The rundown on the Spotify and Joe Rogan situation, UMass students and professors weigh in

“It’s far from the only incidence of a company valuing money over principles,” said legal studies professor Diane Curtis

Via Wikicommons

Via Wikicommons

By Caitlin Reardon, Collegian Staff

Music is Spotify’s very lifeblood. It’s how the platform came to be the number one-used audio streaming service on a global scale. So why have the folk rock stars Neil Young and Joni Mitchell walked away from the platform?

The reason is Joe Rogan, Spotify’s top podcast host of “The Joe Rogan Experience.” Rogan, American comedian and podcaster brings in roughly 11 million listeners on the platform. He is known for his provocative and controversial humor, as well as his COVID-19 conspiracy theories which have become widely popular within his listening base.

Rogan promoted the use of a drug called Ivermectin, which is used to fight parasites, and claimed he was using the drug when he tested positive for COVID in September. Rogan also had guest Dr. Robert Malone on his podcast, where he controversially made many unsupported claims regarding COVID and compared US pandemic mandates to the Holocaust. The episode, which had millions of listeners, generated the release of a letter signed by 270 doctors and medical professionals calling out Spotify for allowing the podcast to misinform the public.

When Neil Young released a letter to Spotify on Jan. 24, sharing his disgust with Rogan’s anti-science content, Young ordered the streaming service to take all his music off of Spotify, declaring, “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash followed the esteemed musician’s footsteps in protest of the disinformation being spread across the platform just days after Young released his since-deleted letter. In a response posted on her website, Mitchell wrote, “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives.”

Young’s former band counterparts Crosby, Stills and Nash released a written statement posted to Crosby’s Twitter account, saying “Until real action is taken to show that a concern for humanity must be balanced with commerce, we don’t want our music – or the music we made together – to be on the same platform.”

Rogan posted an Instagram video addressing the concerns with his anti-science content.

“I’m very sorry that they feel that way,” Rogan said about Young and Mitchell removing their music off of the app. “I’m not trying to promote misinformation; I’m not trying to be controversial. I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than just talk to people and have interesting conversations.”

Along with his COVID conspiracy theories, a compilation of Rogan repeatedly using the N-word in his podcast episodes over the years surfaced shortly after the Spotify uproar. In a five-minute apology video uploaded to his Instagram account, Rogan expressed his reasoning on why he used the word so much in past years.

“I never thought it would ever be taken out of context and put in a video like that, and now that it is, holy s*** it looks bad,” he said in the video.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek spoke out about the backlash in an internal memo to his employees. While Ek said he disagrees with Rogan’s use of the N-word and says that Rogan’s views do not align with company principles, the podcast will continue. “Canceling voices is a slippery slope,” Ek wrote. Ek also said that the company will be putting $100 million towards the production and marketing of audio from marginalized groups — which is reportedly the same amount that Rogan receives from Spotify in his contract deal.

Legal studies professor Diane Curtis agrees with Ek’s statement. “I think it’s a really difficult line to draw,” Curtis said about prioritizing profit and freedom of speech over public health. From a legal standpoint, Spotify can act in whichever means they want within their contract laws because they are a private actor. This means that if Spotify wanted to take “The Joe Rogan Experience” off the platform as a whole, they can do that. But they haven’t.

“It would be very difficult to make some argument that what he’s doing is somehow leading to imminent harm,” Curtis said. She cited that many companies put profit before the ethical, righteous stance (although Spotify lost $2.1 billion in market capitalization just three days after Young called it quits).

Spotify responded to the backlash with a statement regarding their updated COVID-19 content policies. Spotify Chief Executive Officer Daniel Ek wrote in the updated platform rules statement, “It is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

He went on to explain the new policies on the streaming app, such as a content advisory before any podcast episode that discusses the topic of COVID-19, a COVID-19 fact hub that will live on the platform, and updated guidelines surrounding any content about the virus.

The platform rules state that published content questioning the legitimacy of COVID, promoting the use of bleach to combat the virus, questioning the legitimacy of the COVID vaccines, and deliberate spreading of the virus to gain immunity are all topics that should not be allowed on the platform.

Following the new rules, over 100 of Rogan’s podcast episodes were taken off Spotify in violation of the guidelines. Rogan claimed to have agreed to this choice after working with the platform to abide by the misinformation policy.

However, some companies do have a line. Curtis said that companies like Ben & Jerry’s hold its political standards high, unwavering from their values. Rogan, when he talks about COVID-19 conspiracies, is “free to do that” unless the information is defamatory, she continued. Spotify acted only after Young put the anti-misinformation movement in motion. If Young and Mitchell didn’t pull their catalogs, Rogan would most likely still be unaffected.

Sophomore marketing major Max MacFadzen said he is a fan of Rogan’s podcast. He likes his comedy, interviews, and fresh take on current issues. But with Rogan’s COVID misinformation, MacFadzen strongly disagrees.

“It’s really dangerous,” MacFadzen stated. “I think it’s affected a lot of people negatively.”

MacFadzen has seen his peers both agree and disagree with Rogan’s COVID talks. He said that some of his friends listen because they like his fitness advice, or simply because they want a laugh.

He shared advice for students who listen to Rogan: “When you listen to his podcast, you have to remember that he’s a guy who interviews people, but he’s not a news source.”

In a Twitter poll, UMass students were asked to vote on whether or not Spotify has handled Rogan’s podcast controversy well, if more action is needed, or if Spotify should not take any action at all. While the number of voters was small, a total of 24, most voters think more action should be taken to adequately resolve Rogan’s misinformation.

Media literacy professor Allison Butler is concerned about big corporations like Spotify moving consumers around like “puzzle pieces,” she said. “Their number one priority is their bottom line.”

Butler expressed her issue with cancel-culture specifically, and the rapid movement at which we receive information.

“I worry that when we start the conversation with this person or this idea has been canceled, we forget to look at who’s taking on that responsibility and what the larger implications of that responsibility are,” Butler said.

By choosing either Rogan or Young and Mitchell, Spotify will be affected monetarily. She noted that Rogan supporters could choose to listen more to Rogan in support, or Young fans could go to another streaming service to hear their favorite artist. Simply put, consumers are puzzle pieces, as stated earlier.

Butler continued, “When our media industries and our media organizations put us in one box or put us in another box, then that’s where we get stuck, and that often would come with a sort of financial benefit for the company.” Taking any political, racial, and social differences to monetize is her concern, such as when tobacco companies would advertise their products even though it comes with a health risk. Butler views the issue as a question of is it up to the corporation or the consumer to make the right choice.

Spotify’s creation of the COVID-19 hub is also another point of contention. Butler called this action “corporate benevolence,” but it only “puts the onus on us to do more work” in educating ourselves for Spotify’s good image.

Rogan’s platform begs the question as to why he, a public figure, is not held responsible. Butler noted that all through schooling, we are taught to support claims with evidence. “We are all held to that standard,” she said. “How come some of our public figures aren’t being held to that standard? That seems a little unfair to us as citizens.”

One of Butler’s areas of interest is implementing media literacy in school systems. She expressed that “Part of what media literacy can do is help us, all of us – teachers, students, K-12, college students, etcetera – start to learn to ask these questions before we enter into certain media choices.”

Her advice for young students is to “slow down” and “listen to less.” In the age of technology, where content is quick to surface, slowing down and processing information is the smartest move.

Former President Donald Trump even responded to the Rogan issue: “He’s got to stop apologizing to the Fake News and Radical Left maniacs and lunatics,” he said in a written statement to press officials.

Rogan’s recent standup in Austin, Texas made light of the situation as he stated “If you’re taking vaccine advice from me, is that really my fault? What dumb s*** were you about to do when my stupid idea sounded better?”

A conservative-slanted streaming service called Rumble offered Rogan $100 million to drop Spotify and switch over to the start-up platform. Rogan claims he has no plans of leaving Spotify. Apple Music took advantage of the Spotify slander by posting two cheeky ads on the app’s browsing page, picturing both Young and Mitchell with the accompanying words, “Neil Lives Here” and “Joni Lives Here.”

“Capitalism is as capitalism does,” Professor Curtis said. “It’s far from the only incidence of a company valuing money over principles.”

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.