When Spotify struck its exclusive licensing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience in 2020, the chief executive of a major podcast company texted me shortly after the news went out: “Game, set, match.”
At that moment, there was no other way to look at it. The deal, later reported to be worth $100 million, offered a road map for how Spotify was going to achieve what CEO Daniel Ek had declared was to be its “audio-first” future after buying podcast start-ups Gimlet Media and Anchor in early 2019. That vision outlined an effort to move away from its mortal dependency on the stifling world of music streaming by refashioning itself as something more expansive: a one-stop shop for all kinds of audio products, starting with podcasts. By securing the exclusive rights to what’s widely believed to be the most popular podcast in the world, Spotify essentially bought itself a highway into its glorious new future. The deal theoretically created remarkable distance between the company and its would-be rivals, buying enough time — however long the agreement lasts; the exact period remains unclear — for Spotify to build out and scale up an entirely new business using The Joe Rogan Experience as its foundational piece, while everyone else is left still trying figure out their own strategies.
Sure, given Rogan’s history as a lightning rod for controversy, the deal will probably bring its share of inconveniences. But hey, what bold move doesn’t come with risks, right?
But if Spotify is to win, it’s not going to be in straight sets, as the past few weeks have indicated. This latest round of Rogan-inspired controversy began mid-January, when more than 270 medical professionals wrote an open letter to the company criticizing the rampant spread of COVID-19 misinformation on Spotify and singling out The Joe Rogan Experience as a prime vector for that misinformation. Rogan’s historical stance on COVID-19 is tricky to describe with any precision, but it’s probably most appropriate to frame it as “vaccine skeptic–curious” and “definitely anti–vaccine mandate,” the latter in keeping with his libertarian ethos. The flash point for critics also lies in his sincere interest when it comes to perspectives from fringe vaccine skeptics like Peter McCullough and Robert Malone. Rogan, a committed “freethinker,” often argues that he’s simply keeping an open mind to viewpoints being shouted down by liberal elites.
This kerfuffle kicked into high gear when Neil Young entered the fray and issued Spotify an ultimatum: Either remove his music from the service, or do something meaningful about the open letter’s complaints about Rogan. As he put it: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.” Spotify chose Rogan, obviously, which prompted a string of negative responses from other musicians, artists, and creators. Young’s protest was joined by Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills, who all similarly moved to pull their music from the service. Some podcasters, like the author Roxane Gay, removed their shows from Spotify, too. The R&B artist India.Arie also removed her content from the service, though she extended her circle of critique to include The Joe Rogan Experience’s history with racist statements. All this generated what is inarguably the most negative round of headlines in Spotify’s history, and sparked enough concern over subscription cancellations that it was brought up in the most recent earnings call.
That Spotify stood by Rogan comes to absolutely nobody’s surprise. To begin with, it’s hard to overstate just how important The Joe Rogan Experience is to the company’s future. In 2021, it was the most-streamed podcast on Spotify, and, the Verge has reported, the show functions as a kind of arrowhead for the rest of the company’s podcast business: If advertisers wanted to buy space on The Joe Rogan Experience — widely thought to be the most popular podcast in the world — they would have to buy space on other Spotify properties as well. And besides, Spotify hasn’t really lost much from standing by Rogan before. It took less than two months after the exclusive licensing deal kicked in for the show to generate controversy, when Alex Jones appeared as a guest and said, you know, Alex Jones things; around the same time, unrest stirred up among the Spotify workforce over a July 2020 interview with Abigail Shrier, an author who has been criticized for describing gender dysphoria as a “social contagion,” which drew attention to Rogan’s own history with comments considered transphobic. In both cases, Spotify kept its head low, and business eventually went on as usual.
Misinformation is a problem all throughout podcasting (as it is over broadcast radio), but Joe Rogan has pushed Spotify into the spotlight, forcing the company to figure things out under intense scrutiny while its competitors get to do so more quietly. It’s a slippery situation. Since the uproar, Spotify has taken a few steps to mitigate COVID-19 misinformation concerns. It made public internal policies that had previously been private. The company also announced it was going to start labeling podcast episodes that involve discussion of COVID-19 and launch a COVID-19 info hub in the hopes of promoting high-quality information. But these steps are unlikely to quell the criticism.
A crucial part of the public debate around the responsibility of tech giants over content is the legal question as to whether the company is operating as an agnostic platform or a publisher. Spotify’s leadership, for its part, told employees in an internal town hall that it continues to see itself as a platform to distribute The Joe Rogan Experience rather than its publisher, despite the fact it pays $100 million for its exclusive license, with CEO Daniel Ek laying out his own definition of terms: “A publisher has editorial control over a creator’s content. They can take action on the content before it’s even published … It is important to note that we do not have creative control over Joe Rogan’s content.” This attempt at a distinction is, of course, well-trodden territory in the tech world, as the line between a platform and a publisher becomes ever more blurred. You can detect similar conceptual maneuvering whenever Facebook tries to pass off responsibility over election misinformation, though it’s worth noting that Facebook’s own lawyers have reportedly claimed publisher status in court, even as the company insists on being a platform in public. But even if Spotify owns up to being a publisher, it’ll likely just play a similar card to Netflix’s during its recent controversy around Dave Chappelle’s The Closer: Content doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people.
There’s been little to suggest that this round of Rogan controversy will conclude any differently as the last time. This go-around, the coalition of critics is more prominent than before, but it’s notable that the bulk of the artists requesting to pull their content are musicians on the back-end of their careers who don’t have much to lose. Meanwhile, those who do have something to lose, like India Arie, aren’t likely to be identified by Spotify as an important relationship. It’s also worth noting that, at this writing, they haven’t been meaningfully joined by the rest of the music industry, or the podcast industry, or any of Spotify’s other exclusive content partners, which includes the Obamas, Dax Shepard, Kim Kardashian West, Call Her Daddy’s Alexandra Cooper, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (though the former royals did allegedly “express concerns” to Spotify over misinformation on the service). Brené Brown, who hosts two shows exclusively for Spotify, paused publication of new episodes, but later posted an update indicating that she seemed amenable to returning now that Spotify had published a misinformation policy. Unlike the situation with Netflix and Chappelle, there hasn’t yet appeared to be significant public pushback from employees, certainly not in the form of something like a walkout. The protest simply hasn’t reached a level where it’s able to outweigh the value that The Joe Rogan Experience gives Spotify in terms of its future.
If the company is pushing to diversify into an all-consuming service that houses all sorts of audio content — audiobooks, livestreams, Clubhouse-style experiences — it has to first succeed in its building out of a robust podcast business. As it turns out, rapid growth in podcasting these days relies on continuously publishing wildly popular and relatively cost-effective shows, of which The Joe Rogan Experience is the exemplar. It’s also worth noting that Spotify hasn’t been a terribly great developer of new content itself; as Bloomberg reported in January, Spotify execs have expressed worry that the company isn’t producing enough new popular podcasts. Recent reports in Vanity Fair and Insider found that the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, is considering shopping for a new deal, possibly elsewhere. The studio is said to be frustrated with Spotify’s “slow pace of development,” particularly with shows that don’t directly feature the Obamas. This suggests a heavy dependence on existing star power, and unless it’s able to diversify its approach, it’ll have to be increasingly reliant on acquiring existing shows or bringing in more already famous people. That will prove to be difficult, as the podcast industry has become a lot more competitive, with companies like Amazon Music, iHeartMedia, and SiriusXM waiting in the wings to compete with better deals.
So for now, the fate of the company’s grand vision feels largely tied to one very unpredictable figure. It’s only a matter of time before the next Rogan-inspired controversy kicks up again, and again, and again — and with each instance, the potential for more scrutiny, pushback, and frustration. Spotify will almost certainly continue making the same choice. Rogan is Spotify’s future, perhaps a lot more than it might like to admit.