In Focus

Spotify: a question of identity

Neil Young’s boycott was ‘a PR disaster’ for Spotify and wiped more than $2bn off its value 

“Not for the first time in his maverick career, Neil Young has opened a can of worms,” said Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian. The Canadian musician’s boycott of Spotify – in protest at sharing a platform with the vaccine-sceptical US comedian Joe Rogan – has proved “a PR disaster” for the music-streamer, which acquired Rogan’s show for $100m in 2020. Enraged by what he views as the promotion of “life-threatening Covid misrepresentation”, Young, 76, issued an ultimatum: “They can have Young or Rogan, but not both.” 

Spotify’s choice was a foregone conclusion. Rogan’s show is its “most popular podcast”, with an audience of 11 million per episode. And Spotify is “banking on podcasts to drive subscriptions”. Still, Young’s stand wiped more than $2bn off the Swedish streamer’s value as many joined the boycott. It drew widespread support – notably from his old friend Joni Mitchell, who also withdrew her catalogue. 

Spotify’s boss Daniel Ek has responded “by sticking warning labels” on podcasts about Covid, “probably” preventing a further exodus, said Karen Kwok on Reuters Breakingviews. But the decision to prioritise polarising podcasts is risky given that music subscriptions accounted for more than 85% of Spotify’s $8.8bn revenue last year. Ek has strayed onto political territory; this looks like his “first Facebook moment”. 

“Just like the social media giants, Spotify has quietly turned itself into a publisher, but prefers to pretend it is simply a platform,” said Matthew Lynn in The Daily Telegraph. Yet this bust-up has wider ramifications for companies of all sorts. Most have been “sitting on the fence” on the vexed question of vaccines. Yet as offices reopen, the issue is being forced into the open. Pro- or anti-vax? “Neutrality is not going to work any longer.”

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