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Spotify created its Rogan problem

The result of a newly closed ecosystem

Well, it’s been a week, huh. As you probably opened this newsletter knowing, I’m going to focus solely on the Joe Rogan / Spotify saga today with a longer column about what it all means. We’ll skip the regular news for now, with the Insiders getting all that sweet, sweet industry knowledge later this week. (Sign up here if you want that, too!) Let’s get right into it with a recap to start.

Joe Rogan and Spotify speak… now what?

For those of you who have lives outside the Twitter media cycle, I’ll sum up the week in Joe Rogan drama: last month, doctors, nurses, and members of the broader scientific community, issued an open letter asking Spotify to take down a Joe Rogan Experience episode that they said spread misinformation about COVID-19. ​​

“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” they wrote.

Apparently, musician Neil Young found and read this, and then himself issued a letter to Spotify asking it to remove Rogan’s work or lose his music. On Wednesday, Spotify hadn’t taken JRE down in any capacity, so Young made good on his word and removed his discography from the platform. Since then, Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren also removed their catalogs. 

I wrote last Thursday about the reasons Spotify sided with Rogan over anyone else, but critically, and as we’ve covered routinely in this newsletter, a major open question remained: how are Spotify’s COVID-19 moderation guidelines structured, and what are its rules? We got an answer Friday. Thanks to sources inside the company, I broke the guidelines Spotify says it’s been adhering to for “years,” which, it turns out, are so broad that it’d be hard for Rogan to violate them. (You can say vaccines kill people but not that they were designed to kill people, for example.) On Sunday, Spotify published the guidelines itself, making clear why Rogan didn’t break the rules. The company also said in the release that it plans to issue a warning label in front of any podcast content discussing COVID-19, which will link out to its information hub, similarly to what Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube have had in place for months.

Then, later that day, Rogan himself responded with a nearly 10-minute Instagram video in which he acknowledges the back-and-forth, says he likes Young’s music, and sets a goal to bring new people on the show who disagree with his fringe guests. He also says he doesn’t prepare for his podcasts at all, which is a choice.

Though things seem to possibly be calming down, Spotify’s own podcasters have spoken up, and something tells me they’ll continue to do so. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle issued a statement to the BBC saying they’ve expressed “concerns” about the “all too real consequences of Covid-19 misinformation on [Spotify]” and continue to do so to “ensure changes to its platform are made to help address this public health crisis.” Gimlet’s Science Vs team announced yesterday that they’d stop publishing episodes other than ones dedicated to debunking misinformation on Spotify, at least until the platform toughens its content guidelines, and Brené Brown said she wouldn’t release any new episodes of her exclusive shows until “further notice” but didn’t cite Rogan. (I can also exclusively reveal here that, per documents I’ve viewed, Brown’s deal for Unlocking Us totals $13 million, while two seasons of Dare to Lead is costing Spotify nearly $5 million… both small compared to Rogan’s reported $100 million deal.) I’ve reached out to Spotify for comment on all this and will update if I hear back. 

Anyway! Things are changing, but also not really. Spotify is still paying Rogan $100 million to do his thing, and it’s still going to promote, monetize, and host his content. There’s a lot to think about here for those of us looking at the audio industry, and multiple obvious questions remain: How will Spotify identify every show talking about COVID-19? Is it transcribing everything? Will Spotify ever reckon with the fact that it is a publisher in addition to a distributor? Where does this leave Young and the rest of the folks speaking up? How are employees feeling? (As always, if you have answers or thoughts on any of this, I’m at ashley.carman@theverge.com and on Twitter, where you can ask for my Signal.)

The thing I want to emphasize today, however, is just how much of this entire fight is a problem of Spotify’s own making…

The Joe Rogan controversy is what happens when you put podcasts behind a wall

Every platform should be worried

Spotify didn’t discover Joe Rogan, and Joe Rogan didn’t create Spotify, but their union portends the future of a closed podcasting ecosystem. Up until September 2020, The Joe Rogan Experience was available through RSS feeds, YouTube, and podcast players. His content bubbled up every so often, but broadly, Rogan did his show, and the various distribution platforms let him do so without having to worry and monitor every episode — if it infringed on a policy, it could be removed, and so it went. This is the world in which Rogan stans and haters can find common ground.

Rogan could have been “deplatformed” in the sense that his episodes be deleted from YouTube or removed from searches on podcast players, but interested listeners could still seek him out through RSS. Everyone would win, theoretically, unless you believe Rogan shouldn’t be published anywhere at any time. 

Take Infowars creator Alex Jones for example: Apple Podcasts delisted his show for hate speech, as did various other podcast apps, but anyone can still listen through an RSS feed. They have to seek it out — it doesn’t surface on hit charts or in searches and isn’t promoted in-app, but it benefits from the open podcast system and serves as a counterweight to any one platform controlling what people can and cannot hear. 

This has always been the promise of open RSS: even if one platform doesn’t like your content, you can still be heard. Still, podcasting is moving away from this world, meaning other platforms that are cheering on Spotify’s demise should take note of how it’s handling the situation. The backlash is coming for them, too, which is why Amazon Music, SiriusXM, and Apple Music piggybacking off the current controversy to sell more subscriptions struck me as shortsighted. All three companies have a vested interest in the success of specific podcasts, whether it be exclusive to a platform or a subscription service. Just because Rogan is the target today doesn’t mean one of their shows won’t be tomorrow.

Of course, business will business, and obviously, Amazon will try to convert some Neil Young listeners to its platform. But what happens if SmartLess or a Wondery show or My Favorite Murder take a turn for the worst? Amazon, which licenses or owns these shows and others, should have its strategy prepared. 

We’re moving away from a world in which a podcast player functions as a search engine and toward one in which they act as creators and publishers of that content. This means more backlash and room for questions like: why are you paying Rogan $100 million to distribute what many consider to be harmful information? Fair questions!

This is the cost of high-profile deals and attempts to expand podcasting’s revenue. Both creators and platforms are implicated in whatever content’s distributed, hosted, and sold, and both need to think clearly about how they’ll handle inevitable controversy.

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That’s it for now. Let’s see what else develops this week, particularly as Spotify earnings are on Wednesday. See you Thursday!