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Spotify has established itself as the leading global music streaming service and has used its success to build a catalog of podcasts. Most popular among these podcasts is “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which garners nearly 11 million monthly listeners. The podcast features the comedian interviewing prominent figures in society, ranging from Bernie Sanders to Kanye West to Elon Musk. Rogan’s podcast, which is exclusively accessible on Spotify, has helped the streaming service establish a presence in the podcast industry on top of its dominance in the music streaming industry. Rogan’s podcast is Spotify’s crown jewel, which is why the streaming giant purchased exclusive rights to the podcast for $100 million.
Many, however, are criticizing the podcast’s streamlining of misinformation during the pandemic. Rogan, who has amassed controversy from previous transphobic and racist comments, has repeatedly given COVID-19 skepticists a platform to spread false facts, promoted the overuse of Ivermectin to treat the virus, and discouraged healthy people from getting the vaccine. The podcaster’s misinformation has led artists and users alike to boycott Spotify, citing the refusal to remove Rogan’s podcast as just the latest in a series of ill practices. Spotify has a problematic history, as seen through its low payout per stream, which has been criticized by prominent musicians like Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke. Artists Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are spearheading the new boycott by removing their entire music catalogs from the site and encouraging users to switch platforms.
Unfortunately, the Young and Mitchell-led boycott seems unlikely to succeed. For one, switching platforms is inconvenient. Many Spotify users recognize the company’s immoral practices but don’t want to deal with the hassle of swapping streaming services, which involves transferring playlists and losing exclusive features. It is irrelevant how bad the practices of the company are: to consumers, convenience trumps conscience. Those who do want to switch, however, don’t have any options that are more moral, which leads to the second reason for the boycott’s likely failure: other streaming services don’t solve Spotify’s issues. Apple Music, Spotify’s main competitor, still pays less than a cent per stream. Though Apple Music outperforms Spotify, its rates are still not enough for most artists to make a livable profit off of their music. Amazon Music is no better. The streaming service is run by one of the world’s largest companies, known for leaving behind a trail of scandals for every action. Smaller platforms like Bandcamp or Soundcloud aren’t viable alternatives for many due to their limited catalogs, and even streaming services that pay artists well like Napster and Tidal are owned by large, problematic shell corporations. In the streaming era, there is no convenient and morally correct decision, leaving users stuck with Spotify.
Despite the unlikely long-term success of the boycott, Spotify is suffering in the short-term, with a poll from Forrester Research finding that an estimated 19 percent of users plan to delete the app, or already have. Spotify has tried to win users back by pledging to place content advisories on podcasts that discuss the pandemic, but the company has still not removed or penalized Rogan’s podcast for spreading misinformation. The content advisories that they boast seem unpromising, however, as studies from institutions like Dartmouth have proven that misinformation advisories are less effective than they make themselves out to be and, in some cases, can even promote misinformation. Additionally, standing policies from Spotify to remove all content deemed dangerous, including podcasts or music promoting abuse, self-harm, or violence, have failed to date. Content promoting topics like white supremacy or Nazism remains accessible, leading many to question the measure of success of future misinformation advisories: even if new measures work, can they be applied to all misinformation? Since the content that lives on Spotify’s platform is broad and varied in opinion and subject matter, any attempt to regulate the information they contain may only be a cosmetic solution.
Despite the ineffectiveness of these content advisories, it’s difficult to imagine what a harsher reaction would look like. If Spotify was to remove Rogan’s podcast, where would that place other controversial podcasts or music? For example, genres like rap or punk often promote extreme misogyny, the glorification of drug usage, or a slew of other problematic topics. There are certainly more extreme ideas communicated by these genres than speculation about the effectiveness of COVID vaccines. If Rogan is penalized on that basis, artists may be forced to blunt their edginess. Once the ripple effects of canceling Rogan’s podcast are understood, it becomes difficult to risk entire sub-genres of music in favor of political correctness.
Fortunately or not, it seems that Spotify won’t do much more than slap on an ineffective warning sticker to fight misinformation. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has said that he does not want Spotify to become “content censors,” and will continue to promote free speech and artistic freedom on the platform. Whether or not that free speech promotes dangerous misinformation may be irrelevant, because it’s ultimately for the user to judge themself. This response makes sense for Spotify: if it puts in more effort, it risks falling down a slope of overfiltration and censorship, and with less effort, it risks accusations that it is looking the other way.
This isn’t to say that boycotting efforts are a waste of time. As artists, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell can decide whether they want their work represented on a platform that hosts content with which they disagree. The consumer is also free to choose which platform represents the ideas with which they feel closely aligned, or if that matters to them at all. The problem comes down to two factors: Spotify attempting to distance themselves from the misinformation on Rogan’s podcast while actively promoting and profiting from it, and users’ inability to escape the corpocratic grip that tech giants have over streaming. By censoring Rogan’s podcast, Spotify also opens a large can of worms: it commits to filtering through content deemed unacceptable by society, a process that would contradict their belief in freedom of speech and be the detriment to music that consumers love. Overall, this particular boycott will fizzle out without prompting much change, but it sets the precedent that the people have the power to scare mini-monopolies. At its next mishap, Spotify might not be so lucky to only lose 19 percent of their users.