Why Neil Young’s Spotify Crusade Is Making Him a Hero to Younger Generations, as Well as His Own

·10 min read

Counterculture revivalism: it’s not just about vinyl after all. Principles in music, as it turns out, is another remnant of that era that’s experiencing a comeback, thanks to Neil Young being re-elevated by many to hero status for taking an influential stand. Nice to see you again, personal-integrity-at-the-cost-of-pocketbook-lining! Take off your dusty sandals and stay a while. (You say Joni Mitchell is coming over later? Sounds like a party.)

After establishing early on what kind of peaks protest music could take, Young has undertaken enough crusades over the ensuing decades that never caught on with his public that there is probably a dictionary somewhere with his picture next to the word “quixotic.” But no one’s calling him Don Quixote right now. He went tilting at windmills, again, and this time, it was the windmill that tilted.

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Was the damage he did to Spotify (or to Joe Rogan, or to the whole idea of corporations being responsible for what they pay for) lasting, or just a blip? That may be worked out in the fine points of history, not tomorrow’s headline. The 11-figure hit that Spotify took in the stock market at the end of last week was recovered Monday, after Rogan’s video quasi-apology was found sufficiently mollifying by financial forecasters. But it would be dangerous to surmise that the very short-term loss the company suffered is an unrepeatable phenomenon, or won’t have ripples. Joe Rogan is Spotify’s $100 million man, but for the length of one nervous weekend, at least, Neil Young was Spotify’s $20-billion-loss man.

There are many arguments to be had about whether Young’s stance in having his music removed from Spotify is “censorious,” as some libertarians and most of the right would have it. (Wait, he had himself removed from the service… Is self-censorship also evil, now?) Some will wonder if his move was self-serving, as if the new subscriptions he’ll draw to his personal streaming service, Neil Young Archives, will make up for the $754,000 that Billboard estimates comes into his personal checking account every year from Spotify, after others take their share of his $2.8 million revenue. Others will say his issue with Spotify really has to do with his long-standing complaints with the service’s lack of any high-definition tier. And yeah, that and Spotify’s long-controversial payout rates to artists certainly count as bonus beefs.

But it would be extremely difficult for any cynic to argue that Young hasn’t made a stand in favor of people not dying, or not being guided towards decisions that might make them die, from the very first days it became clear the world was about to be engulfed in a pandemic. Hard as it might be to believe that the audiophile-rocker is concerned with anything more than he is lossy audio, it turns out that loss of life is up there.

On March 9, 2020, Young was among the first big names to say that touring shouldn’t happen for the foreseeable future, when shows were still ongoing and lockdowns were still a little bit away. It wasn’t just theoretical for Young: he had rehearsed the newly reconstituted version of Crazy Horse, done a handful of blazing preview shows with them, and was on the verge of announcing a reunion tour. “We are all super ready to go,” he wrote on his website, but “the last thing we want to do is put people at risk, especially our older audience.” (Italics ours… That may have been the riskiest thing Young did that year, right there: admit your demographic is particularly ventilator-friendly.)

It continued in August 2021 when, as the world tried to convince itself that all had been set aright, Young announced that he was pulling out of his own signature benefit show, FarmAid, even as others held down the charity fort. “All you people who can’t go to a concert because you still don’t feel safe, I stand with you,” Young wrote. “I don’t want you to see me playing and think it’s safe now. I don’t want to play until you feel safe, and it is, indeed, safe. My soul tells me it would be wrong to risk having anyone die because they wanted to hear music and be with friends.”

Later that month, he turned the spotlight on promoters. Even if you disagreed with him and felt that it was time for the show to go on, it was hard not to feel the heartfeltness of his message about how concerts set an example of normalcy returning that could encourage fans to throw away any sense of safeguards. “These giants of entertainment just renovated a lot of old venues and spent a lot of cash to do that,” he wrote. “Now they can’t stop selling tickets to pay for it. … It’s a bad example. Folks see concerts advertised and think it must be OK to go and mingle. It’s not. These are super-spreader events, irresponsible Freedom Fests.”

And on the Howard Stern show in December, he reiterated that he won’t return to touring till COVID is “beat,” and said people would never see him “playing to a bunch of people with no masks on” with a pandemic still killing people. “I don’t care if I’m the only one who doesn’t do it.”

Clearly, this is the same guy who in 1970 wrote, recorded and released “Ohio,” not particularly concerned with losing the Nixonian “Children of the Silent Majority” vote. On the solo album that succeeded that CSNY single, in creating “Southern Man” as a cry against enduring racism, he didn’t worry, as LBJ apocryphally did, about whether he was losing the South for a generation. (Some of the Skynyrd crowd still don’t need him around, anyhow.) If his environmentalist pleas from “After the Goldrush” forward sometimes wearied critics, every day was still Earth Day, as far as he was concerned, all the way to recording save-the-planet concept albums well into the 2010s, long after he expressed distress about “Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.”

Not every crusade was as well-received. Some of us may recall the sight of Young trying, in vain, to explain to David Letterman why the Pono was necessary to save music, with the late-night host asking, “Is this a digital way of recording analogous (sic) sound? I’m struggling here to find something I can understand.” Letterman was not alone, however righteous the 24-bit struggle. And in dedicating much of his recent activist life and even recorded output to going on the warpath against Monsanto and GMOs, Young pitted himself, for better or worse, against the accepted science, not totally —one could argue — unlike a certain bald-headed podcaster’s proud disregard for eggheads.

As a fan, I sometimes wondered if Young was preaching the impossible dream to a small choir of Dulcineas. So it’s been heartening to see him re-heralded as a leader in the Spotify fight, even if I’m not convinced that the wholesale removal of music from Spotify by concerned artists is the answer, let alone possible. Margo Price’s message on Twitter strikes me as what the response of most mid-level artists will be: “Massive respect to Joni Mitchell & Neil Young for always telling the truth through their art. Please remember not all of us have that kind of power/control, but even if we want it, I feel inspired to f*ck some shit up from the inside and I know we are all stronger together.”

Fighting the power doesn’t just come from the Woodstock generation, fortunately. That famous counterculturalist Taylor Swift fucked some shit up from the inside, as it were, in her own multi-year struggle with Spotify in the mid-2010s. Initially withholding her new music from the service, then “windowing” or embargoing it in protest of not having the ability to restrict it to a pay tier, Swift was seen by some as backing down when she finally let “Lover” go out day-and-date with all other release platforms for the album. As it turned out, she’d negotiated right into her new contract with Universal that the company would make a payout to all the company’s affiliated artists if its Spotify investments got sold. A cure-all for all that ails struggling recording artists? Hardly, but it was a solid example of someone who’s rarely been considered a protest artist being a protest negotiator.

Sometimes you can fight the good fight and still have to accede to changing mores. I often think back to Young’s stance against artist selling their music for commercials in the early ‘80s, as memorialized in the satirical, ersatz beer-peddling video for “This Note’s for You.” (Chrissie Hynde also pleaded the righteous case around that time with “How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?”) How quaint that cause now seems in an era where Springsteen and Dylan have not only participated in advertising but allowed their life’s work to be sold to companies that are fully dependent on commercials to make their money back, some decade. Can everybody be right here? Of course just about any musician should be looking to license as many songs as possible for any purpose… and of course, if you go back and put yourself in a more idealistic ‘60s, ‘70s or even early-‘80s mindset, it all seems a little corny, or jejune. But Young, while not immune to the lure of the big payout, found the right way to compromise on this: He sold only 50% of his catalog last year, ensuring some ongoing control over how it’s used. Or at least Hipgnosis Song Funds founder Merck Mercuriadis seemed to say there was an agreement as such when, as part of the announcement, he quipped, “There will never be a ‘Burger of Gold.’”

Neil Young, in his own cantankerous and occasionally confounding way, still has a heart of gold, and a steely backbone to go with it. That this latest standoff will result in him being remembered by younger generations as a hero is one happy outcome of a story that’s otherwise far from resolved. Rogan’s inevitable, reasonable-sounding “If anyone was offended…” speech cooled off the anxious stock market, but it won’t take the microscope off how companies deal with dangerous misinformation going forward. Because even with all the intricacies involved, it’s not hard to decide between Young, the concerned “Old Man” still raising his voice, and Ivermectin Man, the gaslighter who says he only provides a platform for multiple viewpoints, then asserts that fellow conspiracy junkie Alex Jones is “right 80% of the time.”

Forget about groundswells and who’s “winning,” anyway: Holding corporations to accountability, whatever the result, is a counterculture fad that should never go back out of style. And, sensing that this is not something they’ve seen from many of their contemporary musical heroes, there may be whole new generations suddenly replacing Bernie Sanders’ face with Neil Young’s as their “Old Man” du jour.

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