A Reckoning for Spotify?

Last week some notable news in the music industry was discussed in Lewis University’s History of American Popular Music class. Neil Young, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and singer/songwriter and guitarist who was a member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in the 1960s, requested that his music be removed from Spotify. Young made this decision as a form of protest against misinformation that was spread about COVID-19 on Joe Rogan’s podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience”, which is streamed exclusively on the Spotify platform. Several of the students in the class wondered if Young’s actions would have much of an impact on the streaming service, primarily due to the fact that Young is in his 70s and his music appeals to an older demographic of listeners that may not even use Spotify. What effect could one person’s decision have on the streaming service, on the music industry, or on society more broadly?

According to a report released by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2021, the music industry contributes approximately $170 billion to the GDP of the economy in the United States each year and supports 2.5 million jobs nationwide in core music activities like recording, streaming, and live performance, as well as adjacent fields like travel, retail, and marketing. In an article published yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was reported that Spotify lost $4 billion in market value, so Young’s actions have had an observable impact on the streaming service. Fast forward to this week: now Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and India Arie have joined Young in removing their music from the service, and people around the world are considering whether to cancel their subscriptions, with the hashtag #deletespotify trending on social media.

There are a few issues to consider in this controversy, including the acceptance of responsibility from platforms like Spotify in spreading misinformation. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have been scrutinized for this issue in recent years but have mostly avoided long-term negative effects on their overall bottom lines. The CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, announced that they would add “content advisory” labels to podcasts that discuss COVID-19, but critics note that this is the bare minimum that could be done to stop the spread of misinformation that is dangerous to public health; it seems like yet another example of executives of online platforms avoiding responsibility for controversial content that is spread through their services. They continue to make money despite “peddling lies and allowing misinformation”, as President Biden noted.

The other issue, which is perhaps more relevant to those involved in the music industry, is that Rogan reportedly signed a $100 million deal with Spotify that allows the service to exclusively stream his podcast. This is in contrast to the meager amounts that musicians are paid for their music, which is from $0.0033 to $0.0054 per stream. It is a challenge to find out exactly how much artists make from Spotify, but a recent report from money.co.uk claims that Billie Eilish earned approximately $7 million from the service in 2019, with over 1.6 billion streams of her songs that year. Most artists earn a much smaller amount than this. There is a large disparity between what Spotify pays Joe Rogan and what they pay musicians, and it seems that this is perhaps an underlying reason for Neil Young to have pulled his music from the service.

In terms of the History of American Popular Music class, one reason that was discussed for Young’s particular form of protest was perhaps due to his age. He was in his twenties in the 1960s, in the midst of the tumultuous political and cultural environment of that decade in the United States, when many artists were inspired to create music and lyrics that communicated their beliefs and support for social justice initiatives. From Young’s perspective, this way of bringing attention to an issue he deemed important was a viable way to effect change.

Today’s environment of streaming music services and a pandemic are different than what was happening in the 1960s, but this controversy reminds us that topics as seemingly divergent as music, technology, politics, economics, and public health can have consequential effects on one another. Although the broader, long-term effects of this debate are unknown, it is an important example of how one artist can have an impact on the music industry and society at large.  

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