Since emerging in 2006, Spotify has often seemed like a battleground paradigm of the internet age. However, with over 381 million monthly active users and just about every artist under the sun occupying the platform, it has always been a subtle Cold War with very little affecting the surface. Open letters by unions of musicians have been shrugged off with little more than a passing glance, and business as usual is the dominating notion above it all.
This all seems to have changed in the last week, as Neil Young left the platform over Covid-19 misinformation on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren joined him, the Spotify stock market value went tumbling $2billion, and a prompt announcement of a warning message before applicable content soon followed. It has been a hectic and pivotal week in the streaming service’s history, and it has remained an exemplar of wider debates throughout. Behind the current situation, a political tug-of-war is at play, and it has a lot to say about culture in the internet age in general.
In order to understand the current situation, some historical context is required. Unlike conventional media, the internet has always been a lawless realm that answers to itself. In most countries, traditional media outlets (television and radio), have a governing body. For instance, in the UK, Ofcom ensures that a level of accountability for content is upheld. On the internet, this notion is inverted. While ostensibly platforms like Spotify and YouTube have the power to pull content, because no independent governing body exists, this usually creates an issue of popularity versus accountability.
Without an independent body, if a hugely popular content producer espouses misinformation, then is it really in the streaming service’s best interest to intervene? In traditional media, independent services like Ofcom or the Independent Press Standards Organisation take the decisions away from the content producers, whereas the internet has remained a libertarian wild west since it first began.
The Joe Rogan Experience [JRE] typifies both sides of this: simply imagine turning on the terrestrial news and finding out that it was being hosted by a stoned comedian that evening? The imagined situation is one that stretches beyond reconciliation, but on the internet, it is an everyday reality enjoyed by around 11 million listeners. However, the inevitable defence is that the podcast never called itself a news outlet in the first place, and this blurred line of internet culture is both a liberating force and a hugely problematic presentiment. With 11 million listeners there surely comes a degree of responsibility, but online there is no independent body to enforce it.
Those listenership figures are monumental in the current debate and the fallout of the actions that have been taken by all sides. While Neil Young and Joni Mitchell may well have a very similar combined monthly listenership to the JRE, the difference is that they also have record labels, thus Spotify has to pay out roughly 70% of its music income in royalties. Their exclusive podcast, however, might have cost them a $100million multi-year deal with Joe Rogan, but thereafter it provides nothing but profit and a steadily continued listenership.
And, as ever, figures underpin all sides of this debate. For instance, Young has expressed that he is set to lose out on 60% of his streaming income by leaving Spotify. In an age when streaming is the most popular way to listen to music, this represents a huge commercial loss for the folk legend. However, only a year ago, the 76-year-old artist sold half of his back catalogue to Hipgnosis Songs Fund for a whopping figure of $150million. Naturally, this places him in a comfortable financial position—many emerging artists do not have that same liberty. With almost 400million listeners, the platform proves essential in terms of commercial income, growth and exposure, as well as developing and maintaining a fanbase.
This issue points towards a lesser reported story to emerge regarding Spotify last week: the UK is set to launch a probe into music streaming with the intention of ascertaining whether any particular platform has excessive power causing a negative impact. The mission statement for the probe concludes: “While focussing on potential harm to consumers, the CMA will also assess whether any lack of competition between music companies could affect the musicians, singers and songwriters whose interests are intertwined with those of music lovers.”
The terms of trade in the world of streaming is yet another huge debate, but when it comes to the current Rogan / Young fallout, an issue beyond the usual royalties dispute in the monopolised industry has been highlighted, and it may well prove promising from an artist standpoint. While many musicians simply don’t have the listenership to do anything other than conform and protest, the fact that two esteemed artists – who nevertheless rank well outside the most popular on the platform – have the power to cause a $2billion downturn is a sign that content creators still do have an impact. If Neil Young gets roughly six million monthly listeners, then just imagine the impact that someone like Taylor Swift could have if she pulled her 53 million fans out of the platform?
The flipside to this power dynamic is that in order to make a change, Neil Young had to leave the platform itself, perhaps hinting that invisibility is the only true form of protest in the age of streaming. Furthermore, has his exit even proved that impactful beyond a market price that will no doubt recover unless a highly unlikely musical mass exodus ensues? After all, Spotify has quickly distanced itself from censoring and the measures soon to be brought in barely mitigate the dissemination of misinformation, they simply seek to implement a disclaimer and codify their own policies.
At the foot of these falling questions are the consumers, who now will no doubt continue to listen to Spotify, sorry to see two great artists go. Lingering somewhere outside of this is the unanswered question of just how we ensure that online content is monitored and kept accountable. For all the fake news debates that have erupted since Donald Trump began continually espousing the phrase, we seem no closer to answering it and this current incarnation of the argument has only highlighted that issue further.