The Spotify Backlash Never Had a Chance

Photo: Spotify

Five years after the #DeleteUber hashtag ushered in the first broad Big Tech boycott — and failed to gain any long-term traction — calls to do the same thing to Spotify over Joe Rogan have sputtered out after hardly a week.

On Monday morning, the world of capital rallied around the Swedish streaming company, sending the company’s stock up more than 12 percent — a surge that, if it holds, would be one of its best days ever on the New York Stock Exchange — despite major artists such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell bolting over the platform’s most popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, airing COVID-19 misinformation. The tension reached a head before the markets opened with Rogan taking to Instagram to offer a semi-apology for giving the mic to COVID cranks, saying he will change his format around such controversial guests. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said the company would label podcast episodes that have misinformation in them. It was all very neat and sounded nice even as it added up to very little. This is the playbook now, and it works.

Let’s put the company into perspective. Spotify, headquartered in Sweden and valued at about $36 billion, is massive by just about every standard, with more than 173 million listeners and the vast majority of its money coming from subscribers who pay about $10 a month to listen to some 70 million tracks. That breadth is important. Since 2019, Spotify has been trying to get away from just being a music-streaming app and bigfooted its way into becoming one of the biggest podcasting streamers, even trying to rival the flash-in-the-pan live-audio app Clubhouse. Crucially, it has also pushed to get more listeners globally — so much so that, while the U.S. is still the app’s biggest listener base, it’s making up a shrinking proportion of all its revenue.

Those global trends tend to be bad for tech companies. U.S. consumers, by and large, spend a lot more than those anywhere else in the world. To take an example from another tech giant, Facebook, the average revenue per U.S. user on that platform brought in 11 times as much money as those from the Asia-Pacific region according to its parent company’s most recent annual report. So it was no wonder Spotify’s stock price fell to half its peak from last February through last week: U.S. user growth had plateaued, and the new listeners spent less money.

This brings us to The Joe Rogan Experience, which Spotify mentions in its regulatory filings as a moneymaker. It’s fundamentally different than, say, seeing your friends and family members posting fake COVID information on their Facebook feeds. Even though Rogan has positioned himself as an everyman — the kind of person you’d expect to have some off-the-wall social-media posts — he’s an institution unto himself with an audience of 11 million monthly listeners. Rogan’s podcast is so popular because he is, for whatever it’s worth, hearing out people’s points of view no matter how crackpot or mainstream they are. Bernie Sanders was a guest, as was Kanye West. Clout and controversy tend to bring money, and I don’t think Spotify came into its $100 million deal to license the show exclusively with its eyes closed. After an early kerfuffle over whether Spotify would allow episodes that contained Alex Jones, you can still stream them. In his ten-minute Monday morning Instagram video, Rogan boiled his formula down seven times to something like “having interesting conversations,” but the reality is he made his name by leaning heavily into criticizing the left over political correctness in comedy, trans people, and vaccine mandates. He’s repeated false stories that leftists were responsible for wildfires in Oregon, a statement he later apologized for. Last year, Ek grappled with his staff over comments Rogan made that were viewed as transphobic. And Rogan recently had on fellow “intellectual dark web” traveler Jordan Peterson, who railed against climate science, which prompted outrage from scientists in that field. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

So Spotify’s gamble here is that its users aren’t going to care — and as for the people who do care and quit, it probably won’t miss them all that much. Why would it? Spotify is pretty reviled by artists for how little it pays per stream, which can be as little as $0.0015 per play, but it has been able to woo artists like Taylor Swift and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who called the platform “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” According to eMarketer, Spotify has about 45 million paying subscribers in the U.S., just over half its listener base here. Of that, how many are really going to quit over Rogan? Even Prince Harry and Meghan are hedging. Considering that the company releases an annual surveillance report called Spotify Wrapped for every single one of its users, listing their most-listened-to artists and micro-genres, the company probably has pretty deep insight into the personality profiles of its users and is gambling that the number of people who leave will be manageable.

And ultimately, if anyone heeds the call to #DeleteSpotify, what are their options? There’s Apple, the largest company in the world by value — not exactly an inspiring choice for anyone trying to show their activist bona fides, given its questionable history on human rights in China. Tidal, the streaming upstart that had Jay-Z’s imprimatur, was recently bought by Jack Dorsey’s payments company. Other platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud don’t have the catalogue to compete. And Neil Young, the guy who tried to start his own streaming service and has fought music-industry executives like David Geffen in the past, directed his fans to stream his music through Amazon Music. Fucking Amazon? To have Young running into the arms of Jeff Bezos, a man who has become the planet’s second-wealthiest person amid his company’s sales of COVID misinformation and counterfeit masks, whose company didn’t inform warehouse workers about COVID outbreaks and has eased up on safety conditions, doesn’t make for a clear or satisfying choice for anyone who might be angry over Rogan.

The Spotify Backlash Never Had a Chance