With over 180 million premium users, Spotify is the world’s leading streaming service. It gives users access to a seemingly unlimited catalog of music and features millions of podcasts. One such podcast, hosted by comedian Joe Rogan, The Joe Rogan Experience, is exclusively on Spotify and in 2019 had around 190 million downloads a month. In December 2021, the global medical community wrote an open letter to Spotify regarding an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience where Rogan featured Dr. Robert Malone, expressing concerns regarding misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine. The letter also pointed out that most listeners of the show are around 24 years old or younger, and are therefore more vulnerable to wide scale misinformation and more at risk of hospitalization due to COVID-19 if unvaccinated.
Musician Neil Young entered the conversation in January after Spotify did not respond to the open letter. The 76-year-old rocker, with over 6 million Spotify listeners, demanded that Spotify act against Rogan’s harmful misinformation or remove his music from their platform. According to the Rolling Stone, Young wrote a letter to his management team saying, “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.” Spotify did not remove Rogan’s podcast, so Young, followed swiftly by other artists like Joni Mitchell, removed his discography from the streaming platform. Both Mitchell and Young acknowledged that although the majority of their audience came from Spotify, fighting against disinformation during a global health crisis is more important than their earnings from Spotify. Spotify responded to the controversy by recognizing the medical community’s concerns and adding disclaimers to Rogan’s more controversial episodes.
Neil Young has a special place in my heart because my dad introduced me to his music at a young age. I distinctly remember one Fourth of July when my family was driving back from the pool where both Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” had been played. I remember my dad laughing at the irony of two songs that critique American society being played as patriotic anthems and him telling me that one day I would understand what the songs were about. In the midst of this controversy between Neil Young, Joe Rogan, and Spotify, everyone should give “Rockin’ in the Free World” another listen. One thing America prides itself on is the value of free speech. In recent years, however, it’s no secret that that free speech has led to a slippery slope of dangerous misinformation. Whether it is about elections or COVID-19, disinformation is everywhere, and people of all ages are vulnerable to lies spread under the basis that any speech is free speech and should not be censored.
As a loyal Spotify user, I never expected the argument between free speech and misinformation to make it to the major platform and moreover, to affect one’s listening experience. With multiple artists leaving Spotify, we are forced to ask a larger question regarding the future of the music industry. Young’s issue with Spotify does not have to do with a major record label or managing team like other highly publicized cases, such as Taylor Swift’s ownership debacle with former manager, Scooter Braun. Instead, Young’s protest against Spotify is unique because he is acting against a major corporation. It calls to question how much power corporations have regarding the spread of misinformation: does Spotify have an obligation to remove Rogan’s podcast in the name of world-wide safety, or do they have an obligation to protect free speech? According to Spotify, they should just put disclaimers on certain episodes that contain more controversial “opinions.”
On February 9th, a record store I visit in Baltimore, Maryland, posted a picture of Neil Young records and CDs with the caption, “Today we celebrate Neil Young. He has left Spotify, so we think this is another great reason to skip streaming and visit your local record store!” Although collecting physical music does not make financial sense in today’s world of streaming, I love the vinyl and CD revival taking place. Even as digital streaming has taken over, many members of the music community have expressed their complaints regarding platforms such as Spotify. People like Neil Young have spoken against Spotify’s poor streaming quality before, but in general, digital streaming has transformed the whole music industry. Despite issues surrounding royalties and an increase in the number of artists put out by labels for commercial purposes, platforms like Spotify make it easier for independent artists to gain a following. Still artists who are signed to one of the three major record labels—Universal Music, Sony Music, or Warner Music— remain on top of the music industry due to marketing that has only heightened in recent years.
The alternative to digital streaming is of course a revival of the radio and a return to buying physical albums or mixes. Even though I think this would be a unique cultural moment, it’s not realistic to think that everyone would quit Spotify because a few artists removed their music—I still use Spotify even though half of my playlists are empty without Neil Young. What happens next if Spotify is not going anywhere? Musical streaming corporations like Spotify need to somehow categorize what they put on their platform. I have accidentally stumbled across podcasts I do not agree with on the app, and after giving the controversial Rogan podcast that featured Dr. Malone a listen, I understand how someone could believe Rogan’s opinions as factual. In the midst of a world wide emergency regarding COVID-19, corporations should have an obligation to reconsider what they are putting out into the world. I am unsure, however, how this would play out regarding other podcasts with extreme opinions or even music that could be seen as offensive.
In the end, Neil Young’s actions are admirable but will not make a huge difference regarding the music industry and its major corporations. Unfortunately, people are going to “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” even though that freedom is preventing the end of COVID-19.
Carolina Permuy is a freshman in the SFS.