Behind Neil Young against Spotify, a strained relationship with musicians

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Spotify arrived over a decade ago with an attractive proposition: listeners could leave their CDs and downloads behind and stream virtually any song ever released. This made the platform a powerhouse in the music business and ushered in competitors like Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Tidal, helping reverse the industry’s downfall.

Spotify remains the largest music streaming service. But a few years ago, it pivoted to add a trendy format to its portfolio: podcasts. The move made the service an assortment of audio entertainment — part music service, part media, part gabfest that’s still going strong. It may also have put the company on a collision course with artists and left listeners with a less than complete library of songs.

Neil Young sparked a storm in the music industry and on social media last week when he demanded that his music – including rock classics like ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ – be taken down from Spotify. He was protesting the company’s support for Joe Rogan, its star podcaster, who has come under fire for promoting misinformation about coronavirus and vaccines.

Even at a time when tech companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are constantly monitoring Covid-19 content on their platforms – and facing backlash from both sides of the free speech debate for doing so. – it was a rare case of a great musician taking a position that would affect his bottom line. Young said 60% of his streaming revenue comes from Spotify.

He was quickly followed by Joni Mitchell, another musical icon whose cultural influence far exceeds his online business impact. Then R&B singer India.Arie and two musicians who played with Young – guitarist Nils Lofgren and Graham Nash – said they would also be removing their music from Spotify in solidarity.

Young’s withdrawal prompted rapid marketing moves from Spotify’s competitors. Apple announced himself as “the home of Neil Young” and SiriusXM relaunched a Neil Young channel.

So far, the commercial impact of the controversy is unclear. Many users have taken to social media to report that they are canceling their subscriptions. The company may well face questions about that from Wall Street analysts when it announces its fourth-quarter earnings report on Wednesday.

On Sunday, after most of Young and Mitchell’s music was taken down, Daniel Ek, chief executive and co-founder of Spotify, released the service’s platform rules and said Spotify would add flags of ” advisory content” on the pandemic podcast episodes. “It’s important to me that we don’t take the position of content censor,” Ek said. In a video, Rogan promised to provide more “balance” on his show and said he was a fan of Young’s and Mitchell’s (although he mixed Mitchell with the singer Rickie Lee Jones).

Whether that will be enough to quell yet another artists’ revolt remains to be seen, though Young’s gauntlet immediately became a cultural talking point. On Tuesday’s episode of ABC’s “The View,” Joy Behar called on young stars like Taylor Swift to choose sides. “Let’s see some young people do it”, behar said. “Let’s see Taylor and these guys take a stand.”

For longtime Spotify watchers, the Young episode is the latest strain in the company’s complex and often troubled relationship with artists. A lot of these problems have been related to money. In 2014, Swift removed its entire catalog from Spotify, saying the service’s “freemium” model – it has an ad-supported tier that lets users listen for free and offers paid subscriptions to remove ads and add other perks – because, she believed, it does not fairly compensate artists for their work; it took almost three years before she added her music.

Recently, many musicians have spoken out about what they see as the unfairness of the whole streaming model – in which each stream typically only generates a fraction of a penny in payouts – although Spotify and YouTube have supported the weight of this criticism.

Spotify has stumbled over censorship issues before. In 2018, he briefly tried to remove playlists of songs by R. Kelly and rapper XXXTentacion — who had both been accused of sexual misconduct — through a “hateful conduct” policy, but failed. canceled the initiative after an outcry in the industry.

But Spotify is no longer so easy for an artist to walk away from. Streaming now accounts for 84% of US sales revenue, according to industry data, and Spotify has 172 million paid subscribers, around 31% of the global total, and more than double that of its closest competitor, Apple Music, according to Midia Research, a market research firm.

This has made Spotify a key financial partner for record labels and a “necessary evil” for artists, said George Howard, associate professor at Berklee College of Music and former director of recording and digital music.

“Not many artists would say, ‘I love Spotify,'” Howard said. “But many labels, whether they like Spotify’s values ​​or not, are absolutely thrilled with the money they’ve been given.”

Rogan’s position within Spotify’s business has made his show, “The Joe Rogan Experience”, a major target for critics. While many podcasts are widely distributed across multiple platforms, Rogan’s is exclusive to Spotify, following a 2020 licensing deal worth $100 million or more, though Spotify has never confirmed that figure. As critics see, this makes Spotify the publisher of Rogan’s show, and therefore deeply responsible for it.

So far, some of the clearest responses to Spotify have come from its own podcast hosts. On Monday, the hosts of “Science Vs,” another Spotify podcast, said on Twitter that the company’s support for Rogan “felt like a slap in the face,” and announcement that the show would comb through the claims of Dr. Robert Malone, a guest on Rogan’s show on Dec. 31, whose remarks drew a sharp rebuke from public health experts. Author Brené Brown, whose Spotify shows like “Unlocking Us” have been heavily promoted by the company, say this weekend that she will no longer publish podcasts “until further notice”.

Few expect a rush of musicians to leave the service, especially major new artists, given the primary role Spotify plays in spreading their music and driving much of their other activities, such as touring.

“It would take a really brave new frontline artist to say, ‘I’m going to say something that might upset half my fan base,'” said Mark Mulligan of Midia.

One issue may be whether artists have the contractual right to remove their music. Their recordings are usually controlled by record labels, which enter into licensing agreements with online services like Spotify.

Some artists’ contracts with their labels may give them the right to remove their music from online outlets for certain reasons, but others do not, said Jeffrey M. Liebenson, an attorney who represented the both record labels and digital services. And even if these rights are exercised, a service might raise objections to a mass exodus.

“Sometimes the label can request a takedown if there’s a genuine artist relationship issue,” Liebenson said. “But the platform may be a bit concerned: ‘Are they doing this because they have a legitimate artist relationship problem, or are they waging war on us?'”

In a public statement last week, Young thanked his label, Reprise Records, a division of Warner Music Group, as well as his music publishers, for their support. He also sparked a push for other artists to follow his lead, but already seemed to know their numbers might be small.

“I sincerely hope other artists can make a move,” Young wrote, “but I can’t really expect that to happen.”

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