In a three-way battle between the world’s most famous podcaster, the biggest streaming platform and an aging and curious musician, who would you bet on? I love Neil Young; Harvest is one of my favorite albums. But as it takes on Spotify and Joe Rogan, I know where to cut my losses.
This is not a hypothetical exercise. Last week, Young raised concerns about Spotify hosting Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast with millions of listeners, because of Rogan’s alliances with vaccine misinformation. Young gave an ultimatum: it’s me or him. And Spotify, nailing its colors firmly to the profit-above mast, opted for Rogan and Young’s music to be removed from the platform. Podcasts make a lot of money, and few people listen to Young.
It’s easy to characterize this as a feud between Young and Rogan; one enlightened by science and the other clouded by misguided vaccine hesitancy; liberal righteousness and reactionary malevolence. But I think that’s a category mistake, and Young vs. Rogan a proxy war for a much more fundamental debate.
I have little interest in defending Rogan. Although, I guess, we’re too quick to lazily caricature him as a cartoonish villain. When so many millions of people are obviously in contact with someone, our instinct shouldn’t be to decry the whole company as dangerous and malignant, and his adoptees as insane, but rather to ask what he likes so much about him.
In fact, making Rogan a bogeyman deflects the real problem. Spotify is pernicious and its latest moves greedy, but not because it pays Rogan big bucks for the exclusive rights to its podcast. Rather because he wields undue influence over the music industry; it does not fairly remunerate its artists; it siphons its users into narrow taste slices with soulless algorithms; and the logic of the streaming economy ultimately makes music bland, songs shorter, and creators more homogenous.
If you’re not on Spotify, you can say goodbye to a huge out-of-the-box listener base
Spotify’s hold over the entire industry is reason enough to protest. Artists can’t live with it: it doesn’t pay them enough. But they can’t live without it: if you’re not on Spotify, you can say goodbye to a huge ready-made listener base. It’s bad for creators and it’s bad for us. But it’s cheap and it’s convenient, so any position Neil Young takes seems unlikely to hurt his pre-eminence. And its deleterious effects on the music we listen to are slow and progressive, so there’s little immediate incentive to stop using it.
There have already been minor boycotts or protests. Taylor Swift took her music off the platform for about three years, but before a new album was released in 2017, she conveniently found an excuse to join. Adele also held back her album 25 for a short while.
The tech giant is too powerful and perhaps the temptation to give in to exposure and profit is just too great
And therein lies the problem with boycotts: they are a pretty bad way to make a point because they tend to expose our inconsistencies more than they demonstrate our moral purity. Swift ended up giving in, despite nothing changing at Spotify. The tech giant is too powerful and perhaps the temptation to give in to exposure and profit is just too great for a normal recording artist to avoid.
So maybe there’s a lot to thank for the old guard like Neil Young – recently joined in the boycott by Joni Mitchell – for making a move (or maybe the idea of the political artist and in principle gives way to the darlings of the streaming universe – Adele, Swift, Drake). But Mitchell and Young don’t need Spotify. At the end of their career, they hardly need the fame that it could confer on them; and the pair’s older audiences are much less likely to rely on streaming in the first place. Young also sold about half of its catalog last year for a sizable amount of money. It’s much easier to have principles when there’s not much at stake.
It might not be much but, in a world dominated by youth and hyper-obsessed with finding the newest and brightest artist to line Spotify’s pockets, it’s at least reassuring to see Young in possession of the protesting instincts that have come to characterize his earlier career. It’s a dimension largely absent from the contemporary pop music scene and perhaps we’re worse off for it.
But we mustn’t get lost in small noises about Joe Rogan. It’s good to see artists taking on Spotify and struggling to regain ground in an increasingly unbalanced industry. But in a battle of sheer scale, only one artist like Young pales in comparison to the streaming giant — even Swift hasn’t made a dent serious enough for them to change tack.
Perhaps it’s hopeful, unrealistic and utterly fanciful to think that Spotify’s supremacy might one day wane. But the whole point of David versus Goliath is that David won in the end.