Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told employees on Sunday that he was disappointed in Joe Rogan but has no intention of ‘silencing’ the controversial podcaster in the wake of celebrity boycotts and an alarming stock plunge.
The streaming giant lost $2 billion in market value in the final days of January after hundreds of doctors accused Rogan of promoting COVID-19 misinformation on his show The Joe Rogan Experience and superstars Neil Young and Joni Mitchell asked for their music to be taken off the platform. (In 2020, Rogan signed a $100 million deal giving Spotify exclusive rights to his show.)
Over the weekend, a video compilation of Rogan repeatedly using racial slurs was posted online, renewing artists’ calls to #DeleteSpotify. Spotify has since removed more than 70 episodes, Rogan has issued an apology and Spotify’s stock has jumped back up.
These events have prompted a lively discussion about if and how content on streaming platforms should be moderated going forward. CU Boulder Today spoke with Kristelia García, an associate professor with Colorado Law who spent nearly a decade working in the music industry in Los Angeles at Napster, MySpace Music and Universal Music Group, about this new frontier in content moderation.
Why is Spotify such a big deal?
Spotify is arguably a big deal, both for music fans and for the music industry. It was already a big deal in Sweden and Europe before it came here around 2008 and began to pick up steam. Spotify was different from other technological innovations that caused piracy problems, in that its whole shtick was they solved piracy problems.
But from the music industry perspective, the problem quickly became: You don't pay us much, you don't pay us what we're used to making when we sell a CD. In that way, the music industry and artists have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Spotify, because it's given them this amazing reach and a way to connect with fans and consumers, but it has also become a bit of a bottleneck.
What’s the issue in this situation?
First and foremost, this is a content moderation problem. People who are immersed in that have been chomping at the bit for years, saying Facebook needs to be moderated, Twitter needs to be moderated. This is the first time we see that call move from platforms traditionally known as social media, to a content delivery platform like Spotify.
And now, all of a sudden, it's faced with content moderation, which we had not thought a music streaming platform before would be faced with. But this is different because they're streaming podcasts, which it turns out, are super profitable.
What is Spotify responsible for?
Part of what makes this whole thing so interesting is we don't know what Spotify’s responsibilities are. Content moderation is a bit of a new field. Music streaming platforms are not companies that we've applied any sort of rules or regulations to in clear language yet. This is new territory.
What can be done about misinformation on streaming services?
The challenge with misinformation as a general concept, whether it's Joe Rogan and the vaccine or anything else, is that unless it’s speech that incites violence or targets a particular group, as I believe Rogan's use of racial slurs did, it’s protected by the First Amendment. You and I might not just disagree with it, we might be able to scientifically show that it's false. But all we can do is counter bad speech with good speech.
Spotify said they will be more transparent, and when people go to the podcast they will have a little link they can click to get better information. And that is better than nothing, but it is certainly content moderation “lite.”
What might this mean for the future of streaming services?
I suspect, going forward, however this shakes out, we'll get some regulatory attention on this because of everything that's happening. And the contracts might start to reflect that. Like, you can talk about whatever you want on your show, unless and until you talk about something we don't like. Maybe the contracts will begin to have clauses in them that allow Spotify to cancel a show with penalties.
Does any of this threaten freedom of speech?
Free speech restricts the government's ability to control what you say; it does not restrict private individuals’ ability to restrict what you say, or prohibit private entities and corporations from controlling what you say, or prohibiting you from saying certain things. Private restriction of speech is not a First Amendment issue.
Even if Spotify wanted to have Joe Rogan sign a contract that says, you will give us all of your episodes in advance and we reserve pre-approval rights, they could do that. That would not be a First Amendment problem. It would only be a First Amendment issue if government regulators told Spotify: You can't host people who dispel misinformation.
What about Rogan’s use of racial slurs?
In the case of racial slurs, on the other hand, legislators may be able to prohibit the public dissemination of hate speech by Spotify and other private platforms. Hate speech can be regulated where it can be argued to incite violence or to target a specific audience, as publicly disseminated hate speech may be found to do.
Recent revelations about Rogan’s affinity for racial slurs might also pave the way for Spotify to push for an amendment to any existing contract with the podcaster that would tighten their control over the content of his podcasts. Because all other podcast-hosting platforms would be held to the same potential prohibition on hate speech that incites violence or that is aimed at a specific group, Spotify wouldn’t have to worry so much about Rogan simply hopping to a competitor (where he’d face the same potential restriction).
Do musicians boycotting Spotify make a difference?
Neil Young wants to pull his music, and then we hear of other artists saying: I would like to take my music off, but I can't. That to me, as a copyright scholar, is the interesting part. Content owners and content creators are not the same party. Artists can want to do something with their music or not do something with their music, but they don't get to decide. In most cases, the record labels get to decide. If you're Neil Young, you can do that sort of thing. But if you're not Neil Young, then you've got to do whatever Warner or Sony or Universal tells you that they're going to do with your music.
I don't think we're going to see mass exodus of artists from Spotify, because that isn’t how copyright works. If we were to see that, it would be because the labels decided to do it. But that seems unlikely to me at this point.
What about subscribers canceling their accounts?
It depends. I think it could. But it will only make a difference to Spotify—which is a company that's running a balance sheet—if the number of subscribers who drop off because Joni Mitchell and Neil Young aren't there anymore exceeds the number of subscribers who are there to hear Joe Rogan. To my understanding that’s not the case, as much as I love Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
From a PR perspective, [the Rogan controversy] doesn’t look good. But the bigger picture is that Rogan is just one person. There will be other Rogans, and what are they going to do about that?