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Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem highlights its rocky transition from music streamer to media producer

The audio company pays controversial podcaster Joe Rogan millions. Some employees want stricter oversight over his show.

“The Joe Rogan Experience” on Spotify's mobile app. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
11 min

Last week, as a public firestorm grew over Joe Rogan and his promotion of medical misinformation about the coronavirus, some employees at Spotify made a desperate bid to draw attention to their concerns about their company’s relationship with the blockbuster podcaster — who gets millions of dollars to broadcast exclusively on their platform.

Dozens of workers on a companywide internal chat system said they were embarrassed to work at the Swedish audio company, which has long been known for egalitarian values, consensus-driven decision-making, and a relaxed, music-loving culture. Some said they knew health-care workers who were aghast at Spotify’s support for Rogan, according to company documents and screenshots of the conversations reviewed by The Washington Post.

In recent months, Rogan has made scientifically inaccurate comments about coronavirus vaccines and hosted a prominent anti-vaccine advocate who argued that Americans had been “hypnotized” into wearing masks.

Since then, Rogan’s podcast has ballooned into a full-blown public relations crisis for the audio giant, driving away a handful of high-profile artists, spawning a #DeleteSpotify hashtag, and prompting deep soul-searching and internal debates, according to current and former employees, as well as people familiar with the debates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive matters.

Three years ago, Spotify began to stake its future on bringing in more listeners and advertising dollars with exclusive licensing deals for podcasts with prominent figures, including Rogan, Michelle Obama, and Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. But as the company has transitioned from a music streaming service with a hands-off approach to policing content, company leaders have failed to embrace the responsibilities that come with being a producer of controversial content, the people said.

More musicians join Neil Young in demanding Spotify remove their content over covid misinformation

“What makes this different is that Joe Rogan is on the payroll, and he clearly was operating without any kind of guardrails,” said one of the people familiar with the conversations. “They’ve evolved from a music company into an audio company and a media company — and they haven’t built a structure to manage that.”

On Wednesday, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek addressed controversy at the company’s first town hall of the year, according to a recording obtained by The Post.

“I know some of you feel disappointed or angry or even hurt by some of this content and the fact that it remains on our platform,” Ek said. “There will be a lot to learn from this moment for our company and for me. And it’s really important to me that you understand why we did this deal and the impact it’s had on our growth strategy and the way we think about our role as a platform.”

On Wednesday, the company said its user base would grow more slowly in the beginning of 2022 than financial analysts had expected, resulting in shares dropping as much as 20 percent. The sell-off underscores how important gaining new subscribers is to the company and its investors. Ek didn’t link the slower forecast to the Rogan crisis, and it’s unclear how many subscriptions the company has lost amid the controversy.

Some employees have become disillusioned that their protests about Rogan and other controversial podcasters were falling on deaf ears, said two of the people.

In 2020, when Rogan came on board with a reportedly $100 million deal, workers spoke out because he had hosted white nationalists and an author who said that young people’s coming out as transgender was “contagion” that could infect their peers with the same ideas. Some employees argued that it was time for their employer to exercise editorial oversight.

Though some previous Rogan shows were pulled at the time — including an episode featuring Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence — Rogan went on to have largely free creative license, the people said. In 2021, Rogan repeatedly promoted the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as an effective treatment for the coronavirus, according to the liberal media-monitoring organization Media Matters. There is only contested and no widespread scientific evidence that ivermectin is an effective treatment. He has also repeatedly called mRNA vaccines against the coronavirus “gene therapy,” though scientists say the vaccines do not alter people’s genes. He hosted a guest who described being transgender as a “mental illness” and who had been banned from Twitter.

At a 2020 town hall where workers complained about Rogan, the company’s general counsel said if employees didn’t like the company’s stance, they could quit, according to one of the people.

A representative for Rogan did not respond to a request for comment. In a video posted to his Instagram page on Monday, Rogan said he was not spreading misinformation and supported Spotify adding disclaimers to podcasts that featured guests with views on the coronavirus that differed from the consensus of experts. He said his show is about understanding contradicting opinions, especially if they go against what is seen as established mainstream knowledge.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, I’m just a person who sits down and talks to people and has conversations with them. Do I get things wrong? Absolutely I get things wrong, but I try to correct them,” Rogan said.

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Spotify declined to comment for this article. The company released a statement on Sunday saying it would add more advisories to podcast episodes that dealt with the coronavirus, similar to what Facebook and YouTube have done on their platforms after facing criticism for allowing false information about vaccines to spread.

Musicians continued to leave the platform this week, with R&B artist India Arie and rocker Graham Nash pulling their music Tuesday. They followed folk music legends Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who canceled the streaming rights to their music last week, as well as a critical statement from Harry and Meghan.

The core of the problem, according to the people who spoke to The Post, was Spotify’s failure to resolve a tension between the business model it has staked its future on as a media company and the responsibilities that come with that model.

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Spotify long saw itself as a Silicon Valley platform with no role in creating the content and virtually no responsibility for policing it, the people said.

Social media companies are considered exempt from most liability related to harmful material posted on their platforms. The exemption is the result of a decades-old law that was intended to protect what was then an emerging Internet industry. The same rules don’t apply to other publishers.

For many years, Spotify primarily streamed music and made money as a subscription-based service.

Since going public in 2018, Spotify has embraced a new and potentially more profitable direction as a publisher and producer of podcasts. It bought the podcasting companies Gimlet and Anchor for $340 million and signed exclusive deals. Having its own exclusive content helps differentiate Spotify from the handful of other major music streaming services offered by Apple, Google and Amazon, all competitors that have more money and deeper layers of tech talent than Spotify does.

That new direction, the people say, requires Spotify to change its ethos and engage in greater editorial oversight.

Yotam Ophir, a University at Buffalo researcher who focuses on health misinformation, said Spotify stands apart from social media companies that rely on user-generated content. Even before it made the exclusive deal with Rogan, Spotify was not neutral because it curated podcasts, Ophir argues.

But the Rogan deal makes it even more clear. “I think they are completely in the zone of being a media company, and we should treat them as such,” Ophir said.

Prices for Spotify ads are generally high compared with run-of-the-mill ads on other social media platforms, according to a former employees who has knowledge of the pricing. Less popular shows sell in the $20-per-1,000-listeners range, but more popular shows can go into the $75 territory. Rogan and other exclusive podcasters command higher rates.

By comparison, the average cost per 1,000 views on Facebook is $8.67 on mobile and $3.87 on desktop, according to Wpromote, a California-based digital marketing agency.

Rogan primarily brought his own advertisers with him when he came to Spotify, another person familiar with the arrangement said.

That’s in part because advertisers on Spotify podcasts have two options. They can choose an old-fashioned form of advertising, where companies pick specific shows to sponsor. Or, they can target specific demographics, in which case their ads are spliced into a variety of podcasts and targeted to individuals based on personalized data. Because the second option offers little control over which shows they might end up sponsoring, companies with buttoned up reputations often declined to participate in that form of targeted advertising on Spotify, this person said. That reluctance came out of a fear that their ads would end up being played next to controversial content, they said.

During Wednesday’s town hall, Ek told employees that Spotify does not fit neatly into the category of a tech company or a media company, and that Spotify is sometimes a platform and sometimes a publisher.

Ek argued that despite its exclusive deal, Spotify is a platform for Rogan’s podcast because Spotify licenses Rogan’s content. Ek contrasted that with content produced by Gimlet Media, Parcast, and The Ringer, after the companies were acquired by Spotify, where Spotify is a publisher, he said.

“A publisher has editorial control over a creator’s content,” said Ek. “They can take action on the content before it’s even published. They can edit, they can curate, they can change the guest, they can even decide not to publish altogether. And even though JRE is an exclusive, it is licensed content.”

He noted the company has no creative control or guest approval — it just publishes it after review for any policy violations.

“I think our relationship with Rogan is clearly that of a platform,” Ek said.

Even before the shift to podcasts, the company faced firestorms over moderation decisions.

In May 2018, the company announced a “hate content and hateful conduct policy” that banned songs and podcasts that incited hatred or violence against a specific group. The policy also said Spotify wanted its “editorial decisions” to reflect the company’s values, and said it may stop working with an artist who engaged in “hateful conduct,” like sexual assault or child exploitation.

It removed R. Kelly’s music from its curated playlists and stopped algorithmically recommending the R&B singer’s music to listeners. R. Kelly had been accused but not convicted at the time of sexual assault and exploiting minors. Other musicians who also had been accused of crimes but not convicted, including rappers XXXTentacion and Tay-K, had their music removed from playlists, including Spotify’s highly influential RapCaviar playlist, which has millions of listeners and is seen as a key way for hip-hop artists to reach a broader audience.

Spotify removes R. Kelly from automated playlists, announces new hate content policy

But the new policy prompted a major backlash because it appeared to initially target only Black men who hadn’t been convicted of the crimes of which they were accused. Prominent artists including rapper Kendrick Lamar threatened to pull music over the policy and its enforcement. Fans and artists alike pointed out that many other artists and producers who had been accused and in some cases convicted of violent crimes, such as Phil Spector and James Brown, were still being included in Spotify’s playlists.

Less than a month later, the company walked back the policy. “​​The language was too vague, we created confusion and concern, and didn’t spend enough time getting input from our own team and key partners before sharing new guidelines,” Spotify wrote in a memo posted to its website.

CEO Ek apologized, saying it was “rolled out wrong.”

Ophir argues that the Rogan show on Spotify shows that government intervention is needed to keep new media companies such as Spotify from creating dangers to public health and safety. “Their goal is to make profit, and that’s fine,” Ophir said. “But if their goal is to make profit, we can’t trust them with safeguarding [against] misinformation.”