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There Are No Heroes in the Neil Young-Spotify Saga

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The debates over cancel culture are reaching new heights of absurdity. Consider the decisions of musical icons Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to remove their songs from Spotify. Critics have contended that the Joe Rogan podcast, hosted by Spotify, promotes vaccine-skeptical guests and boosts the spread of misinformation about Covid-19.

Neil Young let it be known that Spotify had to choose between him and Rogan. Not surprisingly, Spotify, which invested $100 million in a relationship with Joe Rogan in 2020, was willing to let Young go. Rogan’s podcast, after all, is the most popular podcast of all time.

Some see the musician as an intellectual hero for taking a stand. Yet Young’s own record in this area is far from pristine. For years, he has spread scientific misinformation about GMO foods. While experts have consistently judged GMO foods to be both safe and useful, Young in one song referred to them as poison. As a guest on the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in 2016, Young suggested that GMO foods caused “terrible diseases.” It is hard not to wonder to what degree anti-biotech sentiments like these, ironically, might have fed the current skepticism of Covid vaccines.

I also question whether Young’s motives in the Spotify fracas were purely ideological. Just a few days ago, Young participated in the launch of a (temporary) satellite radio Neil Young channel. I don’t begrudge him that business decision, and I will listen myself. Yet I also recognize that demand for his satellite radio channel could grow now that he is off Spotify. All the publicity stirred up by Young’s departure from Spotify probably won’t hurt, either.

Some people believe that Spotify is the real hero of this episode for standing up to cancel culture and defending the free-speech rights of Joe Rogan and his guests. That is an understandable impulse, but keep in mind Spotify has been boasting that it has removed 20,000 other podcast episodes for spreading Covid misinformation. They have taken down more than 40 back episodes of Rogan’s podcast for similar reasons.

It is impossible for an outsider to judge the content of those 20,000 episodes. But whatever free-speech principles the company may adhere to, it is enforcing them very selectively. That is their privilege, but they are hardly telling cancel culture to get lost.

And what if Spotify did heed calls to drop Rogan’s podcast? Rogan might end up on another gated service. But if he returned to fully open-access podcasting, guests making scientifically dubious claims might have access to an even larger audience. So what’s the point of attempting this kind of cancellation? To make ourselves feel better?

As for the Rogan podcast, it has been willing to accept a business deal with Spotify where those 40 back episodes are now gone. I find that, too, to be a perfectly acceptable business decision, but Rogan can’t claim to be defending absolute free speech. (Late Sunday, Rogan promised to conduct better research into topics and to bring more balance into his podcast.)

I, for one, plan to continue all my preexisting relationships with the output of Rogan, Young, Mitchell and Spotify, where I am a paid premium subscriber. For one thing, I don’t like the prospect of a world where we segregate our artistic and commercial alliances based on political disagreements.

But I will take away a broader lesson, namely that no one really has much of a coherent position in this fight. 

The more you understand that nobody’s position really makes any sense, the more quickly you can embrace your inner Heart of Gold, a song that is still on YouTube, right along with these speeches by Adolf Hitler.

More From Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Joe Rogan Isn’t Spotify’s Only Podcast Problem: Bobby Ghosh

Joe Rogan Shows We’re Trapped in Spotify’s Cage: Lionel Laurent

Spotify’s Joe Rogan Drama Feels Like a Facebook Moment: Lionel Laurent

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

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