OPINION: Will Neil Young or Spotify be Cancelled First? 1

OPINION: Will Neil Young or Spotify be Cancelled First?

It has been a confusing story to write. Has it been about sticking it to capitalism and proving free speech can reign? The responsibility Spotify must bear to fact check its Podcasts? Or just its general misdemeanors as a company and as Daniel Ek the man and now potential Arms Dealer? Or has it been about certain musicians proving they have more agency over their career than others and therefore possess more privilege?

This week’s music news has been dominated by Neil Young’s furor with Spotify and his consequential departure from the streaming platform. He objected to Spotify’s golden podcast child Joe Rogan’s recent episodes as their content discussed questionable scientific information regarding Covid vaccinations and information. Rogan was rumoured to have signed a $100m deal in 2020 for exclusivity to the Spotify platform. He brings 11 million active listeners to each episode. Neil Young has, according to the Wall Street Journal 6 million active listeners, incidentally, so no lean figure. At around half Joe Rogan’s listener base, Spotify felt it was an easy choice when issued with the ultimatum by Young:  “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.”

Here we come to the first stumbling block in the ensuing chain of events. The issue here was that many argued that Neil Young was subsequently anti-free speech in his decision to take umbrage with Joe Rogan. However, 270 doctors, scientists, and healthcare professionals signed an open letter requesting that Spotify implement a policy for dealing with misinformation because of Rogan’s “concerning history of broadcasting misinformation, particularly regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.” By standing by the open letter what he really was trying to do was take a stance for Spotify to fact check their podcasters.  Young wrote that “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy”.

They had no misinformation policy for a terrible (read: financially convenient) reason. The last time Spotify tried to police any of their content was back in 2018 with the R Kelly trial and subsequent removal of his music from the platform, the “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct”  policy they implemented then backfired massively as artists feared their “free speech” would be compromised. It faced backlash across the music industry and Spotify then walked back the policy three weeks later. They didn’t drop it completely but only had the vaguest one in place for the most extreme hate speech.  As of 30th January, Ek has backpedaled once again. Spotify have now released a statement announcing “Platform Rules”, as a set of guidelines to avoid the creation of “dangerous” and “deceptive” content. This basically means that things have to be fact-checked to some extent from now on. This is again not an ethical decision but of course, a business one, meant to curtail the stock losses and #deletespotify campaigns now beginning to gain pace. In his blogpost, Ek made sure to really oversell Spotify’s commitment to science and the fight against the pandemic:

“We donated ad inventory to various organizations for vaccine awareness, funds to the World Health Organization and COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) to increase vaccine equity and supported the Go Give One fundraising campaign. And we established a music relief project to support the creative community.”

Whilst any donation to COVAX is important and valuable, Ek’s post was purely a box ticking practice and it is difficult to see how these “rules” can be implemented. They are little more than guidelines that will be difficult, costly and therefore unlikely to be policed in any real way unless more big guns make noise.

Ek’s statements since also expose the fact that Spotify is a tech company designed to make profits for those who own it(Daniel Ek is worth nearly three billion pounds), a platform for “content creators”, not a way for musicians to share their music and get a fair share of the proceeds, which is what a streaming service SHOULD be.

Many people felt a bit jaded about Neil Young’s initial statement and indeed his stance. Young, despite having a truly fantastic track record in civil disobedience and hippy-dom is also conveniently very well-documented anti-Spotify for personal reasons. Firstly Neil Young was anti streaming for a very long time. He even launched his own streaming service, Pono, in January 2015 that was designed to stream at a HiFi quality. At that time Spotify did not offer a high bitrate option. Pono ultimately failed, even though it inspired other services, such as Tidal, to start upping the bitrate game. Tidal is incidentally Whathifi’s pick for the best “soundstage edge” of the available major streaming services. Even though they all now offer the higher quality option of a bitrate of 320kbps. As Pono struggled, Rolling Stone reports Young even asked Donald Trump, that famous freedom fighter for financial backing. When you combine this known reluctance with the knowledge that Neil Young recently sold 50% of the rights to his back catalogue for an estimated $150 million a different picture can emerge of Young. It is not of a happy hippy who is standing up for ethics and what is right, but perhaps someone who for a long time has been unhappy with Spotify is a canny businessman who has control over the rights of his own music and made this decision based on a complex web of issues.

Young’s actions, however, quickly inspired longtime friend Joni Mitchell and Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren to remove their music from Spotify in direct support. Anti-vax issues are emotive and upsetting for a lot of people and obviously unforgivable for Mitchell and Lofgren. Spotify had thought that siding with Rogan, their prized podcast cash cow, was the right thing to do financially, but after Young removed his catalogue their stock price dipped, temporarily devaluing the company by $2 billion. Whilst this has said to have somewhat recovered now, Spotify’s decision is ultimately proving to be risky business as they cumulatively lose more listeners than Rogan can pull in. And it’s not just big names standing by Young. He has inspired many others to follow suit. 

The potential fallout is significant, as Peter Paphides eloquently said: “He did something when he could have done nothing,” and “It seems to not occurred to [Spotify] that a lot of artists really love and respect Neil Young.” Paphides reminds us that this is an emotive cause, about our heroes and musical passions and we might not spend too much time weighing up whether Neil Young was in a position of privilege or not. For many it’s a decision of heart and passion, voting against right-wing podcast production and “fake news”, in favour of music and musicians they have cherished for possibly decades. 

As mentioned, many have questioned Young’s motives.  Selling his back catalogue to Hipgnosis makes him infinitely independently wealthy. Many artists are not only dependent on maximising every possible revenue stream they can, but they are at the total behest of their record companies and have no control over who or where their music is placed or how people can access it. Even David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash has come out to say that because of the rights deals he has made he has no control over whether his music appears on Spotify or not even though he would like to remove it (Music Business Worldwide). It means they can’t make the same stance Young can. 

Sony, for example, is an investor in Spotify and so is unlikely to allow their artists to leave the platform en masse when their investment’s return relies on the revenue they bring. I think that it’s important to not demonise Young for his position, let Spotify be the only victim of ‘Cancel culture’ here – maybe we can be glad that he has earned the financial freedom that allowed him to take a stance, as it allowed the flame to start a fire for this discussion to really take hold about the ethics of Spotify as a service and streaming as a method of digesting music that isn’t looking after musicians or music. A former employee of Spotify, Elise Tyler spoke out on Twitter about how the company has become a podcast producer first and foremost:

“In my final months, I sat in meetings between spot execs & label heads discussing projects & artist trajectories, with artists not present in any of these rooms. It’s never been about the artists. Ever. It’s a tech company sleeping with recording labels & artists are the race horses” elise tyler (@snackelis)

Many bands have been speaking out in agreement with this sentiment. They are fed up with being devalued and whilst the politics and ethics of Ek, AI weaponry, and privilege are muddy, a watershed moment has been reached. The indie band Belly have replaced their Spotify band photo with a banner that simply says “#deletespotify”. 

In a statement to Variety, Belly says: 

From the start, Spotify’s business model has been to devalue creative work and underpay artists, while lobbying (along with other tech giants) to keep the regulations governing royalty payments hard in their favor and against artists. Turning around and using a big chunk of the money that ought to be distributed to artists to fund, and give a platform to disinformation- disinformation that may well prolong the pandemic and further hurt artists by limiting live-performance options- is finally too much. Yes, we believe in free speech, but we do not believe we have an obligation to help fund deliberate disinformation and doubt sowed to undermine the very notion of a collective, public good (and get underpaid in the process).” 

For many subscribers to Spotify, the decision has been easy and if you search the hashtag #deletespotify #cancelspotify 

It may be of interest to know that as it stands, according to Digital Music News, Facebook and Peloton currently pay the most per stream, with Tidal in 3rd place. Many are citing Tidal as their replacement of choice but there are other niche choices being recommended and the other big competitors such as Apple and Amazon. How artists can get paid fairly has been a growing issue for decades now and has been made all the more acute by the pandemic as a time when live music and performance had to halt completely. It meant that artists lost all profit from touring ticket and merchandise sales, note most merch for a lot of bands is sold whilst on the road. Many people lost their main income and however much the Tory government would like to tell them to simply “retrain”, pivoting is not always possible. New thinking is needed and so it is a time that we should be really happy that action has been taken as it has created ripples that hopefully will continue conversations. As the #BrokenRecord campaign has been arguing for a few years, musicians and artists need a way for their art to pay. Their music is worth money. They haven’t been able to tour for a long time and physical music format sales are nearly non-existent for some genres. Vinyl is more popular than ever, but supply chain issues are hitting indie artists, the people who need income the most, the greatest. 

It’s easy to get lost here. The news has bombarded us every day with more angles, issues, reasons why Young’s motives weren’t pure but overwhelmingly the sustaining message seems to be, lets not let Spotify off the hook anymore.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.