just asking questions

The Spotify Spin

Kara Swisher says to focus less on Joe Rogan and more on the company paying him.

Spotify founder Daniel Ek speaks during the Spotify New Platform Launch at S.I.R. Studios in New York City in 2015. Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
Spotify founder Daniel Ek speaks during the Spotify New Platform Launch at S.I.R. Studios in New York City in 2015. Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Over the weekend, Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek released a statement in response to the chorus of scientists, medical professionals, and septuagenarian rock stars calling on the company to address COVID-19 misinformation billowing from its star podcaster, Joe Rogan. While Ek didn’t mention Rogan or his podcast by name, he did highlight the company’s policies regarding such content. Spotify and Rogan aren’t parting ways any time soon. Intelligencer spoke with Pivot co-host Kara Swisher about Ek’s response, Spotify’s transformation into a media company, and why the company’s woes go beyond its $100 million podcast host.

What did you think of Spotify’s statement over the weekend?

The statement by Daniel Ek, who I’ve known for a very long time, was a bit milquetoast-y. It’s in character with the things he’s talked about before, but he seems to have missed the time period between 2006 and 2022. When Spotify was a platform, they did not have these responsibilities, but they’ve clearly become a media company, and they can’t pretend otherwise. Ek says he doesn’t want to be a “content censor,” so maybe he shouldn’t buy content. He’s trying to use words like censor that make people all hot and bothered. But the fact of the matter is Spotify is a media company, and they have a responsibility for what’s on their platform just like Fox News, the New York Times, or anybody else. They are not protected the way tech companies are no matter how much they try to pretend otherwise. Spotify is trying to make us think they aren’t a media company. Sure, they distribute Neil Young, but they do not pay for Neil Young. But Joe Rogan — and many others in the podcast area — is bought and paid for by Spotify. Therefore, Spotify has a responsibility, especially around COVID information and health information, to fact-check and get things right.

You’ve known Ek for a long time. He’s been pretty consistent on this issue, but do you see him learning from this going forward and making some changes? 

Yes and no. This is his consistency: He sort of tries to play the free-speech card even as Spotify becomes a media company. You can play the free-speech card when you’re protected by Section 230. If someone dies because they’re listening to Joe Rogan, then Spotify deserves to be sued. It’s easy to be this way when you don’t have the liability that media companies have. This is further than I’ve seen Ek go, but at the same time, he couldn’t help using words like content censor, which is not what he is. He’s an editor or a publisher or whatever. I call it word washing.

I guess $4 billion in market value is something that makes you rethink things. I’m sure his shareholders have an opinion about it, too. By the way, he’s the little guy. Yes, he’s the biggest podcast platform compared to Apple, but he’s always claiming he’s under siege by Apple and others. There are court cases in Europe and elsewhere around the power of Apple over his business. I’m on his side on a lot of that stuff, but this doesn’t make him look so good. I got rid of my premium account. Enough of this bullshit. Get fact-checked or else I’m not paying for this shit.

Interestingly, my sons went off Spotify a long time ago because they didn’t like the sound, much like Neil Young. They preferred the sound on Apple. At the same time, they don’t like Joe Rogan. They like his weed jokes, but that’s about all.

Don’t we all. Do you know Joe Rogan? 

I do not. I think some of his shows are terrific. I think he’s really entertaining. I think his health-care stuff is appalling. I get what he’s doing. But like I say, you can’t be against the man when you are the man. He has more of a responsibility now that he’s grown, which he acknowledged.

One of the things that was truly surprising was that Joe Rogan was 100 percent more thoughtful than Spotify about his responsibilities, and we’ll see if he continues. I thought Joe Rogan’s statement was actually quite good. He acknowledged his status. He tried to do an “Aww shucks, I’m just a simple guy” thing, but he acknowledged that he needed to be more balanced. A lot of people have a visceral reaction to him. If you listened, it’s more complex. I hate to say that, but it is. The stuff that he does where he’s neutral with people that are saying things that are problematic, he needs to up his game. At the same time, I do think one of the things that he does well is bring on voices that you might not have heard to debate issues. When it’s about things that should be debated, that’s great. When it’s about things that are really quite clear, like science, using the excuse of “just asking questions” is not enough. “Just asking questions” is code for “I didn’t do my homework,” and you need to do your homework.

I will say, he kicked off his statement with some pretty misleading arguments about misinformation becoming fact, like saying eight months ago it was misinformation to say you could still get COVID if you were vaccinated.  

He just wasn’t doing his homework. He may think that. Honestly, a lot of people do. But we know the vaccine prevents hospitalization. It protects other immunocompromised people who can really get sick. It protects health-care workers. What he’s doing here is irresponsible. Again, like my sons, I like his weed jokes, and I loved Fear Factor. I just think you have to stop focusing on Joe Rogan and start focusing on the company. That’s a really key thing. The company’s responsible.

What does Spotify taking responsibility even look like? Would it have complete editorial oversight? 

I don’t know the relationship within the contract between Spotify and Joe Rogan, but they’re a media company, and usually when someone gets something ridiculously wrong or dangerously wrong, media companies do something about it. Their contract shouldn’t say they can’t touch it at all, because it’s their content. They own it, or they sort of own it — again, we don’t know what the relationship between Rogan and Spotify is. So the first question is, What do they have the right to do contractually? Rogan may have pulled more rights out; he may have more influence because he’s so important to them. But look at New York Magazine. They have lots of freelancers, and they have a right to correct things and fire people. That’s how media works.

By the way, I am not for banning him by any stretch. I don’t agree with people who think that. I just think when he’s inaccurate, the media company should do something about it. That doesn’t mean they will do something about it, but they should. I feel the same thing should apply to me and everybody else. I’m not as popular as Joe Rogan, obviously.

Apple kept Steve Bannon on its platform after he suggested Fauci should be beheaded. Couldn’t Spotify just shrug off Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and carry on?

Yes, they can. They don’t have to do anything. Has Fox News done anything about Tucker Carlson? Jonah Goldberg left under protest. They know what Tucker Carlson is doing, and they allow it to happen. They get a lot of criticism for that, deservedly, and they’re willing to put up with it. But Apple doesn’t pay Steve Bannon. Spotify has a financial relationship with Rogan. He’s exclusive to them. It’s a very different situation. It’s a very complex thing, as you can see, but here is a clear cut case: Spotify is a media company. If that’s what Spotify wants to do, they can do it.

Spotify definitely took a hit, and it can’t afford a hit like this when they’re in such a competitive world. That’s another point I want to make. Unlike when you object to Facebook or Google, you have no other choices really. It’s very limited. I don’t buy ads on Facebook, but other people have to even if they hate Facebook. In this case, Spotify has competitors like Pandora and Apple and Amazon. It’s a little like Netflix and Dave Chappelle in that regard. They’re a media company, too. If companies want to make these choices, they have to pay the price for the choices. Spotify stock is up today because it declined so precipitously. But only slightly.

Are the rules different for podcast publishers? 

No. It’s media. Why would the rule be different? I’d like to say whatever I want and have no consequences, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Actually, it’s fortunately the case. It’s a good thing to have fact-checkers. I don’t always agree with my fact-checkers. I just got into a disagreement. That’s how it works. We go through it, and we figure it out. We try to be as accurate as possible, and that’s a good thing.

What was the disagreement?

I don’t want to go into detail, but it was something I said that I had been told by someone privately, and I didn’t say the name. The fact-checker said we couldn’t use it without a name. We figured it out.

Is there a middle ground between content moderation and publishing? 

No! Christ, they’re not a platform. They’re a media company. They’re trying to get you to think they’re not a media company. Sometimes they’re a platform, but in this case, they’re a media company. And they have to act like a media company. By the way, these artists can do whatever they damn well please. If they don’t like Spotify, they don’t have to be on it. It’s called protesting, not cancel culture. I’m sure the cancel-culture-warrior people are all crying that it’s cancel culture. No, it’s not. It’s fine if you don’t want to eat the Chick-fil-A or didn’t drink Florida orange juice when Anita Bryant was a spokeswoman. It happens all the time. Welcome to the longtime world of people protesting companies.

Swisher and co-host Scott Galloway discuss the Joe Rogan vs Spotify issue at length on today’s Pivot.

The Spotify Spin