Following Neil Young’s withdrawal from Spotify Wednesday to protest the streaming service’s popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast — which has come under fire for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines — Young has been declared a “hero” by fans, peers, and even the director of the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, the backlash against Spotify continues to escalate. However, it remains to be seen if Young’s boycott will make a real difference, or if other major artists will follow his lead. (Update: In a letter titled “I Stand With Neil Young!” posted on her website Friday evening, Joni Mitchell announced that she’s joining Young in pulling her music from Spotify.)
The clash between Young, Spotify, and Rogan began Jan. 24, when Young, outraged that The Joe Rogan Experience was “potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread,” wrote on his Neil Young Archives site: “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.” On Jan. 26, Spotify heeded the classic rocker’s ultimatum and sided with Rogan, entirely removing Young’s catalog from its service. (Rogan has yet to address the controversy.)
Perhaps it is not surprising that Spotify chose Rogan over Young. In 2019, Spotify, which is at its core a tech company and not a music company, announced plans to dominate “the emerging podcast marketplace,” purchasing podcast companies like Gimlet Media, Anchor, and Ringer for nine-figure sums. The following year, Spotify made a massive investment by signing a $100 million exclusive deal with Rogan; at that time, research analyst Stephanie Liu told the New York Times, “This is part of Spotify’s bigger bet on podcasts. Spotify is buying not only Joe Rogan’s extensive and future content library, but also his loyal audience.” The Joe Rogan Experience went on to become Spotify’s most-streamed podcast of 2021, with an estimated 11 million listeners per episode; that same year, Spotify reportedly overtook Apple Podcasts as the largest podcast provider in the United States.
In a second open letter Wednesday, Young acknowledged that Spotify “represents 60 percent” of his music globally and the wholesale removal of his catalog from the platform would be “a huge loss for my record company to absorb.” In a new open letter Friday, he stressed, “I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship. Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information. I am happy and proud to stand in solidarity with the front line health care workers who risk their lives every day to help others.”
Among the public figures praising Young and his record label, Warner/Reprise, for taking a stand despite the financial risk was WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who tweeted, “Thanks for standing up against misinformation and inaccuracies around #COVID19 vaccination. Public and private sector, in particular #socialmedia platforms, media, individuals — we all have a role to play to end this pandemic and infodemic.” (Earlier this month, 270 doctors, scientists, and educators published their own open letter to Spotify, saying that Rogan allowing airing such misinformation — including a claim by immunologist Dr. Robert Malone that vaccines using mRNA technology are ineffective — could “damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.”)
Other celebrities tweeting their support of Young’s Spotify boycott have included Americana singer-songwriter Margo Price (“If all artists were as punk rock as Neil Young maybe we wouldn’t be getting absolutely screwed by corporate streaming companies”); author Amy Siskind (“Neil Young is a hero. That’s all. That’s the tweet”); British pop star Kate Nash commented (“I really admire Neil Young for pulling his music from Spotify”); comedian Tom Scharpling (“Love the clowns who are laughing as if Neil Young ever thought Spotify would drop Joe Rogan. The guy took a stand, put his money where his mouth is. Forced a s****y company to make a true colours-revealing decision. This is just one of the many reasons Neil is an all-timer”); and even Geraldo Rivera (“I’m with #NeilYoung”).
Catherine Mayer, the widow of punk agitators Gang of Four’s mastermind Andy Gill, addressed Spotify in her own open letter, writing: “If my beloved husband, Andy Gill, hadn’t died at the start of the pandemic, he’d have strong and clear feelings about your decision to remove Neil Young’s music in favor of a podcast that has spread anti-vax misinformation. If vaccines had been available at the start of the pandemic, he’d be here to have that conversation with you. Instead, I must speak for him. And I have to tell you, as his widow, I feel sick about the business decision you’ve made.”
Gang of Four’s catalog is available on Apple Music, but not on Spotify. Young has noted that his 60 years’ worth of material will still stream on Apple, as well as on other platforms like Amazon and Qobuz. In his Friday essay, he quipped that an “unexpected bonus” of leaving Spotify is “I sound better everywhere else.” (Young’s peer Peter Frampton tweeted, “Good for you Neil. I’ve always been an Apple guy for streaming. No Joe Rogan for me thank you!”)
Apple has seized upon this marketing opportunity, tweeting, “It’s always a good idea to stream @NeilYoungNYA” and pinning a post to its Twitter profile declaring Apple Music “The home of Neil Young.” Qobuz is currently promoting a nearly five-hour playlist of essential Young tracks. And another Spotify competitor/alternative, SiriusXM, has relaunched its Neil Young Radio on channel 27, promising “rarities and exclusives, every new song from his latest album Barn, epic hits and fan favorites from his solo music, collaborations with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash & Young, plus Neil sharing the insights behind writing and recording the music.”
Meanwhile, Spotify’s own PR team is attempting to dispel the rumor that the company, which boasts 172 million subscribers and 381 million monthly users, has pulled the plug on its live-support customer service function after being flooded with requests from angry users attempting to cancel their subscriptions and switch to another service. “Spotify has not shut down our customer support,” a spokesperson insisted in an email statement to Yahoo Entertainment Friday afternoon. “Yesterday our team posted a message saying they ‘may be slow to respond,’ pointing users to other sources of information if they needed anything immediately. As of this morning, our customer support team is functioning as usual, meaning we have advisors staffed around the clock and available to help within minutes.”
As for other Spotify rumors, it was reported Thursday that easy-listening icon Barry Manilow had also quit the platform, but he clarified in a Friday tweet that this is untrue. While Young and Warner/Reprise’s bold move has drawn widespread praise in the music industry, as of this writing, no other major recording artist has followed his lead since Wednesday.
In his Wednesday missive, Young wrote, “I sincerely hope that other artists and record companies will move off the Spotify platform and stop supporting Spotify’s deadly misinformation about COVID.” In his Friday essay, the rocker, who has long criticized Spotify’s audio quality, bashed the service again for its “s***ty, degraded and neutered sound.” Young concluded with the argument, “If you support Spotify, you are destroying an art form.”
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