Spotify may well be one of the most important music platforms on the planet, but the streaming giant isn’t exactly averse to bad press. The issue of streaming royalties has become a mainstream debate over the past 18 months, with campaigns such as #BrokenRecord taking the issue to the Houses of Parliament. Then of course, you’ve got founder Daniel EK – when not attempting to take control of Arsenal, he’s also investing in arms manufacture.
A confrontation with a true giant of modern music isn’t exactly what Spotify needs right now, but that’s exactly what the Swedish born company has got on its hands. Neil Young opted to confront Spotify over their handling of Joe Rogan’s podcast, citing COVID misinformation in one episode. In the podcast, the host interviewed a controversial medical figure who opposes the vaccination of children – in response, Neil Young called out Spotify, who recently inked a $100 million deal with Joe Rogan.
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In a note on his site, Neil Young accused Spotify of "spreading fake information about vaccines - potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them".
He also referred to the streaming giant as "the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation", before adding: "Lies being sold for money."
The statement undoubtedly comes from a deeply personal place: Neil Young suffered polio as a child, almost losing his life in the last major outbreak of the disease in Ontario. The spread and impact of polio was largely curbed by the vaccination of children – the benefits of medical breakthroughs can be seen in Neil Young’s own life.
With the backing of his label Reprise Records – a sub-division of Warner – Neil Young refused to back down. Yet Spotify – rather than damage their $100 million relationship with Joe Rogan – have simply begun the process of removing Neil Young’s catalogue, bit by bit, and piece by piece.
In a weak statement Spotify said it “regrets” Neil Young’s decision, before throwing their weight behind Joe Rogan’s freedoms as host. "We want all the world's music and audio content to be available to Spotify users," the company said in a statement. "With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators."
The move is indicative both of economic factors, and Spotify’s priorities as a business. The streaming giant is willing to invest huge sums of money in podcasting, but not in music-making. Joe Rogan’s deal may be worth $100 million, but a sale last year valued Neil Young’s catalogue at more than $300 million – and he’s still adding to that.
Yet there’s something here that can’t be valued in dollars and cents, or pennies and pounds. The cultural weight that Neil Young’s music holds is incalculable – a true legend, he’s inspired everyone from Kurt Cobain to Laura Marling, walking his own path in the process.
Indeed, this isn’t the first time Neil Young has duelled with the giants of the music world. Geffen famously took him to court for wilfully making records that didn’t sound like his most iconic work – swapped a pedal steel for a vocoder on the ‘Trans’ album, for example – while the songwriter’s own relationship with digital music is notoriously thorny. After all, this is the man who became so dissatisfied with the sound quality offered by the digital environment that he founded, researched, and launched his own alternative, Pono. On its launch he stated: "My goal is to try and rescue the art form that I've been practicing for the past 50 years…"
In terms of his commitment to sound, and the gravitas his work holds, Neil Young is exactly the type of artist Spotify should be engaging with. His own ongoing Archives project is the perfect example of a subscription service that works, one with added worth and a growing fanbase. In opting to protect a podcast that strayed over the lines of controversy and into misinformation, Spotify have placed themselves at odds with Neil Young while attacking their own core values. In choosing this path, Spotify have laid down a disturbing marker for other musicians, from historic icons to brand new talent.
When albums such as ‘Harvest’ begin disappearing from the service, Spotify will be losing a lot more than they realise.
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Words: Robin Murray
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