Voices: Neil Young leaving Spotify won’t get rid of Joe Rogan now — but it might eventually
“I want you to let Spotify know immediately today that I want all of my music off their platform. They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Rock legend Neil Young delivered the ultimatum in a since-deleted open letter to his management and his record label. He explained that Spotify’s exclusive deal with “The Joe Rogan Podcast” was a public health risk. “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading false information about vaccines,” he said, “potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them.”
Young is correct. And his threatened boycott is a powerful and worthwhile pushback against Covid conspiracy theories and disinformation. It’s valuable in part because it raises awareness. But it’s also valuable because it is effectively a kind of labor action, and points towards possibilities for solidarity among artists as workers.
As Young says, Joe Rogan has been a major vector for vaccine disinformation. He has promoted vaccine denialists, discouraged vaccination in young people, suggested the horse de-wormer ivermectin as a Covid cure, and spread other Covid conspiracy theories and falsehoods. Scientists and medical professionals have urged Spotify to institute a clear public health misinformation policy.
The misinformation is especially dangerous because Rogan has a huge audience. He has an exclusive deal with Spotify, and is the #1 podcast on the site, with an estimated 11 million listeners . That’s a big audience.
If Spotify is forced to choose between Rogan and Young, they’ll probably choose Rogan. Neil Young is a very popular artist, but his heyday was some decades back. Chartmasters.org lists him as the 776 th streamed artist on the service, a little below Lily Allen and Ice Cube and a little above Sean Kingston and Tears for Fears. Spotify would miss those 1.49 billion streams, but they’d miss Rogan’s audience more.
That doesn’t mean that Young’s protest doesn’t matter. He remains an important cultural figure, and his words are likely to reach an audience that doesn’t necessarily pay close attention to political news or analysis. It’s also useful to have a cultural figure with a lot of mainstream credibility say that what Rogan is doing is wrong. At the very least, for people who are taking the pandemic seriously and are looking for reassurance in a very frightening time, it’s heartening to see a respected figure say he’s with you and he wants to help, in whatever small way he can.
There is a scenario, though, in which Young’s singular protest could become something more than symbolic. That’s if other creators start to follow suit.
Many musicians have spoken out in one way or another in support of vaccinations or on behalf of progressive political goals. Paul McCartney (448 on Spotify streaming) of the Beatles (44) has publicly promoted vaccination. So have Lady Gaga (39), Billie Eilish (13), Lizzo (344), and Ariana Grande — who is number 4 in tracks streamed. Taylor Swift (9) has endorsed Democratic politicians. And what about Bob Dylan (260) or Beyoncé (35)? Rogan or Young: that’s an easy decision. Rogan or Young/McCartney/Eilish/Grande/Swift/Dylan/Beyoncé, though — that’s a different issue.
There’s no indication yet that other artists are going to join Young, though. Artists have a lot of money and a certain level of autonomy, but political activism can still come at a major cost, as the Chicks found to their sorrow . Spotify is income artists may not want to lose. They don’t want to alienate fans. And they might worry about taking a stand and then having Spotify do nothing, at which point they end up looking irrelevant. No artist wants to look irrelevant.
Of course, the risks to individual artists go down the more artists participate. Political action over suffers from a collectivity problem. The first person to stand up makes themselves a target. When you come in later, you’re safer and more effective. But it’s difficult to coordinate the logistics of getting everyone to stand up all at once.
That’s why unions are so important — in general, and specifically in pushing for Covid safety. The Chicago Teacher’s Union forced Mayor Lori Lightfoot to agree to more Covid-19 testing, more KN95 masks, and better contact-tracing in schools, protecting their members and students. Florida schools, meanwhile, where unions are weak and teachers aren’t allowed to strike , haven’t even been able to impose mask mandates, thanks to state interference .
Neil Young is able to get his pro-vaccine message across because he’s Neil Young , the guy who would rather burn out than fade away. The power of Beyoncé is that she, and no one else, is uniquely Beyoncé. The power of Taylor Swift is that she is Taylor’s version of herself. Celebrities are all about the iconic oneness. But musicians — even very successful musicians — are also workers. They are paid because they make stuff: vinyl, streams, well-coordinated shows.
Neil Young has threatened to withdraw the product of his labor from Spotify because he wants safer working and living conditions for himself and everyone else on the continent and beyond. That’s a noble decision. But even rich and famous workers are stronger when they’re united. To change Spotify and the world, you need more than celebrity. You need solidarity.