Spotify came into being over a decade ago with an enticing proposition: listeners could leave their CDs and downloads and stream virtually every song ever released. This made the platform a major force in the music business and brought in competitors such as Apple Music, Amazon Music and Tidal, helping to turn the tide of the industry.
Spotify remains the largest music streaming service. But a few years ago, the company decided to add a trendy format to its portfolio: podcasts. The move turned the service into an audio entertainment smorgasbord—part music service, part newscast, part constant fun. It may have also led the company to clash with artists and left listeners with an incomplete library of songs.
Last week, Neil Young caused a stir in the music business and social media when he demanded that his music, including rock classics like “Heart of Gold” and “Cinnamon Girl”, be removed from Spotify. He protested the company’s support for Joe Rogan, its celebrity podcaster, who has been criticized for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines.
Even in an age where tech companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are constantly monitoring Covid-19 content on their platforms – and facing backlash from both sides of the free speech debate for doing so – this was a rare example of a top musician. take a position that will affect his profits. Yang said 60 percent of his streaming revenue comes from Spotify.
He was quickly followed by Joni Mitchell, another music icon whose cultural influence far outweighs her online commercial influence. Then R&B artist India.Arie and two musicians who played with Young – guitarist Nils Lofgren and Graham Nash – announced that they would also take their music from Spotify as a sign of solidarity.
Yang’s departure led to quick marketing moves by Spotify’s competitors. Apple advertised himself as the “home of Neil Young” and SiriusXM revived Neil Young’s channel.
So far, the commercial significance of the dispute is unclear. Many users have taken to social media to announce the cancellation of their subscription. The company may well face questions about this from Wall Street analysts when it announces fourth-quarter earnings on Wednesday.
On Sunday, after most of Young and Mitchell’s music was taken down, Daniel Ek, chief executive and co-founder of Spotify, released the service’s platform rules and said Spotify would add “content recommendation” flags to podcast episodes about the pandemic. “It’s important to me that we don’t take the position of content censor,” Ek said. In the video, Rogan promised to offer more “balance” to his show and said he was a Young and Mitchell fan (although he confused Mitchell with the singer). Ricky Lee Jones).
Whether this will be enough to quell further artist rebellion remains to be seen, although Young’s glove immediately became the subject of cultural discussion. On ABC’s “The View” on Tuesday, Joy Behar called on younger stars like Taylor Swift to pick a side. “Let’s see how young people do it” Behar said. “Let’s see how Taylor and these guys get into position.”
For longtime Spotify watchers, the youth episode was the latest strain in the company’s complex and often rocky relationship with artists. Most of these problems were about money. In 2014, Swift removed her entire catalog from Spotify, saying the service’s model is “free” — it has an ad-supported tier that allows users to listen for free, and offers paid subscriptions to remove ads and add other perks — because, in her opinion, . . it did not fairly reward artists for their work; almost three years passed before she added her music again.
Lately, many musicians have spoken out about what they see as the unfairness of the streaming model in general – in which each stream typically generates only fractions of a cent in payments – though Spotify and YouTube have borne the brunt of the criticism.
Spotify has faced censorship issues before. In 2018, he briefly attempted to remove songs from R. Kelly and rapper XXXTentacion, both of whom were accused of sexual harassment, from playlists with a “hate behavior” policy, but canceled the initiative after industry outrage.
But it’s not easy for an artist to leave Spotify anymore. According to industry data, streaming currently accounts for 84 percent of sales revenue in the United States, and Spotify has 172 million paying subscribers—about 31 percent of the total worldwide and more than double that of its closest competitor, Apple Music. Midia Research, research firm.
This has made Spotify a key financial partner for record companies and a “necessary evil” for artists, said George Howard, assistant professor at Berklee College of Music and former head of record and digital music.
“Few artists would say, ‘I love Spotify,'” Howard said. “But a lot of labels, whether they like Spotify’s values or not, are absolutely thrilled with the way the money is flowing towards them.”
Rogan’s position in the Spotify business has made his show The Joe Rogan Experience an important target for critics. While many of the podcasts are widely distributed across multiple platforms, Rogan’s podcasts are exclusive to Spotify following a 2020 licensing deal reportedly worth $100 million or more, though Spotify has never confirmed the figure. According to critics, this makes Spotify the publisher of Rogan’s show and therefore directly responsible for it.
So far, some of the most scathing responses to Spotify have come from its own podcast hosts. On Monday, the hosts of another Spotify podcast, “Science Vs,” said on Twitter that the company’s support for Rogan “was like a slap in the face.” announced that the show would reveal claims made by Dr. Robert Malone, a guest on The Rogan Show on December 31, whose remarks drew a scathing rebuke from public health experts. Author Brené Brown, whose Spotify shows such as “Unlocking Us” were heavily promoted by the company, said over the weekend that she would not be releasing any further podcasts “until further notice”.
Few expect a ton of musicians to leave the service, especially big new artists, given the primary role Spotify plays in getting their music heard and in growing much of their other business, such as touring.
“It takes a really brave new cutting edge artist to say, ‘I’m about to say something that might piss off half my fans,'” Midia’s Mark Mulligan said.
One issue may be whether artists have a contractual right to remove their music. Their recordings are usually controlled by record companies who enter into licensing agreements with online services such as Spotify.
Some artists’ contracts with their labels may give them the right to pull their music from online stores for certain reasons, but others don’t, said Jeffrey M. Liebenson, a lawyer who has represented both record companies and digital services. And even if these rights are exercised, the service may object to the mass exodus.
“Sometimes a label may request removal if there is a good faith relationship issue with the artists,” Liebenson said. “But the platform might get a little worried, ‘Are they doing this because they have legitimate relationship issues with the artists, or are they at war against us?’
In a public statement last week, Young thanked his label Reprise Records, a division of Warner Music Group, as well as his music publishers for their support. He also signaled other artists to follow suit, but he already seemed to know that their numbers might be small.
“I sincerely hope other artists can make a move,” Young wrote, “but I can’t expect that to happen.”