The Joe Rogan Controversy Has a Deeper Cause

Recording artists are angry at Spotify because, in music streaming, there isn’t enough money to go around.

A photo illustration of musical notes stuck between a Spotify audio track
The Atlantic

When Neil Young said he’d take his music off Spotify if it kept streaming the podcaster Joe Rogan, I doubted he was trying to deplatform Rogan. I assumed he was just telling the company, “I don’t need this. I’m out of here.” I support Young’s stance. He has the moral right to get off Spotify, the largest music-streaming service, to protest Rogan’s comments about COVID-19 vaccines. But, notably, Young himself did not in fact have the legal right to leave. He’d signed away those rights to his label, which is part of Warner Music Group, and he had to ask Warner to let him leave Spotify as a personal favor. The rights of speech and association are, as always, constrained by contracts and commerce—in the arts as much as in the tech world. And ultimately, the dispute between Young and Spotify over Rogan’s show says much more about what is happening to the music business than it does about free expression or artistic integrity.

More and more, Spotify is the way people hear what I make. It’s certainly how I listen to music: streaming Daniel Tiger songs in the car to get my kids to stop fighting; making a playlist of Mavis Staples solo songs after reading her biography; even playing my own music, over and over, trying to remember how a song goes while prepping for a rare mid-pandemic show.

At its best, Spotify is an elegant tool—a conduit between artist and art and listener. But at its worst, it’s a bad actor in a worse industry that historically treats artists miserably. Spotify is a hero, having brought new money to artists and labels when the music industry had hit rock bottom in the mid-2010s. It is a villain, paying pitifully low royalties per stream to artists, while the rich people in the industry—whether label heads, or Spotify executives, or famous artists—somehow still get richer.

Even though the small number of streaming services have access to almost every bit of music that’s ever been recorded, and even though they strike near-monopolistic deals with near-monopolistic major labels, there isn’t quite enough money for anyone to make a good profit on streaming music. Too many middlemen take their share, and there’s a limit to how much people are willing to pay for music now that the internet exists. The biggest tech companies have other ways to make money: Apple sold music by the song before starting a streaming service but always generated most of its earnings off hardware; Google has a seemingly infinite array of mysterious revenue sources. Spotify doesn’t have those things to turn to. So it’s been turning to podcasts. Besides enticing new subscribers with Spotify-branded podcasts—Rogan and Gimlet Media at the forefront of these—Spotify gets a new place to run ads. The podcast-advertising ecosystem is still lush enough to support additional harvesting. Spotify is betting that what used to be known as the music industry is in fact dead but that maybe the company can make money in the “audio industry.” But that shift involves decisions that disappoint even people jaded by years of experience with the recording business.

Spotify paid $100 million for the right to exclusively host Joe Rogan’s podcast. I don’t know many musicians who actually care deeply about the content of that podcast, but they are aware of the pitiful amounts—in most cases!—that come their way from Spotify. Many would gladly follow Neil Young off the platform if they could afford it and it didn’t mean severing connections to people who want to hear their music. In the context of the devaluation of so many artists’ work, the backing of Rogan feels like a particularly nihilistic move. Spotify didn’t sign him for his talent or care at all about his impact—good or ill—on the world; with a heartless, almost video-game sensibility, they signed him to take market share from Apple and Google (and Pandora, I guess). Complaints against bloodless businessmen are hardly new. But what’s happening in music today feels less like individual acts of exploitation and more like the razing of an ecosystem.

When Rogan announced his signing, he emphasized that Spotify would have no creative control over his podcast. He was agreeing to a licensing deal, but he wouldn’t be an employee. “It will be the exact same show,” Rogan claimed. Many took this as a declaration that he’d continue to be controversial if he felt like it; to me it felt like a sheepish defense against selling out. His comments fell somewhere between the gentle vibe of “Look, man, they’re offering me $100 million, so, uh, what am I supposed to do?” and a more aggressive “Spotify doesn’t own me, man. They are renting me for a certain period of time for $100 million—that’s different.” It’s infuriating that Rogan’s podcast has the trappings of counterculture while finding itself in such particular proximity to money and tech power. But I don’t know that, if I were Rogan, I would do much different. I feel confident holding Rogan’s dumb-assery against him, but it’s hard to turn down free money.

Others in the “audio industry” face more discouraging trends. I suspect that the big record companies would dissolve if they weren’t still making so much money off the music of the 20th century. Which is not coincidentally how Neil Young—who last year sold half of his song-catalog rights for a reported $150 million—can afford to split from Spotify.

The business of music certainly feels less coherent than it did 20 years ago. A “successful” artist is more than ever a hodgepodge of a ticketing company and a merchandise company and an intellectual-property investment. I attribute much of my own good fortune to timing. When the first Arcade Fire record came out in the early 2000s, people were using the internet to find new things, but were still willing to buy a record if they cared about what they found. If Arcade Fire had become successful a decade earlier, when major labels were flush with cash, I might be a lot richer. But we might not have caught on without people illegally sharing our music and writing blog posts about it. I don’t know that we’d have fared better collecting a pitiful major-label royalty rate rather than the great and fair profit share we enjoyed with Merge Records, an indie label.

Anyway, the business is far worse now. I knew a lot of bands in the early 2000s whose members could quit their day job for a few years and make a living on relatively small amounts of record sales coupled with touring. Today, fewer artists are crossing the bar of being able to live purely off making and performing music. A lot of artists are failing to find a place in an “audio industry” that ever more efficiently mines smaller veins for what little cash can be extracted, or in a broader entertainment industry that has more in common with Marvel-movie spectacle than any particular sort of artistry.

From the business side, the picture looks bleak. But I can still also just listen to music and feel inspired; still sit at a piano and try to make something new; still go to a show (well, when this coronavirus wave passes) and forget myself. My deep dread, though, is that this ability to tune out and focus on art becomes an aristocratic luxury; that a lack of money for music means a lack of money for musicians; that new ways of doing business are destroying the possibility of a creative middle class.

Is there any hope for a better music business? My grandfather led a big band in the 1940s. He was part of a strike by the American Federation of Musicians for more than two years where nearly every instrumentalist in America refused to make records until the record companies changed their royalty rates and established a fund for live musicians put out of work by recorded music. Solidarity is a tempting response to technological change, but my tired brain just can’t see the mechanism for it in this era. I honestly feel like a master sock weaver at the start of the industrial revolution. People will still get their socks, maybe worse than the ones before. And in the end, technology will plow us over.