Spotify and the neutral platform myth
Spotify’s relationship with The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) always felt like it would reach an inevitable boiling point. Spotify had already removed episodes due to misinformation, but there was no promise that future episodes would do the same. The outrage over Rogan using the N-word isn’t new. It’s been almost ten years since the first YouTube video reaction to Rogan’s use of the word. But the timing lined up to the current moment, which maximized the impact.
Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek released a company-wide memo to address this. His response felt similar to responses from Facebook, YouTube, and other big tech companies regarding content moderation. They often tell the public that they are platforms, not publishers. These platforms often remove the most extremely heinous content imaginable (e.g. child pornography) but give a pass to other problematic topics that don’t fall within their moderation guidelines.
Here is a segment of Ek’s memo regarding Rogan:
“…And I want to make one point very clear – I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer. We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope. Looking at the issue more broadly, it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.
“Another criticism that I continue to hear from many of you is that it’s not just about The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify; it comes down to our direct relationship with him. In last week’s Town Hall, I outlined to you that we are not the publisher of JRE. But perception due to our exclusive license implies otherwise. So I’ve been wrestling with how this perception squares with our values.”
Let’s unpack this. First, as Kara Swisher said yesterday, the terms ‘silencing’ and ‘canceling’ are false equivalencies that distract from the situation. Spotify can’t silence or cancel a podcaster whose audience would likely grow if it went back to being available on all other podcasting platforms. (Especially since Rogan has since been offered a matching deal from Rumble, which wants to distribute all of his content without censorship).
Second, Ek’s line “we are not the publisher of JRE” is a bit subjective. He said something similar at Spotify’s recent town hall. He sees Spotify as the publisher for The Ringer, Parcast, and Gimlet since Spotify acquired those companies and has editorial control over them. But since Spotify didn’t acquire JRE, he sees that relationship more like any independent podcaster who uploads their show to Spotify.
But that’s a difficult stance to have given Rogan’s $100 million exclusive contract with Spotify, which Ek has alluded to. It’s no surprise that content moderation is harder for podcasts than text-based social media. It’s a less tractable medium. As a result, podcasters are more likely to get away with saying things that don’t fly on social media platforms. But it’s not unreasonable to expect Spotify to have higher standards for the podcast that has been one of its biggest growth engines for the past two years.
Also, Spotify’s ‘platform vs publisher’ take implies that the company would treat Rogan differently if it had acquired JRE. But let’s say the podcaster in question instead was The Ringer CEO, Bill Simmons (The Bill Simmons Podcast), or Gimlet’s Alex Goldman (Reply All). How would Spotify have acted differently in those scenarios?
The $100 million commitment to marginalized groups
Later in Ek’s memo, he made a $100 million commitment to support historically marginalized groups:
“If we believe in having an open platform as a core value of the company, then we must also believe in elevating all types of creators, including those from underrepresented communities and a diversity of backgrounds. We’ve been doing a great deal of work in this area already but I think we can do even more. So I am committing to an incremental investment of $100 million for the licensing, development, and marketing of music (artists and songwriters) and audio content from historically marginalized groups.”
I’m eager to see how this $100 million will be used. It’s the same amount of money that Spotify committed to Rogan. I hope it doesn’t get used as a future talking point to say, “See, we gave just as much to Rogan as we did to marginalized groups!” as a way to minimize the perception of its relationship with Rogan. I also hope it doesn’t get used to supporting fringe or problematic podcasts “from both sides” in an attempt to appear neutral. But time will tell.
The ask for forgiveness not permission
Big Tech’s M.O. has been to ask for forgiveness, not permission. Spotify has followed a similar beat but has acquiesced more than others due to its business model. It made revenue share agreements with the record labels and publishers since the streaming company doesn’t own any music. Podcasting has been its attempt to capture more upside, but Spotify’s leading podcaster has sparked a public outcry that may linger for some time.
Neil Young’s decision to take his music off Spotify may be seen as a catalyst, but he’s in a different category. His chart-topping days are behind him and he sold half of his catalog last year. But if artists like Taylor Swift or Adele ever want off Spotify (which may not be surprising given the reluctance they once had to the platform), it could start a bigger domino effect.
In my essay Inside Universal, Sony, and Warner’s Arms Race for your Attention, I wrote about how the record labels and Spotify both want to gain leverage through a partnership with others. Spotify has done that through non-music audio, which the majors have done it through its licensing deals with social networks and digital environments. If an A-List major label artist wants off of Spotify, they may get pushback from the label execs today. But that could change eventually as the labels are less reliant on Spotify (and vice-versa).
Joe Rogan has become a symbol of Spotify’s current challenges. But Rogan’s listenership on the platform continues to grow. The company is now incentivized to distribute, promote, and “publish” and promote more content that attracts the JRE listener and others with similar listening habits. It would be foolish to think that this is the last of this debate.
As I wrote in last week’s essay on Spotify, the company has a considerable amount of power in its quest for attention in audio. The company has a ton of power and potential. How it chooses to wield that power will set the tone for its future.