Spotify is making a big bet that podcasts can turn its service into a broader, “audio-first” platform and the format is now a focal point of Spotify’s long-term growth plan. But lately, one podcast in particular has been more a headache than hero for streaming service: The Joe Rogan Experience.
In May, Spotify gave Rogan — who had previously withheld his podcast from the platform — a reported $100 million for an exclusive licensing agreement. Spotify, with 126 million global subscribers and a $44 billion market capitalization, has enough scale and cash to build and buy original podcast content. Given Rogan’s popularity, the deal looks like a wise financial bet that will benefit record labels and publishers by attracting subscribers. At Apple, his show is the No. 2 podcast in the United States and Canada; third in Great Britain; and fifth in Australia, according to Chartable.
But Rogan’s Sept. 1 Spotify debut received a poor reception when people discovered a number of episodes with right-wing personalities were missing from the catalog, namely conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Dave Rubin, the host of the popular The Rubin Report podcast, and staunch freedom of speech advocate, has a warning to other podcast hosts: “The idea that any of these companies — these platforms, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, whatever it is — are out there to defend free speech, no, that’s just a crazy fantasy.” Not that he holds it against Rogan. “That’s obviously his choice and it sounds like it was a pretty great financial situation,” Rubin says.
Spotify’s decision to keep other, controversial Rogan episodes stirred dissension within the company. According to Motherboard, Spotify held 10 meetings over the previous two weeks with “various groups and individuals” to hear their concerns about Rogan episodes with “transphobic content.” Employees raised their concerns in Spotify’s previously-scheduled company-wide meeting on Wednesday (Sept. 16), which was confirmed by Billboard. CEO Daniel Ek reportedly defended the company’s decision not to remove “transphobic content” in Rogan’s catalog, specifically an episode with author Abigail Shrier discussing her latest book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Spotify did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment.
Addressing problematic content has been a learning process for Spotify. In 2018, it rolled out a “hate content and hateful conduct” policy, which imploded when the music of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, both facing allegations but neither convicted, were removed from Spotify playlists. In spite of the policy’s good intentions, “they run the risk of alienating this or that constituency if their judgments end up silencing certain types of artists or art that may have offensive elements but is still valuable art,” attorney Laurie Soriano, a partner at Los Angeles firm King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, LLP, told Billboard at the time.
Odds are that content policies will be put to the test. After all, the occasional host, guest or both say something that prompts an internal review. For better or worse, Apple’s and Spotify’s policies are vague enough that penalties are applied unevenly and unpredictably. Maybe not, but Rubin expects the worst. “As far as the [music] platforms getting more into the talk space and the podcast world, I don’t think any of these platforms should be trusted,” he told Billboard prior to the Motherboard report.
Like it or not, podcasters need big tech companies to reach audiences. “That isn’t to say that I’m not on any of these platforms, because I am on as many as I can be,” adds Rubin, who has 1.4 million YouTube subscribers and 294 million views. Rubin has no choice but to distribute content through Apple and Spotify, two of the most popular destinations for podcasts. Amazon announced Wednesday it is adding podcasts — some exclusively, such as the music-themed Disgraceland — to Amazon Music, the third-most-popular music streaming platform.
Ironically, music services need podcasters to attract subscribers and reduce churn — even some shows with guests that use offensive language or push dangerous falsehoods. Rubin has hosted some of the same right-wing and controversial figures who are now absent from Spotify’s Rogan catalog. Two such guests have earned lifetime bans from Facebook, Twitter and Patreon: Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich. Rubin is wise enough not to have hosted Jones, who long claimed the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. However, Rubin taped an episode with Jones’s lawyer, Robert Barnes, who defended Jones in a defamation lawsuit brought by a parent of a Sandy Hook shooting victim (which Jones lost).
Although Rogan has not publicly commented on the issues surrounding his rollout on Spotify, his reaction might echo Rogan’s rationale for engaging with lightning-rod personalities. “I have no regret I put [Cernovich] on my show,” says Rubin, who like Rogan is an agreeable host who tends to listen rather than press guests on their political or social beliefs. “Has he done some shady things in the past that he’s apologized for or acknowledged? Absolutely. But one of the reasons I wasn’t surprised that Trump became president was because early on, when I felt that there was something behind the Trump movement that felt real and everyone else was saying, ‘It’s a bunch of white supremacists and Nazis,’ I wanted to find some people who could make some sense of it. And Mike was one of the first people I found and I listened to. It didn’t mean I agree with everything he said, but I listened to him.”
Audio formats are bound to have growing pains. In the 1990s, Walmart’s refusal to carry CDs with explicit content caused labels to release clean versions free of offensive lyrics. In the 2000s, legal digital downloads were the David to piracy’s Goliath. In the early 2010s, streaming services were attacked for paying too-small royalties and cannibalizing download sales. The Rogan celebrity podcasters will occasionally give streaming services headaches. All things must pass — except labels still release clean versions, piracy hasn’t gone away and artists still scorn streaming services’ payouts. In that light, podcasters will continuously run into walls built to separate acceptable and unacceptable speech. And streaming services will continue to double down on podcasts.