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Spotify stuck between the rock stars and a hard-arse

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Spotify stuck between the rock stars and a hard-arse

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

There are no excuses for spreading anti-vax misinformation and, by choosing to stand with controversial podcast host Joe Rogan, the music streaming giant is facing a PR deadlock it can’t possibly break.

In the same way that this was a fight that Neil Young was never going to win, this is a PR disaster for Spotify that it was always going to lose. Literally trapped between a rock star and a hard-arse, Spotify has chosen the path least likely to enhance its reputation and moral standing. Last week, $4-billion was shaved off its market value.

Spotify has become “the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation”, Young wrote in a letter to his management team and record label, demanding that they remove his music from the audio streaming service. “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” he said. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Spotify is on a hiding to nothing. It’s similar to the board of Cricket SA in that it always seems to want to do the right thing, but just doesn’t know how to – such as the disastrous “take the knee” instruction to the national team who were on a bus on the way to a key match against the West Indies.

Spotify signed a $100-million exclusive deal in 2020 for The Joe Rogan Experience, a controversial podcast that gets an average of 11-million listeners per episode. It accounted for 4.5% of all Spotify’s podcasts in its first month alone.

Rogan, the host, is clearly the key drawcard in Spotify’s plans to become an allround audio entertainment hub. It may have started with music, but, like all media companies, Spotify soon realised podcasts were a huge growth opportunity.

What was the gold standard of music-streaming services thinking, you may ask, when it signed someone who is known for uncritically letting his guests spew whatever unscientific drivel is on their minds?

When Spotify ported Rogan’s podcast, they left out his interview with notorious right-wing fearmonger Alex Jones, who still believes the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was done by so-called “crisis actors” and those children running for their lives were just faking it. For $100-million, Spotify was probably hoping to retain Rogan’s large audiences, which are not known for their critical thinking.

Neil Young may only be the 277th most popular musician on Spotify, but he is musical royalty, as is Joni Mitchell, who has also broken up with the platform. Their departure isn’t just about Spotify’s income, but about ethical choices. Both famous singer-songwriters suffered from polio as children, and know first-hand how powerful vaccines can be. They are giving up about 10% of their annual earnings, Billboard estimated.

Other musicians, many of whom have contracts they can’t get out of, have put the words “delete Spotify” in their profile pictures on social media.

For the past few years, Spotify has portrayed itself as the little guy, taking on mighty Apple over its suspiciously self-favouring App Store. But it is revealing itself to be as profit-driven as Facebook or Google when it comes to these kinds of choices.

After losing nearly $4-billion in market value, Spotify CEO Daniel Elk introduced a new “content advisory” label for podcast episodes about Covid-19: “This new effort to combat misinformation will roll out to countries around the world in the coming days. To our knowledge, this content advisory is the first of its kind by a major podcast platform,” he wrote.

The usually unapologetic Rogan said he would “try harder to get people with differing opinions on” and “do my best to make sure I’ve researched these topics”.

In a rambling 10-minute video that demonstrated why Rogan – once the host of the TV show Fear Factor in which people ate cockroaches – should not be considered a moral authority of any kind, he said the podcast’s origins were “just conversations” that “started off as … having fun and talking”.

But now the podcast was “some out-of-control juggernaut that I barely have control of. Often times, I have no idea what I’m gonna talk about until I sit down and talk to people. I am gonna do my best in the future to balance things out.”

I’m sure the 270 scientists and doctors who initially wrote an open letter to Spotify, and which prompted Young to act, are greatly relieved he will research the once-ina-hundred-years pandemic that has devastated the global economy, thrust millions of people into daily hunger and wiped out the middle classes’ savings.

Young is admittedly in a commanding position after a sterling career and a recent $150-million deal for half of his music catalogue. But it has taken someone of his stature to bring this misinformation conundrum to a head.

Neil Young may only be the 277th most popular musician on Spotify but he is musical royalty, as is Joni Mitchell. Their departure isn’t just about Spotify’s income, but about ethical choices. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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