Joe Rogan podcasting (credit: Spotify)

Facebook and Twitter are deeply reluctant to see themselves described as publishers. That isn’t because they’re sticklers for accuracy, but because if that classification were to stick, they would suddenly be responsible for every bit of content on their sites in the same way that newspapers are. That would be unsustainable, given moderators struggle to keep up and AI moderation isn’t even close to being a silver bullet

This isn’t a problem that Spotify should have. As a music streaming app, it has far less content to keep track of, and fewer consequences for kicking off a musician that causes offence. And yet it’s now caught in the same kind of freedom-of-speech vs responsible censorship debate as its rivals, thanks to its recent insistence that podcasts are the future.

Ticking time bomb

While the problem came to a head last week, the roots of it can be traced all the way back to 2019 when it became clear that Spotify saw podcasts as a way of making the first green shoots of profit become sustainable in the long run. The company went on a spending spree, purchasing the likes of Gimlet, Parcast and Anchor. 

Then, in 2020, Spotify made its highest profile signing to date: over NZ$150 million for the controversial comedian and UFC host turned podcasting megastar Joe Rogan. As part of the deal, it seems that Spotify has given Rogan complete editorial freedom at the annoyance of some employees. While this should have triggered alarm bells there and then, this ticking time bomb would take another two years to actually detonate.

Y’see, due to Rogan’s podcasting style — lampooned in the tweet above — critics say that he gives far too much credence to conspiracy theorists. And while he himself has claimed he isn’t anti-vax, he has gone on record as saying that young, healthy people needn’t get the Covid-19 vaccine.

That puts him at odds with the people you would expect — those pesky doctors and scientists — but also, surprisingly, veteran musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Both of them, it has since been pointed out, suffered from polio before a vaccine was rolled out. Both have given Spotify the ultimatum ‘It’s Joe Rogan or me’ and so far Spotify has backed Rogan.

Damage control

I’m guessing that if you had access to Spotify’s internal records, the logic here would appear perfectly sound. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, though enormously successful, made their best loved music in the days before Spotify or even Napster existed. Given the demographics involved, the median Spotify user probably doesn’t listen to much Neil Young. Said user may not even know who he is.

So in dollars and cents, it’s a no brainer: when faced with the question “Neil Young or Joe Rogan,” it’s hardly surprising Spotify would go with the one it paid over NZ$150 million for just two years ago.

The question is whether this will spread to more contemporary artists. While some are rumoured to be considering their options, it’s fair to say that leaving Spotify isn’t a luxury that every artist has. The app may pay absolute peanuts per stream, but it is invaluable exposure, and can indirectly fund more lucrative income channels like tickets and merchandise. Spotify can definitely breathe a sigh of relief that — for now — it needs 99.9% of its artists less than they need it.

But even if there are no further exits, that balance could flip. Plenty of paying customers are already following Young and Mitchell’s lead and cancelling their memberships, and looking to Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal or Amazon Music Unlimited as perfectly viable alternatives. Twitter is full of people screenshotting their cancellation form with Joe Rogan cited in the explanation box. At one point, it was reported that so many people were leaving that the site had to cancel it’s live support.

I’m sceptical of correlation being the same as causation for that last claim, given websites freeze live support all the time for any number of reasons, but in one sense it doesn’t matter: if it’s reported as being triggered by a mass exodus then that in itself can be self fulfilling. 

Rogan himself has offered a sort-of apology and backed Spotify’s weak solution to put a warning on contentious shows. But ultimately this is a solution that pleases nobody, and those who subscribe to Spotify for its music rather than its podcasts (i.e: almost everyone) will be increasingly baffled by this deference to shows over music — especially as the UI already insists on promoting podcasts at every turn with no option to opt out.

In short, Spotify can’t win on podcasts alone, and if it suddenly looks like a weaker option for music than its rivals, then it may suddenly have to face down the sunk cost fallacy and write off the enormous fee it paid for Rogan — painful as it would be to do so.