Paging Doctor Spotify to Triage
Spotify does have a bit of a pickle on its hands, doesn’t it?
Now, just being honest, if you’d shown me a picture of the cast of NewsRadio, which featured the legendary Phil Hartman, and told me that, in 30 years, one of them would have a following in the millions, I never would have guessed it would be Joe Rogan. Not ever.
And yet, here we are. Rogan stands astride a media empire fueled by contrarianism and “just asking questions,” one in which Rogan has felt relatively free to say wildly racist things without fear of losing a single fan. He’s promoted profound vaccine misinformation to an audience that stretches from sea to shining sea. And none of that was enough to stop Spotify from handing him a check for a hundred million dollars. Why would it? The heart of American capitalism is (to borrow a Mel Brooks-ism) the search for more money, plain and simple, and Spotify isn’t stupid. Not by a country mile. You don’t build a thriving media business without seeing where the wind is blowing.
Now, much of the debate around this issue (i.e., should Spotify drop Rogan?) is framed in terms of free speech, which is true as far as it goes; this is a country that has, rightly or wrongly, internalized the first amendment as an absolute right to free speech in any context. Further, I think we do ourselves, and the whole country, a disservice if we pretend that media companies like Spotify (and in a much larger way, conglomerates like Disney or Viacom) don’t possess a veto on public speech by virtue of their sheer scope. No single company should be able to stifle political expression.
But that’s ignoring the simple fact that you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater, and Spotify didn’t have to shut down Rogan, or even remove him from the platform, to avoid this situation. All it had to do was not hand a guy who casually throws racial slurs around and entertains Covid-19 misinformation a hundred million dollars. That’s the problem; Spotify can be a neutral platform as much as it wants to be, but there’s no way to avoid the fact that a check with that many zeroes isn’t just a tacit endorsement; it’s a wholesale yoking of Spotify’s reputation to Rogan himself.
That’s the part that Spotify seems unable to wrap its corporate head around: that not only is it passively profiting off Rogan the way, say, it profits off Pat Benatar, but it’s actually slapping its own name and logo onto Rogan. A Spotify Exclusive, it says over Rogan’s grinning visage. So it’s disingenuous to say, as official communications from the company have, that it’s a “slippery slope” to stop that endorsement. Nor would it constitute “silencing” a man with a massive audience who does not need Spotify or its largesse in order to reach them. If anything, exclusivity could potentially have weakened his bullhorn; it’s hard to tell, but there is evidence to that effect, which further undercuts Spotify’s official explanation. In fact, there is no measure by which Spotify withdrawing its sponsorship of the program would possibly constitute “silencing” the man; he’s wealthy and media savvy. A Fox commentator job awaits him the moment he asks, not that he has ever needed a media company to boost him.
What’s so baffling about this, to me anyway, is the shortsightedness of Spotify’s response: disingenuously grandstand, hope that its users are dumb enough to fall for it, and wait for it to all blow over, all while digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole. And for what? The “slippery slope” in question is almost certainly one that leads from a lot of money to somewhat less of a lot of money. There are ways to manage crisis communications, and this isn’t it.
I’m not sure there’s an easy way out of this wet paper bag short of punching through it, but that would require Spotify to walk away from a partnership that is clearly bringing it a ton of cash, or at bare minimum, has a contract locked into place so tightly it can’t be budged without incurring steep financial penalties. Of course, the honest answer isn’t a good one, so Spotify has retreated to what it assumes to be the high ground of the free speech defense, as though it was nothing but a passive, neutral third party and not — once again — in the hole with Rogan to the tune of a hundred million American dollars.
The importance of being choosy about who you work with cannot be understated here. Whether it’s a partner, a client, or even a vendor, brands need to be thoughtful about who they do business with (much like the growing number of artists pulling their catalogs from Spotify are doing).
And Spotify was perfectly happy to back Rogan without making a peep until Neil Young’s decision to pull his catalog thrust it into the spotlight. It’s painfully clear it had no prepared response, even though it should have seen this coming. It would be shocking if it weren’t for big tech’s penchant for driving right into the cart full of horse manure, Biff Tannen style, much like Facebook and Uber before it. Facebook, at least, has the benefit of nigh untrammeled control over a vast swathe of internet traffic to back up Zuckerberg’s own moralistic speechifying about the free internet, while Uber has the common decency to justify its profit-seeking as, well, profit-seeking, which has the virtue of honesty at least. But Spotify is in neither camp; it’s not a company supposedly built on high ideals like Meta, which never out-and-out sponsors anti-vax misinformation or election conspiracy theories or whatever head of the Hydra we’re dealing with, nor is it a fraternity of libertarian tech bros like Uber.
We were blessed to never have to think much about Spotify, humming quietly along offering Dre and the Beatles on demand, and whose dominance of the streaming space made it a passive background presence, like the sweet melancholy of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” at the same time Uber was sending scabs through the anti-Muslim immigration ban picket lines at JFK and Facebook was sending grandmas near and far down the paranoid conspiracy rabbit hole. That very passivity of its presence, hidden behind an internet browser or a phone with the screen turned off, shielded it from the simple fact that producing content necessitates a form of editorializing, that you cannot pretend you had no hand in its creation.
In a world where what I think has any bearing on Spotify’s decision-making, I would have advised a very different course: don’t work with anyone who compromises your values. Ever. It’s never worth it, even when your cash register (in the immediate) says otherwise. Integrity matters. It’s really that simple. But let’s say Spotify is already in this mess. My recommendation then would be to terminate the exclusive deal with Rogan, effective immediately, regardless of the cost. What Spotify would get back in fortifying its reputation, not to mention in peace of mind, is more than worth it. Now let’s say that Spotify forgoes that advice, at which point it’s really only left with two options. Now in my world, in which I actually practice what I preach, I would decline to work with such a client (as I said, never work with anyone who compromises your values; it really is that simple). But, for the sake of argument, if I were to offer my advice, it would be this: be honest. Spotify may have thought that high-roading about political speech would chart itself safe passage through, but the better course would be, as it almost always is, the truth. That is, own the profit motive. Make a statement to the effect that obviously Spotify pursues its financial interests and had not sufficiently considered the content Rogan was putting out; further, that it is right now in a contract with The Joe Rogan Experience that it is obligated to fulfill, and that at the expiration of the term of that contract, it will review the deal, make a good faith effort to ensure that Rogan’s granted a wide berth but would face financial penalties for vaccine misinformation, and leave it at that. The next step would be Rogan’s. Either way, Spotify would be relatively insulated; Rogan accepts limits on his content or goes elsewhere.
But in choosing the free speech argument in an attempt to position itself as staking a moral claim, it is saying “Joe Rogan has our full support to say and do essentially whatever he pleases, because to rein him in would be a slippery slope.”
But the only slippery slope was on the stock ticker, and at the time of this writing, it’s down almost 40% from late November. Spotify planted its flag with Joe Rogan, and the market is, to no surprise, horrified.