Spotify's Censorship Moment: Joe Rogan, Podcasts and Politics
Don't want to read this entire 3,000 word article? You can listen to it above instead.
Witch hunts were common practice in Europe during the period of 1450 to 1750, with an estimated 40,000 ‘witches’ having been put to death during the time.
Today’s witch hunts are playing out on social media instead, and it’s not dabbling with the Occult or having fiery red hair that will render one accused, but not conforming to very specific social narratives.
In medieval Germany, witches would often be subject to the swimming test. They’d be strapped to a chair and thrown into a pool of water. If they floated, they were convicted - because of course, renouncing baptism gave you such powers - and they’d promptly be burned at the stake. If they sank, they were innocent.
Some might say that these witches of old were offered a fairer trial than today’s accused, who rather than their bodies see their careers go up in flames, virtually overnight.
Spotify’s Quest for Podcast Dominance
Back in May, streaming giant Spotify announced a $100 million exclusive licensing deal, bringing The Joe Rogan Experience - one of the most popular podcasts in the world, with a reported 190 million monthly downloads - to the platform.
The deal came on the back of the company’s $340 million acquisition of podcast network, Gimlet, and distribution platform, Anchor, earlier in the year. With this, Spotify’s billionaire CEO, Daniel Ek, signalled his desire for Spotify to become the de facto go-to platform in the fast-growing podcast market. He said that “in just shy of two years, we have become the second-biggest podcasting platform (behind Apple Podcasts which at the time of the deal, accounted for 60% of downloads)”.
As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson wrote, the fragmented podcasting space is ripe for a centralized aggregator, arguing that Spotify was positioning to become said aggregator as early as last year. As Thompson put it, “Spotify doesn’t just want to capture new listeners (with the Joe Rogan deal), it wants to actively take them from Apple and other podcast players. And, if it can take a sufficient number, the company surely believes it can create a superior monetization mechanism such that the rest of the podcast creator market shifts to Spotify out of self-interest”.
After the Gimlet acquisition, Spotify announced that it intended to spend a further US$500 million in 2020. Make no mistake - Spotify wants to own podcasts.
The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) - “Nothing Will Change”
The Joe Rogan Experience numbers over 1,500 episodes, featuring all manner of conversations with everyone from chart-topping musicians, athletes and comedians, to astrophysicists, biologists, and mathematicians. And sometimes, conspiracy theorists. InfoWars’ Alex Jones, has made several appearances on the show. He had infamously denied that the Sandy Hook murders ever happened - something he has faced demonetization, financial penalties, and sanctions over.
However, for the most part, Rogan engages in what appears to be curious, thought-provoking, and honest conversations with willing guests from all walks of life from across the political spectrum.
And in the age of cancel culture, where not strictly conforming to a narrative in a word-by-word manner can render one in trouble and labeled a far-right Nazi - as Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently learned - the JRE deal raised many eyebrows on the left. Many left-leaning pundits wondered why Spotify - a tech platform from liberal Sweden, but with about half of its 4,000 employees in the United States - would put its reputation on the line by entering into a commercial agreement with someone like Rogan, given his resistance to narratives and his willingness to engage with topics and guests, many of whom would be considered too high risk for other personalities and publications.
JRE fans too were concerned that Spotify would assert creative control over the show, and compromise the very thing that keeps listeners coming back - open, independent and unfiltered conversations that delve deep into topics, going where few other podcasts can go, given the long-form nature of JRE which gives him and his guests the freedom to go down numerous rabbit holes and explore myriad tangential topics.
This is one of the show’s unique strengths - JRE’s enormous audience ensures that big and influential names will not only agree to appear on the show but would happily chat for up to five hours, often flying to Rogan’s LA studio for the privilege (he has since relocated to Austin, Texas).
Rogan however was quick to assure fans that “nothing will change” with the move to Spotify.
“They want me to just continue doing it the way I’m doing it right now...it’s just a licensing deal, so Spotify won’t have any creative control over the show. It will be the exact same show."
But whatever meager comfort that provided fans, it would prove to be short-lived.
The Spotify Staffer Backlash
When JRE finally made its debut on Spotify, on 1 September, it did so without a number of episodes making the move from YouTube - including conversations with Alex Jones, Stefan Molyneux, Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes and canceled comic, Chris D’Elia. Curiously, episodes with the likes of pot activist, Tommy Chong, and comedians Joey Diaz and Nick Kroll were also missing.
There is some conjecture around why this was the case, with some sources reporting that the missing episodes will be making their way to Spotify in the near future. Again, like Rogan’s assurances, whatever comfort these sources have provided has all but been destroyed with news that a number of Spotify employees are already lobbying - just three weeks after JRE made its debut on the platform - to censor The Joe Rogan Experience.
Last week it was reported that Spotify’s New York staffers - mostly engaged in media, marketing, and human resources activities - have demanded direct editorial oversight over the show before they’re published.
They are demanding the ability to:
- Directly edit or remove sections of interviews
- Block episodes deemed problematic
- Add trigger warnings
- Add corrections and fact-checked articles
Spotify is said to have provided some concessions to staffers, which may extend to the currently missing episodes, as well as the recent public apology Rogan issued, in response to his claim that left-wing anarchists had set fires in Portland - something local authorities and the FBI deny. The apology is believed to be in response to pressure from Spotify, as it is not something the Rogan has made a habit of doing in his 10-year podcast run, in which he has basically said anything and everything that has come to his mind.
And it is this fact that has made him an easy target. With over 1,500 episodes, oftentimes three hours or longer in length, it’s easy to find out-of-context soundbites of Rogan saying something that doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative, and post a 7-second snippet from a three-hour conversation on Twitter to support calling him a racist, sexist, bigot, alt-right fascist, or enter derogatory noun here. All of which are blatantly untrue if one actually listens to more than one episode with an open mind.
As human beings, we have a tendency to see what we look for, so if you listen to Joe Rogan looking for language that will ‘trigger’, you’ll find it. If you listen to Joe Rogan looking for new ideas that stretch your world view, then you’ll find that too.
The 'Trans' Episode
And what Spotify staffers found that the have taken particular umbrage with is a recent episode featuring Abigail Shrier, Wall Street Journal contributing writer and author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.
Staffers took issue with Shrier’s take that gender dysphoria amongst teenage girls is a complex and nuanced topic, and that numerous variables might influence young girls to want to transition in a way they will later come to regret - including loneliness, peer pressure, social contagion, mental health issues, and social media, among others. Shrier also made the case that medical practitioners feel uncomfortable giving medical advice against transitioning because it doesn’t fit the social narrative and could therefore cost them their jobs.
It provided what appeared to be a balanced and nuanced discussion on what is a complex and important topic with significant consequences. But it didn’t fit the prevailing and all-encompassing narrative that to even question a teenage girl’s desire to transition renders you a bigot. And this is a big part of the problem. In a world where things are increasingly being categorized into neatly demarcated black and white buckets, many people on both the left and the right have lost the ability to see the gray areas. And when you lose that, discourse, reason and meaningful and sustainable solutions are likely to go out the door with it.
Shrier referred to numerous scientific studies during the conversation, but #scienceisreal only when it supports your narrative.
It is this episode, and Spotify’s refusal to remove or edit it, that has caused staffers to threaten striking unless the platform meets their editorial demands.
Spotify and Daniel Ek’s Response
Apparently, up to ten meetings have been held with Daniel Ek, and concerned staffers.
Furthermore, leaked questions from the Q&A section of recent internal meetings at Spotify with concerned staffers suggest that “many LGBTQAI+/ally Spotifiers feel unwelcome and alienated because of leadership's response in JRE conversations”. This is a convenient and ironic take, as it ignores the fact that any Spotify staffer with conservative values - the same conservative values that about half of all Americans currently hold (a much larger number than those who identify as LGBTQAI+/ally) - would likely feel not only alienated, but uncomfortable speaking up for fear of losing their jobs; something former Googler James Damore knows all about.
What’s missing from this dialog is agency over one’s own feelings and how one responds to external stimuli. If you don’t like what’s being said there’s a solution to that - don’t listen.
As we learned in primary school, sticks and stones might break our bones but names will never hurt us. Of course, like most things we learn in school, we forget them soon after we take a test.
At the meeting, Ek also allegedly told employees not to leak this to the media. "If we can't have open, confidential debates, we will have to move those discussions to closed doors."
And this sounds a lot like a microcosm of how conservative, and even centrist groups, are responding to the current cancel culture permeating online spaces (and perhaps an indication as to how they will vote come November). If you make people uncomfortable speaking their mind, it doesn’t mean that you change their opinion, but more likely, that it will breed resentment, harden people to their existing belief system, and demonize your own. Conversations against your world view will still take place, but in line with Ek’s threat, they will take place behind closed doors.
Credit to Ek, he is standing firm in defiance of his New York staffers, unwilling to directly edit or modify existing episodes.
Spotify issued the following statement:
At Spotify, we are strongly committed to the LGBTQ+ community and diversity in all of its forms," a Spotify spokesperson told Motherboard. "All employees are respected and we believe that everyone has a right to be heard. We have a number of forums for open and transparent discussion and we encourage rigorous debate on topics across the company. All content on Spotify is subject to our long-standing content guidelines. Our diverse team of experts reviewed the content in question and determined that it did not meet the criteria for removal from our platform."
Ek said that "Joe Rogan and the episode in question have been reviewed extensively. The fact that we aren't changing our position doesn't mean we aren't listening. It just means we made a different judgment call."
And it is a massive call with huge ramifications. Some might even call it a landmark moment.
The Implications of Spotify Censorship
First, censoring JRE creates a slippery slope - as Twitter and Facebook, both of which have struggled with and been troubled by calls to moderate and censor their platform’s content, even with more than 15,000 content moderators employed in the case of Facebook, in addition to algorithm’s monitoring content.
Second, once you get into the censorship game, where do you draw the line?
More importantly, who gets to draw that line, and why?
Who gets to decide on the ideas and rhetoric that shape public opinion, managerial decision making, political outcomes and so on?
Do 20-something and 30-something tech and media executives who all live in the same city - and likely live in a very small part of said city; West Village or Williamsburg - and are therefore likely to have a very limited world view that is reinforced by people just like them, get to decide what is best for everyone?
Does being proficient at Python, optimizing on-page conversions or writing a narrative form podcast script suddenly render you an oracle who can make far-reaching decisions with full consideration of immediate and downstream biological, political, social and economic consequences?
Spotify currently boasts over 250 million podcast listeners, and with the growth in podcast popularity, more of the world coming online, and the company’s aggressive pursuit of podcast dominance, this number could exceed a billion in the next few years.
When you become the go-to platform for hundreds of millions of people, and what you are serving up is conversations and content, then you are no longer just a tech platform, but you have the ability to shape the hearts and minds of the public based on what you censor, what you don’t, and what your algorithms amplify. We’ve already seen this play out with existing social platforms, and the growing divisiveness they’ve bred - something that was the central premise of Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.
As the late motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, put it, “you are who you are and where you are because of what goes into your mind, and you can change who you are and where you are by changing what goes into your mind”. Platforms like Spotify increasingly hold the power to choose what goes into your mind.
For so long, the nonchalant take of centrists has been that these far-left ideas are just representative of the fringe, and that most people are somewhere in the middle. While this might be true, it just so happens that the majority of people that work in tech, media and human resources, lean left, and many drink from the Twitter firehose. While the ideas themselves might be fringe, the decisions they prompt - which content to amplify on social media and who to hire for example - affect everyone.
Daniel Ek has an opportunity to differentiate himself from the likes of Twitter, which has been much-maligned for promoting left-leaning content and stoking the fires of social tensions, both online and in the streets, as well as CNN and Fox which both have their well documented and heavily biased political allegiances. Ek has the opportunity to do his bit to ensure that dangerous fringe ideas aren’t further amplified by his platform, and that instead, all ideas compete in a fair marketplace of ideas.
Third, as Twisted Sister frontman, Dee Snider, put it in a 1985 Senate hearing in protest of the PMRC’s push to censor music, "the full responsibility for defending my children falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us".
By making, and sticking to his judgment call, Ek can give Spotify listeners the respect they deserve for fronting up their monthly subscription fee, treating them like adults and giving them the right to choose.
It is hard to argue that anything less than this is not in violation of First Amendment rights.
Rogan and Ek’s Next Move
The terms of Rogan’s deal with Spotify aren’t publicly known, but it is unlikely that he would have signed anything that gave Spotify creative control over his how, and it unlikely that the contract would have not included an opt-out clause.
Rogan has been curiously tight lipped about the missing episodes, and about the furore surrounding his show in recent days. But it is unlikely that he will stay put while Spotify staffers edit and block episodes.
At the very least, if Spotify does censor him, fans will walk. Those fans represent the above mentioned 190 million downloads per month, a pathway to podcast dominance, and oh, they also helped add US$2 billion in market value to Spotify within 30 minutes of the deal’s announcement in May.
If Spotify doesn’t censor him, employees might walk. But in a crowded media and tech marketplace, where cost cutting and heads rolling has become par for the course - especially in a COVID-19 world - staffers are orders of magnitude more replaceable than Joe Rogan, for whose show there are only pale imitations with far less reach.
In a recent episode, Rogan stated that he didn’t need the money, and based on my estimates, he would be right. Rogan boasts three Netflix comedy specials, is a long-time UFC announcer, and his podcast - based on current COVID-19 podcast advertising rates of about US$20 per one thousand listeners - he would generate about US$45 million a year. Even at a heavily discounted US$10 per one thousand listeners, that’s still US$22.5 million a year. And he has been in this game for a long time, having amassed a purported net worth of $100 million.
Should Ek fail to stand firm, Rogan has the ‘f*ck you money’ to walk, and walk he should. It’s not just about the money or creative integrity, but the influence he wields, and the bringing of open, unfiltered discourse to millions of people around the world. We can only hope that this age of angry mobs hunting down purported witches online ends like the one before it did in the 18th Century, where the irrationality and social injustice of the practice was widely criticized, and eventually banished by the powers of the day.
Today, Ek and his fellow senior executives hold the power to banish the modern-day witch hunt, at least on one of the most influential platforms infiltrating our minds today. And with that, he has the power to make a much more significant impact on society than simply making access to music more convenient. Encouragingly - for now at least - he is set on extinguishing the flames.