As Spotify Technology SA navigates the fallout from Neil Young’s dispute with the company over podcaster Joe Rogan, the audio-streaming giant is under increasing pressure to join other major digital platforms forced to police the content they provide.
Though the Stockholm company built its brand as a music streamer, it has invested hundreds of millions of euros into podcast brands and technology since going public in 2018, in large part to use the ad sales the podcasts drive to hedge against the high costs of music royalties.
Spotify SPOT-N reportedly signed a US$100-million exclusivity deal with The Joe Rogan Experience in 2020. But after Mr. Young asked the company last week to remove either his catalogue or Mr. Rogan’s, over concerns about vaccine misinformation on the podcast, the company opted to remove Mr. Young’s music. Spotify said Sunday that it would issue content warnings with podcast episodes that discuss the coronavirus.
Spotify has removed content before, including more than 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID-19, it said last week. But Mr. Rogan is believed to be the world’s most popular podcaster. His influence and exclusivity deal have forced Spotify into free-speech debates that are more often the realm of platforms with user-uploaded content such YouTube or Facebook – even though Spotify’s promotion of Mr. Rogan is a key part of its business strategy.
“Just like we would be right to be suspicious – in the best possible meaning of the word – of how a cable company uses its power to shape what channels are on available to cable subscribers, Spotify also occupies that interesting role,” said Vivek Krishnamurthy, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic based at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.
These kinds of debates were inevitable, said Taylor Owen, the founding director of The Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University. “Any platform that hosts content at any scale is increasingly being held to account for what is said and done by the people using the platform,” he said. “It’s a baseline criteria of the internet at the moment.”
Mr. Young asked Spotify last week to pick between him and Mr. Rogan, arguing that the latter’s podcast is “spreading fake information about vaccines.” Mr. Young’s concerns echoed the calls of hundreds of medical experts after a viral episode of the podcast that featured a well-known vaccine skeptic. Fellow Canadian musician Joni Mitchell followed Mr. Young’s lead, as did Crazy Horse and E Street Band member Nils Lofgren.
On Sunday, Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek said in a blog post that the company would add a “content advisory” to all podcast episodes that discuss COVID-19 – asking listeners to visit the company’s COVID-19 information hub, which features podcasts on the subject from well-known news organizations and a link to the World Health Organization’s website.
“There are plenty of individuals and views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly,” Mr. Ek wrote. “We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users.”
In an Instagram video on the weekend, Mr. Rogan also responded to the concerns, saying he was “very happy” for episodes to be given content warnings. “I’m not trying to promote misinformation,” he said. “I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than to just talk to people.”
Mr. Rogan’s podcast has hosted a range of guests discussing the pandemic, including CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. But Mr. Rogan has not shied away from including guests who question widely accepted science – a move that medical experts warn could dissuade listeners from getting vaccinated and, as a result, both increase their risk of death and potentially prolong the pandemic for all.
On Sunday, Mr. Rogan said he would do more research and book “people with differing opinions” to run in close succession on the podcast.
Timothy Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta who has been leading an anti-misinformation campaign called #ScienceUpFirst, said he worried that Mr. Rogan would “falsely balance” scientifically supported views and those that are discredited but popular. “He himself could take a harder line, and hold [guests’] feet to the fire,” Prof. Caulfield said.
But he added that the fact that Mr. Rogan and Mr. Ek acknowledged the problem of misinformation and allowed content warnings was a positive step.
“It makes it easier for me, when I speak with someone who is concerned about censorship or exaggerating the issue, to say, ‘Even Joe Rogan and Spotify view this as an issue that needs to be addressed,’ ” Prof. Caulfield said. “Despite the fact that I’m very passionate about disinformation, I think de-platforming should be an issue of last resort.”
Spotify is unique in its size and ownership. Its biggest competitor in the music-streaming space, Apple Music – which is also believed to pay musicians significantly better royalties – can operate at a loss, thanks to the sales of its parent company. Beholden to public investors, Spotify found itself in between Mr. Young and Mr. Rogan while it tried to build a business model as a broader audio service.
The company’s shares jumped more than 13 per cent Monday, recovering from a beating in recent months that saw its price fall by nearly half of its 2021 heights. Citigroup increased its rating on the stock Monday in a report that analyzed subscriber-based companies and noted the potential in Spotify’s ad revenue.
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