On Friday, the legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell announced she would be joining fellow musician Neil Young in his protest against Spotify. Both artists have now removed their music from the platform, accusing Spotify of allowing Covid misinformation to spread by continuing to stream Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast. “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives,” she wrote in a statement posted to her website. “I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue.” It comes after growing concern from medical professionals in the wake of a particularly controversial episode of Rogan’s podcast in December featuring the vaccine skeptic and right-wing media star Dr. Robert Malone. But how did the controversy begin?
First, there was the deal Spotify signed with Rogan in 2020, in which the company reportedly paid over $100 million for exclusive rights to his hit podcast The Joe Rogan Experience. At the time, many music fans (and, indeed, Spotify employees) questioned the decision, given Rogan’s history of racist remarks, transphobic jokes, and misogyny. But as the pandemic rolled around, the Swedish streaming company found themselves with a new dilemma on their hands, as Rogan began using his podcast to amplify conspiracy theories about the virus, whether publicizing the views of anti-vaxxer guests, endorsing treatments such as ivermectin that have been widely disproven to be effective against Covid, or in the most recent instance, hosting Malone, who used the episode to promote the notion that hospitals are being financially incentivized to falsify Covid mortalities and compared U.S. public health policies to the Holocaust. (Preview clips were removed by YouTube for violating the site’s community guidelines, but the three-hour-long episode remains live on Spotify.)
While plenty of other social media and streaming platforms have either limited the promotion of false or misleading information about Covid-19 or attached disclaimers, Spotify’s policy remains significantly more ambiguous. On Wednesday, the company issued a statement saying they have “removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid since the start of the pandemic,” upholding their efforts to present themselves as merely a hosting service—an argument which has been challenged, given they are, in effect, paying Rogan’s salary. It came after an open letter signed by over 200 medical professionals and academics was published earlier this month, urging Spotify to “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform.”
It was this letter that first spurred Neil Young into action, posting a now-deleted letter addressed to his record label on his website with an ultimatum to Spotify that “they can have Neil Young or Rogan. Not both.” “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines—potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” he continued. The following day, Spotify made their choice clear, removing Young’s catalog from their service, even as they published a statement encouraging the musician to change his mind. “Losing 60% of worldwide streaming income by leaving Spotify is a very big deal, a costly move, but worth it for our integrity and beliefs,” Young responded. “Misinformation about Covid is over the line.” While Young had noted that he “sincerely hopes that other artists can make a move,” he also acknowledged that not all may have the financial security to be able to do so.