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Spotify confirms it is removing Neil Young’s music following his Joe Rogan podcast protest

By | Published on Thursday 27 January 2022

Joe Rogan

Spotify “can have Rogan or Young – not both”, Neil Young declared earlier this week. Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, Spotify chose Joe Rogan.

Yes, Spotify has confirmed that it is complying with Neil Young’s request to remove his music from its platform. The musician announced on Monday that he was pushing for his catalogue to be taken down in protest against the Spotify exclusive podcast the Joe Rogan Experience, which has been accused of spreading COVID misinformation.

Young’s move followed an open letter from more than 250 scientists and medics earlier this month which stated that the Joe Rogan podcast has “a concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the COVID-19 pandemic”.

That letter also said that while Spotify “has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy”. However, when confirming yesterday that it was removing Young’s music from its platform, the streaming firm insisted that it does, in fact, have “detailed content policies” in place which have resulted in it removing plenty of podcasts containing misleading information during the pandemic.

A Spotify spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter: “We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID since the start of the pandemic. We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon”.

Young began his anti-Rogan protest in an open letter on his website that was addressed to his management and label, in which he requested his music be removed from Spotify. In another note to his fans yesterday, Young conceded that under his record deal with Warner Music he doesn’t actually have the power to unilaterally remove his recordings from streaming services, even though his music was removed once before in 2015, that time in protest over the audio quality of musical streams.

That move in 2015 suggested Warner is generally keen to placate Young on things like this. Although, of course, streaming revenues are even more important to the record industry now than they were back then and Spotify is by far the biggest premium streaming service on a global basis.

Nevertheless, Young said, Warner Records and its Reprise imprint were quick to comply with his request this week, despite the impact it will have on the royalties both it and he will receive. And despite him still calling his label Warner Bros even though it rebranded in 2019.

“Before I told my friends at Warner Bros about my desire to leave the Spotify platform, I was reminded by my own legal forces that contractually I did not have the control of my music to do that”, he wrote. “I announced I was leaving anyway, because I knew I was. I was prepared to do all I could and more just to make sure that happened”

“I want to thank my truly great and supportive record company Warner Brothers – Reprise Records, for standing with me in my decision to pull all my music from Spotify”, he added, “Thank You!”

Honing in on the royalties hit his label is taking in order to support his protest, Young went on: “Spotify represents 60% of the streaming of my music to listeners around the world, almost every record I have ever released is available – my life’s music – a huge loss for my record company to absorb”.

“Yet my friends at Warner Brothers Reprise stood with me, recognising the threat the COVID misinformation on Spotify posed to the world – particularly for our young people who think everything they hear on Spotify is true. Unfortunately it is not. Thank you Warner Brothers for standing with me and taking the hit – losing 60% of my worldwide streaming income in the name of truth”.

Earlier in his new letter to fans, Young also recapped his specific gripe with Rogan and Spotify. The streaming service, he wrote, “has recently become a very damaging force via its public misinformation and lies about COVID”.

“I first learned of this problem by reading that 200 plus doctors had joined forces, taking on the dangerous life-threatening COVID falsehoods found in Spotify programming”, he explained. “Most of the listeners hearing the unfactual, misleading and false COVID information on Spotify are 24 years old, impressionable and easy to swing to the wrong side of the truth”.

“These young people believe Spotify would never present grossly unfactual information”, he added. “They unfortunately are wrong. I knew I had to try to point that out. All my music is available on Spotify, being sold to these young people, people who believe what they are hearing because it is on Spotify, and people like me are supporting Spotify by presenting my music there. I realised I could not continue to support Spotify’s life threatening misinformation to the music loving public”.

Of course, all digital platforms that allow pretty much anyone to publish content face signifiant challenges around what to do when that content is – or is accused of being – offensive or misleading, or outright abusive. There is a need to be seen to be doing something about the harmful content, but – at the same time – platforms also need to be seen to be standing up for free speech rights. No one wants to be accused of censorship or of being cancel culture proponents.

Although with Spotify, some would distinguish between all the many podcasts that are simply pumped into its platform each week, and those podcasts that it directly produces or – say – exclusively licences via $100 million deals. Given the podcasts that it produces or exclusively licenses are not just distributed by Spotify – but also come with the Spotify seal of approval – maybe the firm’s responsibilities are higher when it comes to policing that content.

And yet, some critics might argue, it almost seems like Spotify is being more strict with its distributed podcasts rather than the podcasts it makes or exclusively licenses. After all, it’s not the 20,000 podcast episodes that it has seemingly removed on COVID grounds that have been accused by 250+ experts of “damaging public trust in scientific research and sowing doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals”.

That Rogan and some of his guests regularly make controversial and – some would argue – misleading remarks isn’t new news, of course. But with Young having taken a stand over Rogan’s COVID content, it will be interesting to see if Spotify’s leading controversy-for-hire podcaster starts to cause any further tensions between it and the artist community.

Just yesterday left-leaning American media watchdog Media Matters hit out at a new edition of the Rogan podcast, this one featuring another tedious controversy-for-hire pseudo-intellectual waffle merchant as its guest, this time Jordan Peterson. The programme, Media Matters says, “peddled harmful anti-trans rhetoric”.

Either way, Neil Young fans will have to tap other streaming services to hear his music. Though, he also added in his latest letter, fans who do so will get other benefits in addition to the warm glow that can be achieved by supporting a boycott of the Joe Rogan Experience.

And those other benefits relate to Young’s previous gripes with streaming. Because many of Spotify’s competitors have dealt with his audio quality complaints since 2015. Yet, despite insisting higher quality audio is in the pipeline, that hasn’t yet happened at Spotify.

“Many other platforms – Amazon, Apple and Qobuz, to name a few – present my music today in all its high-resolution glory – the way it is intended to be heard”, Young’s letter concluded yesterday, “while unfortunately Spotify continues to peddle the lowest quality in music reproduction. So much for art. But now that is in the past for me. Soon my music will live on in a better place”.

CMU Insights recently collaborated with content and platform security company Friend MTS on a white paper looking at the challenges digital companies face in tacking misinformation and other harmful content, while also seeking to protect freedom of speech. You can download a free copy here.

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