“Neile who?” You can imagine the snickering from some quarters of the tech world after rocker Neil Young demanded in a now-deleted post that music streaming platform Spotify choose between hosting his music or popular podcaster Joe Rogan – whom he accused from spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
Young (with 6 million monthly listeners on Spotify) has plenty of classic albums to his name, but he’s no Taylor Swift (54 million) when it comes to streaming success. When Spotify chose to remove its Music on Demand, it’s likely most users discovered it by reading the news rather than searching desperately for “Heart of Gold.”
However, it would be a mistake to view this as just one more episode in Spotify’s occasional struggle with talent, similar to when Swift deleted and reinstated her music on the service or Young’s temporary boycott in 2015 over its quality. audio (which coincided with his promotion of music service Pono).
Even if Young and Spotify patch things up, the situation shows how the platform’s meteoric expansion into podcasts (its deal with Rogan is worth more than $100 million) is leading the company into murky territory. He now has to deal with the issues of polarization and misinformation typically associated with social media.
Just as tech companies such as Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook or Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube find themselves in hot water over responsibility for content, including COVID misinformation that the US government says is “killing folks,” Spotify’s hunger for a slice of the booming podcast market exposes it to far bigger fights than choosing what to listen to over brunch.
An open letter from 270 medical specialists recently blamed Spotify’s lack of a clear misinformation policy for letting Rogan off the hook by promoting lies about vaccines and encouraging the untested use of ivermectin to cure the COVID. These are battle lines about public health, not whether to play “Almost Cut My Hair” all the way. And the fact that Spotify is funding Rogan’s podcast makes it difficult to answer neutrally.
Mark Mulligan, an analyst at research firm MIDiA, tells me this sounds like a “Facebook moment” for Spotify. Although it’s not Cambridge Analytica at all, what’s happening is reminiscent of the last decade’s pressure on social media to take responsibility for the media they host.
Spotify will face tough decisions about its target audience and brand identity when it comes to podcasts. So far, it’s welcomed a wide array of stars like Michelle Obama and Kim Kardashian alongside Rogan, and chased the kind of celebrities who can fire up the crowd like the music of the Woodstock generation once did.
The dream of serving all filter bubbles, from vinyl addicts to real COVIDs, now seems fragile. Given that regulators in the UK are already studying the lopsided music streaming economy and that Europe has new legislation in the works to tighten oversight of platforms, Spotify should consider getting a head start by toughening its own policies regarding the content it produces. – even if it means more costs.
This is already the case, but more can be done. Spotify says it has “detailed content policies” in place and removes material that poses a direct threat to public health, and has removed more than 20,000 COVID-related podcast episodes. Separately, dozens of Rogan’s past interviews with conspiracy theorists and alt-right figures were reportedly cut when the podcaster joined the platform. Beyond more transparency and explicit guidelines, Spotify could also help counter misinformation by using its social audio chat app, Greenroom. Takedowns are not the only answer, as Sophie Veriter of Leiden University has argued.
Cynics will argue that Neil Young’s position is a bit impractical for someone who has already sold half his catalog rights to Hipgnosis Songs Fund Ltd (for $150 million) and is going on tour. Spotify is also an easy target for artists, labels and rights holders hoping to extract more value from streaming platforms in the future. Podcasts are among the winners of the streaming wars, creating more competition and angst among artists.
But it is a fight that goes beyond the economy. Food polarization may seem trendy today, but advertisers can be fickle and Spotify’s current user base of 381 million could be more easily swayed than the billions of Facebook customers who have kept their accounts open at every scandal. Especially if Spotify’s next big reviewer has a bigger name, like Taylor.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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