Neil Young ultimatum to Spotify: Remove Joe Rogan's podcast or lose my music

(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

“They can have Rogan or Young,” the 76-year-old singer declared yesterday in an open letter to Spotify, “not both.” Neil Young’s open letter didn’t stay open for long, but it stayed on his website long enough for Variety and Rolling Stone to notice. Young issued an ultimatum to the streaming platform over his objections to Rogan’s COVID-19 content, claiming that Rogan disseminates misinformation over vaccines and other issues:

Neil Young posted a since-deleted letter to his management team and record label demanding that they remove his music from Spotify. “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” he wrote. “Please act on this immediately today and keep me informed of the time schedule.”

“I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform,” he continued. “They can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both.” Young is referencing the steady stream of misinformation about vaccines that Joe Rogan has peddled on The Joe Rogan Experience. Last month, 270 doctors, physicians, and science educators signed an open letter asking Spotify to stop spreading Rogan’s baseless claims.

“With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE, which is hosted exclusively on Spotify, is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence,” the letter reads. “Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, though the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

That could be because the company prefers to host a market based on free speech rather than get into the headaches now plaguing Facebook and Twitter. In fact, they have heavily invested in exactly that kind of a business model. Rogan signed a deal with Spotify that is worth nine figures, according to Variety, and listeners have made that decision look pretty apt at least in the short term:

“The Joe Rogan Experience” is currently the most-listened to podcast on the audio streaming service. Rogan signed a $100 million deal in May 2020, giving Spotify exclusive distribution rights (though not ownership of) his podcast.

We’ll get back to the money in a moment, but that’s not what motivates Young in this instance. The folk-rock legend has personal reasons for fighting Rogan and Spotify on this issue. As CBS News notes, Young survived a childhood bout of polio and has deep personal investment in countering vaccine misinformation:

In an open letter to his management and record label posted on his website, Young, who survived polio as a child, said he wanted to remove his music from Spotify because of the “false information about vaccines being spread — potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them.” Polio has been eliminated in the United States due to widespread vaccination against it.

Fair point, and no one should assume Young is operating on any other motives than his personal commitment to fighting what he sees as misinformation. So why not *actually* fight it rather than demand deplatforming of an entertainer/commentator? After all, there was a time when the entertainment establishment may not have appreciated Young’s own political outspokenness, and his own fellow artists have had their issues with Young’s activism at times. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic southern-rock hit “Sweet Home Alabama” directly rebuked Young for lumping all Southerners among the racists in “Southern Man”:

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around anyhow

I don’t recall Lynyrd Skynyrd demanding radio stations pull Young’s music or even “Southern Man” from the air. Instead, they responded in kind with a rebuttal and extended the debate. One might think Young in particular would learn from that experience, especially while working in an industry that has resisted ratings, parental intervention in sales, and correctly sided with free-market speech principles in defending obscenities and violent rhetoric in rap music particularly as nothing more than free speech and authentic reportage of urban life.

Rogan may well be wrong, very wrong on these issues. But the antidote for bad speech is more speech, and the corrective for misinformation is better information. Silencing and deplatforming people leaves the distinct impression that these challenges don’t have a legitimate answer and that the establishment in question doesn’t want to answer for itself, not that the critics are wrong. And what’s more, Young has now given Rogan even greater cachet as someone fighting off cancel culture and muzzling by the establishment.

It’s as self-defeating as it is oppressive, and as it should be offensive to others who work in the free-speech environment … like aging protest singers.

Perhaps Young pulled down the letter after rethinking that context. Or perhaps he and his business managers considered the money context, a point to which we must return. Spotify isn’t going to eat $100 million dollars just so senior citizens can still access “Heart of Gold.” That kind of ultimatum is ludicrous on its own, but especially so given the business relationship between Spotify and Rogan. When someone declares, “It’s either him or me,” it’s an act of arrogance at best — and in this case, ignorance about Young’s cultural relevancy in this moment. If we didn’t know any better, it would look like a cynical attempt to boost his relevancy.