“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” This was reportedly the ultimatum to Spotify from Neil Young, over the streaming platform’s deal with US podcaster Joe Rogan.
Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling rock legend or the host of one of the most popular podcasts in the world?
The row, which has dominated music industry headlines, is all to do with allegations of COVID misinformation, and Spotify ultimately chose Rogan. However, Rogan has now promised to be more “balanced” and Spotify is introducing a “content advisory” to any podcast episode that discusses coronavirus.
Amid the controversy, more than $2bn (about £1.5bn) was wiped off Spotify’s market value last week.
Here, Sky News takes a look at how it started, the artists taking a stand, and what Spotify and Rogan have said about it.
Who is Joe Rogan?
With a podcast listened to by millions around the world, there are already plenty of Joe Rogan fans out there. But for those who don’t know who he is, Rogan, 54, is a stand-up comedian, MMA enthusiast and commentator and former reality TV host, who launched The Joe Rogan Experience podcast in 2009.
Billed as a long-form conversation show, it has amassed a huge following over the years and featured everyone from Bernie Sanders and Elon Musk – who infamously smoked cannabis during the interview – to Miley Cyrus and Kanye West.
Spotify acquired The Joe Rogan Experience in 2020, reportedly for more than $100m (£77m), and it is the top-rated podcast on the platform.
Rogan has previously attracted controversy over his COVID-19 views, having suggested the young and healthy should not get vaccinated. He has also said he used ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug used mainly on horses that has no proven benefit against COVID, after contracting the virus.
How did the row start?
Earlier in January, some 270 scientists and medical professionals signed an open letter to Spotify urging bosses to take action against Rogan, accusing him of spreading falsehoods on the podcast.
Then, Neil Young, 76, threatened to pull his music from the streaming service.
Young – who contracted polio as a child, shortly before the vaccine for the disease became available, fans have pointed out – posted a letter on his website addressed to his manager and his record label, Warner Music Group, demanding that Spotify no longer carry his music. It has since been deleted.
“I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform… They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” Young wrote in the letter, according to US media reports.
The following day, Young posted again on his website, saying that while Spotify represented 60% of his worldwide streaming income, it had become a “damaging force” and he was “taking the hit… in the name of truth”.
Young is best known for hits including Heart Of Gold, Rocking In The Free World and Cinnamon Girl. His music has now been removed from the platform, with Spotify saying it “regrets” the musician’s decision.
The streaming giant said it tried to achieve balance, having removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID since the start of the pandemic.
Which other artists are involved?
A few day’s after Young’s decision, Joni Mitchell announced she was standing “in solidarity” with the star by removing her music from Spotify.
Mitchell said the streaming giant was allowing “irresponsible people” to spread lies that were “costing people their lives”.
“I’ve decided to remove all my music from Spotify,” Mitchell said in a statement on her official website. “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives. I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue.”
Mitchell, 78, is another Grammy winner, best known for songs including Big Yellow Taxi and Chelsea Morning.
There was speculation on social media that Barry Manilow would also follow suit. However, the singer released a statement on Twitter saying he did not know where the reports had come from.
What has this got to do with Harry and Meghan?
In 2020, Prince Harry and Meghan signed a lucrative multi-year partnership with Spotify for an undisclosed sum – estimated to be worth around $25m (about £18m), in late 2020.
The deal was to host and produce podcasts under their brand Archewell Audio. However, apart from a “holiday special” released on 29 December 2020, they have not released any other material.
Commenting on the Rogan row, the couple claimed they expressed concerns about the spread of misinformation on the platform last April. However, they said they would continue to work with the company.
In a statement sent to Sky News, an Archewell spokesperson said: “Since the inception of Archewell, we have worked to address the real-time global misinformation crisis. Hundreds of millions of people are affected by the serious harms of rampant mis- and disinformation every day.
“Last April, our co-founders began expressing concerns to our partners at Spotify about the all too real consequences of COVID-19 misinformation on its platform. We have continued to express our concerns to Spotify to ensure changes to its platform are made to help address this public health crisis.
“We look to Spotify to meet this moment and are committed to continuing our work together as it does.”
What has Spotify said?
On 30 January, bosses for the platform announced it will now add a “content advisory” to any podcast episode which discusses coronavirus.
The streaming giant’s chief executive Daniel Ek also said that “long-standing platform rules” will be published to be more transparent about “the policies that guide our content more broadly”.
In a post on Spotify’s website announcing the steps being taken, Mr Ek said: “Personally, there are plenty of views on Spotify that I disagree with strongly… it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”
He then went on to outline how any podcast episode about COVID will now be accompanied by a content advisory.
“This advisory will direct listeners to our dedicated COVID-19 Hub, a resource that provides easy access to data-driven facts, up-to-date information as shared by scientists, physicians, academics and public health authorities around the world, as well as links to trusted sources,” he said.
Mr Ek said the company would also begin publishing its platform rules, which tell contributors not to promote dangerous, deceptive, sensitive or illegal content on its platform, and guidance adds that “breaking the rules may result in the violative content being removed”.
Mr Ek also said the company will “begin testing ways to highlight our platform rules in our creator and publisher tools to raise awareness around what’s acceptable and help creators understand their accountability for the content they post on our platform”.
Spotify shares were up 2% in pre-market trading on Monday but still at their lowest since May 2020, after the controversy
and a broader sell-off of tech stocks in January eroded more than a quarter of the platform’s value.
Following the post by Mr Ek, Rogan released a 10-minute video on social media to address the controversy, saying he will try to “balance out” the opinions expressed on his show and that he supports Spotify’s content advisory plans.
Responding to claims he has spread dangerous misinformation about the virus, the podcaster said he was “interested in having conversations with people that have differing opinions” and was not focused on “only talking to people that have one perspective”.
He apologised if he offended anyone and added that he “was not trying to promote misinformation”. However, he said he would “try harder to get people with differing opinions” immediately after those with controversial opinions who appear.
“So my pledge to you so that I will do my best to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people’s perspectives so we can maybe find a better point of view,” he said.
“I don’t want to just show the contrary opinion to what the narrative is. I want to show all kinds of opinions so that we can all figure out what’s going on and not just about COVID, but about everything about health, about fitness, wellness, the state of the world itself.”
Analysis: A positive step – but more work still to be done
Spotify’s announcement marks a positive step towards addressing misinformation on the platform.
But while it tells us more about the kind of content Spotify says it does not allow, it does not reveal what the company is doing to enforce these rules behind the scenes.
A Sky News investigation last year found more than 150 hours of hateful content on the platform, which the company removed after we reported it to them.
But just how much Spotify is doing to seek out and remove violative content beyond responding to user reports is not known.
Sky News Spotify investigation
COVID-19 aside, a Sky News investigation in December 2021 found antisemitic, racist and white supremacist material in podcasts on Spotify.
We found podcasts totalling several days’ worth of listening promoting extreme views such as scientific racism, Holocaust denial and far-right antisemitic conspiracy theories.
While some of the most shocking material was buried inside hours-long episodes, in some cases, explicit slurs could be found in episode titles and descriptions while album artwork displayed imagery adopted by white supremacists.
Spotify removed the content after we reported it to the streaming giant and said it does not allow hate content on its platform.
You can read our full report here.