In one corner was Joe Rogan, the stand-up comedian and former Fear Factor host turned provocative podcaster.
In the other stood Neil Young, the multi-Grammy-winning rock legend with a lifelong passion for progressive causes.
The battle lasted two days, and Rogan won without making a peep.
Young started the scuffle when he posted a letter to his website Monday, addressed to his manager and an executive at his record label, demanding that his music catalog be removed from Spotify in response to “fake information about vaccines.”
Specifically, Young cited Joe Rogan — who hosts The Joe Rogan Experience podcast — and has suggested healthy, young people shouldn’t get vaccinated. After catching the coronavirus, Rogan also praised ivermectin, a medicine used to kill parasites in animals and humans that has no proven antiviral benefits. “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform,” Young wrote. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”
Two days later, without a word from Rogan, Spotify began the process of removing the famed rocker’s music, including his best-known hits such as “Heart of Gold,” “Harvest Moon,” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
The speed of Spotify’s decision to sideline Young was jarring. So why did the company do it?
The answer is simple: This isn’t a story about Rogan or Young. It’s about Spotify. And, despite public perception, Spotify isn’t a music company. It’s a tech company looking to maximize profits.
Spotify’s quest to dominate podcasts
The company hasn’t been shy about its aims. In 2019, Spotify announced it would spend up to $500 million to acquire companies “in the emerging podcast marketplace.”
That year it bought Gimlet Media, home of podcasts such as Reply All, Homecoming, and Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel, for an estimated $230 million. It also spent more than $100 million on Anchor, a platform that lets users create and share their own podcasts.
The next year, Spotify spent nearly $200 million to acquire the Ringer and its suite of popular podcasts, such as Binge Mode, The Press Box, and its founder’s The Bill Simmons Podcast. And, of course, it reportedly spent more than $100 million to acquire exclusive rights to a single show: the extremely popular, rabble-rousing Joe Rogan Experience.
“I think it comes down to, just frankly, business,” said John Simson, director for the business and entertainment program at American University. “In the music side of things, [Spotify is] paying out roughly 70% of all the revenue that comes in. It goes right back out as royalties. They’re looking for other places where the revenue split isn’t that dramatic. … Podcasts were certainly their go-to.”
The plan seems to be working. Spotify reportedly overtook Apple Podcasts last year to become the largest podcast provider in the U.S.
Spotify’s strained relationship with musicians
As Spotify built its podcasting empire, it has been increasingly criticized by the musicians who use the platform. In December, rapper T-Pain tweeted a breakdown of how many streams it takes for a musician to make $1 on various services, pointing out that on Spotify it takes 315 while on Apple Music it’s 128.
Other big-name artists have also feuded with Spotify — Taylor Swift pulled her music from the platform until it met her demands — but none seemed to spark widespread change.
Young has received an outpouring of support from across the political and social spectrum: “I’m with #NeilYoung,” tweeted Geraldo Rivera.
It’s not that dropping Young won’t inflict any pain on Spotify. Most of his music is more than 18 months old, and older tunes have become popular during the pandemic.
So it should come as no surprise that the day after Spotify announced the removal of Young’s catalog, SiriusXM said it would revive Neil Young Radio, a channel dedicated to Young’s music and storytelling, for a brief stint.
Young’s plea to other musicians
“I sincerely hope that other artists and record companies will move off the SPOTIFY platform and stop supporting SPOTIFY’s deadly misinformation about COVID,” Young wrote on his blog on Wednesday.
Whether anyone will follow remains to be seen. Many of the artists who could take up his battle cry — elder statesmen of rock with large enough catalogs to hurt the streaming service — no longer own their own music.
In the past few years, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks, the David Bowie estate, and many more have sold their entire catalogs for large sums. Younger artists, including John Legend and Ryan Tedder, have begun joining in.
In most of these cases, the artist sold both the publishing and the recording copyrights. That means, unless they have a special clause around how their music is used, they don’t have any power to dictate where their tunes appear. And Simson, the American University professor, said such clauses are rare. “The reason [these companies] are paying all that money is that these streaming services are driving up value” of those catalogs.
In his blog post, Young wrote that removing his music from Spotify will equate to “losing 60% of my world wide streaming income.”
So while other artists — particularly his contemporaries — rally around the legend, they’re probably not going to intervene.
Is losing one artist enough to force Spotify to change?
Then there’s the question of how much impact one artist can have. The numbers look staggering. The Weeknd, an extreme outlier, currently garners 86.6 million monthly listeners. Adele has 60 million. Drake has about 53.6 million monthly listeners. Taylor Swift has about 54 million.
If one or two of them pulled their music, how many of Spotify’s 172 million subscribers would actually delete their accounts? How many of its 381 million monthly users would stop listening?
“Spotify is probably counting on the inertia aspect. Once you’re on a particular streaming platform, you’re likely to stay there because you’ve got your playlists, you’re familiar with it,” Simson said.
Now consider that Rogan has an estimated 11 million listeners per episode. He usually posts four to five of them each week, and they frequently last longer than three hours.
Plus — and this is key — Rogan is exclusive to Spotify. Very few musical artists are. Neil Young’s albums are on Amazon, Apple, and several other services. Rogan’s library is only on Spotify. You don’t need Spotify to listen to Young, but you do need it to listen to Rogan.