The Issues Swirling around Spotify and its Content Providers

09 Feb 2022 · 9 min read

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image credit: iStock / AntonioSolano

You’ve probably heard a bit in the news lately about Spotify, Neil Young, Joe Rogan and Brené Brown.

But what are the real issues at stake in this evolving controversy? Censorship? Greed? Free Speech? Big Tech?

Let me break it down for you.

Free Speech vs. Censorship

Even though people keep talking about free speech and censorship, I’m not sure this is really much of an issue in the current situation. It’s true that Spotify has recently taken down some of Rogan’s episodes, after some objectionable content was pointed out to them, but this is a bit like closing the proverbial barn door after the stallion has bolted. Rogan is in no danger of losing his platform or his audience. So there’s really not much to see here.

Money

Money, of course, is at the very heart of these controversies. And there’s nothing wrong with making a bit of money. The questions, as always, are what else one has to sacrifice to make more of the moolah, and how much is enough.

Business Models

There are many ways to monetize content, and each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages.

Open Access vs. Lock-In

The point of open access is to allow anyone access to content in which they are interested, and to allow them to freely decide how they access that content.

The point of lock-in is to restrict content access, forcing consumers to accept some restrictions if they want access to particular content.

In a way, these issues mirror those of free speech, but from the point of view of listeners, rather than speakers: whereas free speech is about removing restrictions for speakers, open access is about removing restrictions for listeners.

It seems a bit hypocritical to me to speak out with great passion for free speech, while at the same time acting to restrict open access.

Mission

Whether we’re talking about people or organizations, it’s always relevant to ask what missions they espouse, and to what degrees they are living up to those missions.

Activity without any sense of mission is not likely to accomplish much of interest, other than transferring money from your pockets to mine, or vice-versa.

Freedom of, and Importance of, Association

The signers of the American Declaration of Independence famously stated, “We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes And Our Sacred Honor.”

These were people who appreciated the freedom to choose their associates, but also the importance of those associations, and the levels of commitment they were willing to make to defend those choices.

Freedom of Association is not much discussed as part of this controversy, but I believe it lies at the very center of it.

The Players

Now that we’ve identified the issues at play, let me talk a bit about the people involved, and their actions.

Spotify

Spotify’s approach to podcasting has been one of lock-in, signing up podcasters with large audiences to long-term exclusive deals. If you want to hear Joe Rogan, then you can only do that on Spotify. If you want to listen to Brené Brown, then you can only do that on Spotify. And if you want to listen to either on a Mac, then you will be led to download the Spotify app from their website, and said app will sneakily re-launch itself every time you start up your computer (unless you can find the option to disable that behavior, which is tucked away in the app’s Advanced Settings). And if you fail to upgrade your membership, you will be shown ads – even when you are trying to adjust the app’s preferences!

And while you may not be familiar with Joe Rogan and/or Brené Brown, one interesting point is that they both have large and faithful followings, and their audience demographics are pretty much mirror images of each other. And so, for a company to pursue both of these content providers with equal ardor says only one thing: they are out to corner the market by appealing to as many different cohorts as possible, with no real interest in the nature of the content being provided.

And as to the company’s mission? When searching for such a beast, I came across a recent piece from The Verge titled “Spotify’s CEO mistakes company growth for a mission statement”. Not sure I can add much to that, so let’s just move on, shall we?

Joe Rogan

I have never heard Joe Rogan, and am not likely to ever listen to him, for many reasons. So there’s not really much I can say about him.

Neil Young

I’ve been listening to Neil Young for over fifty years, and know him as a principled artist who is no stranger to battle lines being drawn, and to choosing sides.

I heard him perform at a coffee house in Ann Arbor in 1969, and then, later in the same academic year, listened to his anthem “Ohio” being played on the radio, just a few weeks after National Guard officers had shot and killed four Kent State students who had been protesting against the Vietnam War.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming –
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming:
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it –
Soldiers are cutting us down –
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her,
And found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?

(And, if you really want to talk about free speech and censorship, this song was banned from many AM stations when it was released because of the way it directly called out our sitting US president.)

So when Neil Young and his record company announced that his music would no longer be available on Spotify, Young was exercising his freedom of association: he gets to choose with whom he associates, and he no longer wanted to be associated with Joe Rogan. And by emphasizing the power of his choice, he made it clear that others – content providers and listeners – also had a choice.

He was underscoring the power of choice, and the freedom to choose – for himself, and for others.

Brené Brown

You may not be familiar with Brown. She is an American research professor, lecturer, author and podcast host, known in particular for her research on shame, vulnerability and leadership.

Some of her book titles are Daring Greatly, Braving the Wilderness and Dare to Lead (some or all of which might seem a little ironic, in view of where she has landed in this current podcasting controversy).

I’m familiar with some of Brown’s stuff, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a fan, I appreciate and support her work.

Brown is one of those content providers who has found herself caught on the horns of a dilemma following Neil Young’s refusal to be associated with Spotify and Joe Rogan. (And yes, I was aware that Brown teaches at the University of Texas when I chose that analogy.)

Let’s just run down the list of issues I identified above, shall we, and see where she stands on each? As I go down the list, I will at times be referring to her latest pronouncement on the subject, which you can find here.

Free Speech vs. Censorship – Brown clearly comes down on the side of free speech. As I said above, I think this is a bit of a red herring in this case, but take it for what it’s worth.

Money – I’m confident in assuming that Brown chose to maximize her income by choosing to sign a multiyear, exclusive contract with Spotify. This is a topic she dances around, but never seems to directly address.

Business Models – By signing an exclusive contract with Spotify, Brown chose to make money by deputizing a third party to monetize her followers’ ears in any way they liked – through paid subscriptions, if possible, and through advertising, if not. She also delegated the choice of advertisers to this same third party (with a few exclusions in place, to ensure that her listeners didn’t hear some of the same ads that Rogan’s was hearing). By choosing this model, she placed herself at a comfortable remove from the dirty business of actually collecting money and hawking products – while still presumably cashing her monthly checks.

Open Access vs. Lock-In – Brown started out giving listeners open access to her work, and then decided on lock-in once she chose to sign with Spotify. (This was a decision that seemed to me to be at odds with her espoused values long before the recent controversy emerged.)

Freedom of Association – Brown freely chose to associate herself with Spotify – apparently without giving much thought to who else she might be associated with as a result of that decision. She freely chose to sign a multi-year exclusive contract with Spotify. When she was in a position to freely choose the podcast sponsors she was willing to be associated with, she found that association to be distasteful, and decided instead to disassociate herself from her show’s sponsors – while still making money from them.

Mission – Brown has a long and meandering “Belonging Statement,” but no concise mission statement. The most prominent part of her Belonging Statement says that:

We are called to:

  • Be brave.
  • Serve the work.
  • Take good care.
  • Cultivate belonging.
  • Create beauty and excellence in all things.

So, when Brown signed her multiyear, exclusive contract with Spotify, was she really being brave? Serving the work? Taking good care? Cultivating belonging? And creating beauty and excellence (neither of which can reliably be found in Spotify’s apps, business practices, or ad placement)?

As Brown confessed in her most recent post: “If you want to sit with me and talk, you need to come to my table. And I’m sitting with Joe Rogan. But sharing the table with Rogan puts me in a tremendous values conflict with very few options.”

I think that’s an accurate picture of the corner that Brown has painted herself into.

One can only wish that she had noticed how the paint was being applied a little earlier in the process.

And As For Me?

I’ll still be listening to Neil Young (playing at the highest sound fidelity I can find).

I won’t be listening to Brown’s podcasts, or using Spotify to listen to anyone or anything.

I’ll still be listening to podcasters willing to openly speak the names of their shows’ sponsors.

I’ll still be respecting those who are willing to draw hard and fast lines, and willing to take a stand.

And I will continue to try to choose my associates with care.


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