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Spotify and Joe Rogan take the easy way out

January 31, 2022, 6:14 PM UTC

Spotify and its $100 million podcaster, Joe Rogan, embarked on the path of least resistance Sunday in response to criticism of the star host’s approach to discussing COVID-19.

Chances are, it’ll work for them.

Faced with a barrage of criticism from medical officials and boycott threats from several prominent musicians, Spotify and Rogan stole a page from the Facebook crisis PR playoff this weekend, unveiling a series of half-measures designed to quell the controversy without tipping over their cash cow. 

Rather than banning more content or cutting ties with Rogan, who has hosted two COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and peddled incomplete information about vaccine safety, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek unveiled significantly smaller measures to fend off critics. Spotify chose to publish the company’s content rules and direct listeners to “data-driven facts and up-to-date information” about COVID-19 before the start of content that addresses the pandemic.

“We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users,” Ek wrote in an open letter. “In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

Rogan, for his part, posted a 10-minute video on Instagram that was, in true Rogan fashion, simultaneously good-natured, defiant, apologetic, well-reasoned, and misguided. 

In his defense, the stand-up comedian accurately noted that he’s hosted health experts with traditional medical opinions, such as CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, and that some tech companies have censored COVID-19 content that later became more mainstream. 

To his credit, Rogan, somewhat begrudgingly, agreed that he could “make sure I’ve researched these topics” more and “maybe try harder to get people with differing opinions” on his show right after speakers with controversial takes.

And yet, Rogan continued to tout the credentials of a doctor who peddled conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines on his show. He also struggled to take ownership for the influence he has on many of his 11 million-plus listeners, repeatedly falling back on the idea that he’s just “trying to have interesting conversations.”

Taken together, the comments portend no major changes by either party. Spotify doesn’t shoulder the uncomfortable and costly burden of policing content. Rogan’s show gets to maintain its defining edge, free of corporate intervention. Everybody keeps making money.

It’s an approach that has worked for social media giants—and, barring a major shift, should work for Spotify.

While we won’t know the financial impact of any boycotts or subscription cancellations until later this spring, it’s hard to envision this controversy putting a big dent in Spotify’s 172 million paid subscriptions. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube continue to grow despite years of misinformation-related backlash.

So far, investors seem unfazed by the blowup. Spotify’s stock price is virtually unchanged since Jan. 24, when folk rocker Neil Young touched off the firestorm by asking the streamer to remove his music in response to Rogan. Spotify’s share price dipped last week before jumping 11% in mid-day trading Monday.

For all the media and Twitter handwringing, the Rogan affair feels destined to join a long list of culture war battles that quietly fade into the background.

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Jacob Carpenter


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