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The problems behind the dispute between Neil Young and Spotify

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For several days the Spotify music streaming platform has been at the center of a debate initiated by the decision of the famous Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young to have his music removed from the platform, in protest against the disinformation on vaccines present in the Most listened to podcast on Spotify in the United States, The Joe Rogan Experience, hosted by the American Joe Rogan. After Young, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell also decided the same thing, and other influential musicians of their generation have approved or announced that they will follow them: among them are David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, who along with Young were part of a famous folk rock group of the seventies.

It is a controversy that is generating reflections among journalists, musicians, music critics and media and technology experts. In part it concerns the broader and more general question of the limits of the responsibilities of platforms in the distribution of content on the Internet, an issue that is not new but until now less often associated with streaming and non-American platforms (Spotify is Swedish). And in part it concerns the model of distribution of incentives and economic compensation promoted over time by the platforms and in this specific case by Spotify, the most popular music streaming platform in the world, which generally provides for a salary considered by most musicians. inadequate, amounting to a fraction of a cent of a dollar for every single stream.

Like Facebook and YouTube, the Wall Street Journal wrote, Spotify began as a technology platform independent of the content it hosted. But over time – and more so since it began investing hundreds of millions of dollars in acquiring companies in the emerging podcast market – Spotify is becoming a media company responsible for what it distributes. A publisher, in practice. And that means, the Wall Street Journal predicts, that it will increasingly face difficult decisions about content that can provoke outcry from consumers, employees, musicians and podcasters.

What happened, in short
On January 25th, Young – one of the most famous, respected and influential musicians of his generation – asked that all of his music was removed from Spotify, citing the fact that Spotify hosted the Joe Rogan podcast, which Young considered a source of disinformation about vaccines. Young explicitly cited an episode of the podcast in which a controversial virologist, Robert Malone, who supported the contention that American hospitals received “economic incentives” to diagnose false deaths from COVID-19, was present as a guest. Spotify then accepted a subsequent official request to remove Young's music received through Warner Music Group, the company that owns the record label Young works with, Reprise Records.

On January 30, the CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek wrote in a statement on the company's website that there are opposing views on any matter, and that he personally disagrees with many opinions on Spotify. “We believe that listening is everything,” Ek added, noting that the company has still removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to Covid during the pandemic. And it heralded new initiatives to contain disinformation and strengthen policies on potentially dangerous or misleading content for users.

– Read also: Spotify Will Do More to Contain Coronavirus Misinformation

Shortly after Ek's announcement, Rogan apologized to Spotify for causing misinformation allegations against the company. In a video shared on Instagram, he said he did not want to disinform but that he was interested in hearing the opinion of “highly qualified medical experts who have an opinion different from that of mainstream discourse”.

Meanwhile, Young – who said he got 60 percent of his music streaming revenue from Spotify – shared links to his music on other platforms, including Amazon Music and Apple Music. In a post on his website, he also thanked Reprise Records and the music publishers who supported him, and added: “I sincerely hope other musicians can move in the same direction, but I can't really expect that to happen.”

The home of Neil Young.

Listen to his entire catalog on Apple Music: https://t.co/sUGtz4JbB9 pic.twitter.com / YgRMygUqhi

– Apple Music (@AppleMusic) January 28, 2022

Already several years ago, Young had some disagreements with the digital music industry when it temporarily withdrew its repertoire from streaming services, for stated reasons related to sound quality. Through a fundraiser he conceived an expensive high-resolution digital music player called Pono, an alternative to the most common devices and put on sale in 2015, but it was not successful. In recent days, after removing the music from Spotify, Young has returned to the issue of sound quality again, describing the one on Spotify in negative terms.

Who is Rogan and what relationship does he have with Spotify
Joe Rogan is a host and former commentator of mixed martial arts (MMA), today the author of the most listened to podcast on Spotify in the United States, with about 11 million listeners per episode (Young makes Spotify just over 6 million plays in a month). He has been known to be a controversial character for quite some time. In 2020 he interviewed, among others, the founder of the far-right group Proud Boys and an author who had stated that young people who change their sex assigned at birth can generate phenomena of “contagion” among their peers. During the pandemic Rogan stated in the podcast that “healthy” young people did not need the vaccine, and promoted the use of a deworming drug as a form of home treatment for Covid, a treatment considered by the scientific community to be devoid of any benefit and indeed very dangerous.

From September 2020 Rogan's podcast has been present only on Spotify, based on an agreement with the value estimated by the Wall Street Journal of over 100 million dollars (about 87.5 million euros), a figure never confirmed by Spotify. Net of the accuracy of the estimates, according to various observers, the existence of this exclusivity agreement would in itself be sufficient to make Spotify not only the platform but in fact the editor responsible for the Rogan podcast.

– Read also: The US Congress against the “amplification” of social media

Since the beginning of its exclusive collaboration with Spotify , Rogan has however repeatedly reiterated on social media and also during the podcast his autonomy and independence. And Spotify has made it clear that it does not produce the podcast, does not approve guests or topics, and does not know the contents of the episodes in advance before publication. There is no doubt that the collaboration has generated mutual benefits, strengthening Spotify's presence in the podcast market and increasing the number of listeners to Rogan's program. According to data cited by the Wall Street Journal, listeners of The Joe Rogan Experience grew by 75 percent from September 2020 to December 2021.

In October 2020, a few months after the agreement began , however, some early concerns already emerged within Spotify regarding Rogan's podcast. A Spotify employee Slack channel called # ethics-club discussed an episode of Rogan's podcast at length with Alex Jones, a well-known far-right conspiracy American TV and radio host, founder of the Infowars site, whose contents were previously removed from Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify itself.

Also on that occasion Ek responded to criticism by claiming that its ambition to make Spotify the largest audio content platform in the world inevitably involved including voices and opinions other than the most widespread, as long as those opinions were subject like all others to the consistent application of the company's moderation rules. Recently, Spotify said it has improved the development and enforcement of content policies by employing external companies that are experts in moderating disinformation, extremism and hate speech, companies that use both algorithms and people.

What the newspapers and insiders say
Newspapers and news and technology sites that dealt with the debate that emerged from the disagreement between Spotify and Neil Young have suggested various interpretations of recent events. A widely shared impression among observers and insiders is that at least in part there are also conflicting economic interests and divergences on the business model of music streaming platforms at the base of the discussion. Issues that precede the pandemic but that the pandemic and restrictions have evidently helped make even more central to all professions that derive a key part of their earnings from live events, one of the longest and most heavily restricted sectors.

– Read also: Why so many musicians are selling the rights to their songs

Several Spotify users have declared their intention to support Young's reasons by canceling their subscription from Spotify, but it is not clear what the repercussions of the dispute will be commercially, the New York Times wrote. During a recent episode of the popular American show The View, the presenter and comedian Joy Behar also invited the youngest musicians – «Taylor and those guys “- to take a stand and demonstrate what they believe.

” I was disappointed that more musicians and singers, etc. did not pull out… Let's see some young people do it. Let's see Taylor and those guys take a stand. “

– The View's Joy Behar calls out musicians who have not spoken out against Spotify over Joe Rogan pic.twitter.com/TdHQ8tjHEc

– The Recount (@therecount) February 1, 2022

In 2014, Swift had all of its records removed from Spotify, stating that the version free of charge – a model with some limitations, supported entirely by advertising – did not fairly compensate all people working in the music business. And it was nearly three years before Swift's catalog was available again on Spotify: an action that was widely described as a sign of streaming's dominance in the enjoyment of music and how streaming had become an essential part of the market.

Streaming accounts for 84 percent of US music sales revenue, according to estimates cited by the New York Times. And with 172 million subscriptions, Spotify represents, according to an analysis by British market research firm Midia Research, about 31 per cent of the world's total streaming music users, more than double that of its closest competitor, Apple Music.

This situation has made Spotify a key financial partner for record companies and a “necessary evil” for musicians, according to George Howard, a lecturer at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts. . “Not many musicians would say they love Spotify but many record companies, whether they like Spotify's values ​​or not, are absolutely delighted with the volumes of money flowing into their coffers,” Howard said. For this reason, few expect a large proportion of musicians, especially the younger and more acclaimed, to leave Spotify, given the platform's importance in distributing their music and generating expectations for their tours and other activities from which they draw. profit.

Leaving Spotify, even if you wanted to, would not be such an immediate or simple operation on a legal level. One of the preliminary questions would be whether or not musicians have the contractual right to remove their music. Typically their recordings are under the control of record companies, which in turn enter into licensing agreements with services such as Spotify. Some contr Acts grant musicians the right to remove music from those platforms, others don't, Jeffrey M. Liebenson, a lawyer who has represented both record companies and digital services in the past, told the New York Times. – Read also: Can a singer prevent a politician from using one of his songs?

According to the well-known New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, the recent protests against Spotify do not explicitly address the underlying injustice that governs the streaming music economy quite explicitly. And in particular they do not focus on the “extraordinarily adverse” music distribution model promoted by Spotify, which pays an average of $ 4 for every 1,000 streams, an agreement that over time has translated into huge profits limited only to the big houses. record companies and the most famous musicians. And that in order to be profitable it requires musicians to reach a level of fame that for most of them is an out of scale reference.

Ross wondered if, like Young, users are really willing to “sacrifice” themselves and give up the convenience of Spotify or other platforms to support the musicians they care about. Willing to give up, for example, the very idea that all music is available on request at any time for a fee of ten euros a month. According to Ross, Spotify is the completion of a cycle of devaluation that began many years ago with Napster and with the idea that music is not something you have to pay for, a cycle that has culminated in the current reduction of payments to almost zero and the cancellation. of artistic identity through the functioning of the algorithms that select and propose music to users.

– Read also: How Netflix's criteria influence our tastes

As summarized by American musician and journalist Damon Krukowski, “Spotify used the financial model of arbitrage to get a cheap, if not completely free, product and resell it in a new context to make profits “. It therefore needs the value of the music it hosts to be minimal to reap the greatest profits. Meanwhile, he can continue to describe his service as a solution to a problem, insisting that without this service there would be only piracy and that few profits for musicians are better than no profit anyway.

Established musicians such as Will Butler, singer and leader of the Canadian indie group Arcade Fire, took part in the debate on streaming music that re-emerged following the conflict between Young and Spotify. «At best, Spotify is a refined tool, a channel between the artist, the art and the listener. At worst, he's a bad actor in an industry that's even worse and historically treats artists miserably, ”Butler wrote in an article published in Atlantic. According to him, Spotify is credited with bringing money to the music industry during the crisis of the 1910s. But Spotify is also the reason why the rich in the industry – be they record companies, Spotify executives or famous musicians – keep getting even richer.

“There isn't enough money for everyone, to make a good profit on streaming music, ”Butler wrote, adding that“ too many middlemen take their share ”and that since the Internet has existed there is a limit to how much people are willing to pay for music. Spotify, according to Butler, is betting that what was once known as the music industry is dead, but that it is possible to make money in the “audio industry”.

In the 2000s, for as the industry was in crisis, many independent musicians and smaller bands could also live on music for at least a few years of their lives, says Butler. Not anymore, because the streaming industry “extracts more and more efficiently from the smallest veins what little money can be extracted”, while the broader entertainment industry “has more in common with the Marvel movie show than with any particular art form. ”

In general, according to Butler, the dispute between Young and Spotify over Rogan's podcast says a lot more about what's happening to the music industry than what you say about the debate on freedom of expression, which in your opinion musicians are much less interested in at the moment. Many of them are aware of how insufficient the earnings that come from Spotify are, and would gladly follow Young if only they could afford it and if only this move didn't amount to breaking connections with people who want to listen to their music.

It is clear, however, that in a similar context of devaluation of the work of so many artists, wrote Butler, many of them appear as “a particularly nihilistic move” the support offered to Rogan on the basis of an agreement signed by Spotify without taking into account the talent of the author or the impact of his work on the world, good or bad. Spotify signed it rather “with a heartless, almost videogame sensibility, to steal market share from Apple and Google (and Pandora, I guess)”. Butler added that the complaints against intermediaries and unscrupulous businessmen who exploit the work of musicians are hardly new, but the difference is that “what is happening in music today looks less like an act of individual exploitation and plus the destruction of an ecosystem. “

Waiting for governments to respond to the growing and pressing demands to change the rules to ensure greater compensation for musicians, there are fairer alternatives to Spotify, Ross wrote in the New Yorker. For example, it is possible to choose services such as Bandcamp, Resonate or Ampled, which sell music by distributing a higher share of revenues to authors.

– Read also: The generous success of Bandcamp

You can also buy records, the old way. Ross cited the case of classical music produced by the British Hyperion, one of the rare cases of a record company absent on streaming platforms. “Everyone is reading about how great streaming is for the record industry. It is not. We spent £ 1.4 million last year just to make the audio. I need to generate revenue from sales to pay for that audio. If I turn on the stream, I will never pay for it, “Hyperion editor Simon Perry told Strings magazine. streaming platforms, the English pianist and composer Stephen Hough, who publishes with Hyperion, replied: “We had to pay for the piano tuner.”