News analysis: Spotify’s biggest problem isn’t Joe Rogan. It’s ambition
The source of streaming giant Spotify’s latest corporate headaches began quietly, about a month ago, on TikTok.
A small community of scientists, doctors and others who post educational content on TikTok and other social media platforms have started messaging each other about a December 30 podcast where the most popular host of Spotify, Joe Rogan, uncritically interviewed a controversial critic of the COVID-19 vaccine. .
A disinformation researcher in the group, Abbie Richards, noted something unusual: Spotify, unlike TikTok and many other platforms, did not have a public-facing “misinformation” policy to restrict potentially harmful content about the pandemic. The group made an open letter asking for one.
“We did not ask that the Joe Rogan episode be removed or that Joe Rogan be de-platformed. It was very intentional,” said Stanford neuroscientist and postdoctoral fellow Ben Rein, who co-authored the letter. open, initially signed by more than 250 health professionals, scientists and others. “These platforms have a responsibility to invest in the development of effective approaches to combat misinformation.”
The letter sparked a month of drama for Spotify that continues, with boycotts from artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, cries of censorship from Rogan supporters and heated internal debates among Spotify employees even after as the company revealed its internal content moderation guidelines and promised new labeling on pandemic-related podcasts.
Amid this furor, Rogan remained the towering central figure who, apparently, everyone loves – or hates – arguing with. After securing a deal worth around $100 million to make his show exclusive to Spotify in 2020, “The Joe Rogan Experience” has become Spotify’s most popular podcast in 93 markets.
It occasionally hosts controversial (and often right-wing) figures, but can boast many fans and advocates across the ideological and cultural spectrum, including liberal host Jon Stewart and the controversially opposed actor. Dwayne Johnson.
Rogan also has many passionate critics, and liberal watchdog Media Matters employs a researcher who has listened to hundreds of hours of his broadcasts. to document the most controversial parts. (Rogan did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I try to point out that he regularly and inconsequentially engages in harmful lies about our response to the current pandemic,” said Alex Paterson, senior researcher at Media Matters, among others. “So at one point he might be discussing elk hunting or MMA fighting and then all of a sudden he’ll be pushing the right-wing lie that [President] Biden is trying to keep the public from access monoclonal antibodies.”
But what has become increasingly clear in recent weeks is that the source of Spotify’s headaches isn’t Rogan. It’s Spotify’s ambition to dominate the audio industry – and satisfy investors – by reaching 1 billion users and 50 million “creators”.
At a town hall on Wednesday, some Spotify employees argued with executives over management’s persistence in defining Spotify as a platform rather than a publisher, a dichotomy the company awkwardly crossed by becoming the exclusive distributor of Rogan’s show while agreeing not to oversee it editorially, other than removing episodes that might violate the company’s generic content guidelines.
Speaking to employees, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s remarks suggested he didn’t particularly like Rogan’s show personally.
“There are a lot of things that Joe Rogan says I strongly disagree with and find very offensive,” Ek told employees, according to the audio obtained by the Verge.
But as Ek said, the exclusive deal with Rogan and others gave the platform a key lift.
“In 2019, our music and podcasting catalog wasn’t that differentiated, and because of that, we were left out of deals with some critical hardware partners like Amazon, Google, and even Tesla,” Ek said. “They had or were working on creating their own streaming services with essentially the same content, so there was really no reason for them to join our service.”
Apple, for example, a peer in music and podcasting, may offer discounts on subscriptions to its services or longer free trials because it makes the majority of its revenue from selling iPhones. And unlike Google, Spotify doesn’t make its own phones or supply the operating system to phones, which means it would have to partner with those companies, many of which have their own competing streaming services.
Then there’s Amazon, which is a logistics and web services giant that also happens to be a music streaming and entertainment company.
“What all these other companies also have in common is that they can afford to lose money on music, because it’s not their only business, far from it,” said Tatiana Cirisano. , music industry analyst and consultant at MIDiA Research. “For Spotify, at least until podcasting, music was all its business.”
So, in Ek’s story, to stand out from its competitors and reach the ears of Tesla drivers and other consumers, Spotify had to stop acting like an empty platform and offer something interesting.
It needed something exclusive that its rivals didn’t – or couldn’t – have. Something, or someone, like Rogan, along with several other podcast production companies the company has acquired in recent years, becoming a hugely successful player in the audio space in a short time.
As a result of these changes, “we are the number one podcasting platform American listeners use the most,” Ek told employees this week. “So to be frank, if we hadn’t made some of the choices we made, I’m confident our business wouldn’t be where it is today.”
Ek’s approach to editorial content, even that of Rogan, has been striking to some Spotify employees, some of whom have told management that the company’s association with the Rogan-related controversies is straining. test their own reputation as well as that of the company.
“Ek was pretty transparent about Rogan being a means to an end,” said an employee, who was not authorized to speak to the media.
Commenting on the drama, another Spotify employee added, “The more the company grows, the more potential it has to face thorny moral dilemmas. Spotify didn’t have these issues before deciding to come in and dominate the podcast space.
Spotify did not respond to a request for comment.
Many ambitious tech companies have faced growing pains from disgruntled employees with ethical issues (Facebook and its whistleblowers, for example), content moderation controversies (President Trump’s Twitter ban ) and controversial comments from high-leverage stars (Netflix and Dave Chappelle).
Spotify faces all three scenarios at once, and unlike other companies, Spotify’s latest controversy over its content moderation policies has been spurred and accelerated in part thanks to grudges already harbored by its longtime music community.
It was the catalogs of musicians that first made Spotify indispensable to listeners, and which in turn made Spotify a go-to and oft-hated corporate toll for artists looking to connect with audiences and gain traction. visibility after the collapse of the analog record industry.
“Artists have hated this business for a long time,” said Downtown Boys and La Neve member Joey DeFrancesco, who is an organizer with the Musicians and Allied Workers Union, which has lobbied Spotify and other streamers to raise protests. derisory funds. ongoing royalty payments to artists. “The whole industry has been sucked into streaming, and we’re not getting anything out of it.”
The medical professionals and others’ open letter to Spotify was initially ignored by the company, until longtime activist musician Neil Young bolstered their cause by demanding his music be removed. On his website, he said it was “misinformation and lies about COVID”, but then added his longstanding criticism that “SPOTIFY continues to peddle the lowest quality in music reproduction” .
Singer India Arie removed her own music and podcast from Spotify over concerns over Rogan’s comment on race, then added: “Paying musicians a fraction of a penny? and HIM $100M? This shows the type of business they are in and the business they keep.
But most artists haven’t left the service, and app analytics data indicates that, so far, Spotify hasn’t seen a significant drop in new signups after the boycotts. In a survey by Forrester Research on Feb. 1, 40 of 211 Spotify users said they had canceled or planned to cancel their subscriptions, though people often don’t follow through on those plans.
Investors seemed appeased after Ek announced that Spotify was releasing its content moderation policy, among other measures. Rogan, in an Instagram video, appeared contrite and said he might try to have more traditional guests who balance out his more controversial interviews.
“I feel like most people would ultimately agree that the steps announced by Rogan and Spotify are pretty reasonable,” said Jeffrey Wlodarczak, principal and entertainment/interactive subscription services analyst at Pivotal. ResearchGroup.
Otherwise, Ek’s message was that Spotify will stay the course.
“At the end of the day, it really comes down to two things,” Ek told employees. “First, do we believe in our mission: 50 million creators and 1 billion users? And finally, are we willing to consistently enforce our policies even to the loudest and most popular voices on the platform? I tell you, I believe both.