 128. Several months earlier, artists and music industry workers, organized by the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, protested outside Spotify offices around the world — bringing petitions signed by more than 28,000 people that were demanding, among other things, higher payouts for artists.
“I don’t think of any of these platforms as being music companies that actually care about music. I think of them like technology companies,” said Gabriel Teodros, a Seattle-based hip-hop artist who wrote a viral Substack blog in December titled “There’s no money in streaming.”
Even so, Teodros said he was surprised at the “swiftness” with which Spotify decided to remove Young’s music, rather than Rogan’s podcast. “I thought it might be a long, drawn-out thing.”
Other big-name artists have also feuded with Spotify — Taylor Swift pulled her music from the platform until it met her demands — but none seemed to spark widespread change. That leaves Teodros wondering if Young’s protest is “going to be a moment where public perception of public streaming platforms are forever altered, or is it just a blip?”
Young has received an outpouring of support from across the political and social spectrum: “I’m with #NeilYoung,” tweeted Geraldo Rivera. “Waiting on all the musicians to step up and back Neil Young. Where are you?” tweeted author Don Winslow.
It’s not that dropping Young won’t inflict any pain on Spotify. Most of his music is more than 18 months old, and older tunes have become popular during the pandemic.
So it should come as no surprise that the day after Spotify announced the removal of Young’s catalogue, SiriusXM said it would revive “Neil Young Radio,” a channel dedicated to Young’s music and storytelling, for a brief stint.
“When you have an opportunity to present an iconic artist still at the height of his creativity, you don’t hesitate to do it, again,” Steve Blatter, the company’s senior vice president and general manager of music programming, said in a pointedly cheeky statement. “Outspoken, brave, and a true music icon, Neil Young is in a rare class of artists, and we are honored to collaborate with him to create a special audio experience for his fans.”
Young’s plea to other musicians
“I sincerely hope that other artists and record companies will move off the SPOTIFY platform and stop supporting SPOTIFY’s deadly misinformation about COVID,” Young wrote on his blog on Wednesday.
Whether anyone will follow remains to be seen. Many of the artists who could take up his battle cry — elder statesmen of rock with large enough catalogues to hurt the streaming service — no longer own their own music.
In the past few years, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks, the David Bowie estate and many, many more have sold their entire catalogues for large sums. Younger artists, including John Legend and Ryan Tedder, have begun joining in.
In most of these cases, the artist sold both the publishing and the recording copyrights. That means, unless they have a special clause around how their music is used, they don’t have any power to dictate where their tunes appear. And Simson, the American University professor, said such clauses are rare. “The reason [these companies] are paying all that money is that these streaming services are driving up value” of those catalogues.
In his blog post, Young wrote that removing his music from Spotify will equate to “losing 60% of my world wide streaming income.”
So while other artists — particularly his contemporaries — rallying around the legend and pulling their music from the platform might sound like a nice rock-and-roll idea, it’s probably not going to happen.
Is losing one artist enough to force Spotify to change?
Then there’s the question of how much impact a single artist can have. The numbers look staggering. The Weeknd, an extreme outlier, currently garners 86.6 million monthly listeners. Adele has 60 million. Drake has about 53.6 million monthly listeners. Taylor Swift has about 54 million; BTS has 42.3 million.
If one or two of them pulled their music, how many of Spotify’s 172 million subscribers would actually delete their accounts? How many of its 381 million monthly users would stop listening?
“Spotify is probably counting on the inertia aspect. Once you’re on a particular streaming platform, you’re likely to stay there because you’ve got your playlists, you’re familiar with it,” Simson said. “It just feels scary to all of a sudden have to move.”
And those are just the top artists. What about everyone else? As Eve 6 frontman Max Collins sarcastically tweeted, “if spotify doesn’t take neil young seriously i bet they’ll heed the demands of eve6.”
Now consider that Rogan has an estimated 11 million listeners per episode. He usually posts four to five of them each week, and they frequently last longer than three hours.
When Spotify bought Rogan’s podcast, Stephanie Liu, an analyst with the research firm Forrester, told the New York Times, “This is part of Spotify’s bigger bet on podcasts. Spotify is buying not only Joe Rogan’s extensive and future content library, but also his loyal audience.”
To retain that audience, they need Rogan. Plus — and this is key — he’s exclusive to Spotify. Very few musical artists are. Neil Young’s albums are on Amazon, Apple and several other services. Rogan’s library is only on Spotify. You don’t need Spotify to listen to Young, but you do need it to listen to Rogan.
The power of Joe Rogan
“If podcasting is Spotify’s biggest strategic bet, then Joe Rogan is the biggest piece of that,” said Tatiana Cirisano, a music industry analyst and consultant at MIDiA Research. “Other podcasters might be looking at this and wondering, ‘Is Spotify safe for what I want to say?’ ”
She added that while Rogan’s audience may be large, it’s also narrow. His audience skews young and male. He plays the role of provocateur, beholden to no political belief system. While that obviously appeals to his fans, it’s unlikely those who don’t agree with him are tuning in.
“It’s a lot easier to serve a huge audience of music fans than it is to serve a huge audience of podcast listeners. [A] music genre isn’t a polarizing thing,” Cirisano said, adding that while people may listen to various genres of music, they’re much less likely to listen to podcasts across the political spectrum.
Losing an artist doesn’t necessarily mean losing all the fans of that artist. But lose Rogan, and his listeners aren’t likely to switch to Michelle Obama’s podcast, which is also on Spotify.
Cirisano said this could be a “crucial moment” for Spotify, and that Young had forced them to choose between two influential talents.
She is, however, doubtful that Young’s move will persuade many people to quit Spotify.
“I think it takes a lot for people to switch platforms,” Cirisano said. “I’m not sure if anyone aside from the top 1 percent of Neil Young stans are going to do that.”