On Monday, rock legend Neil Young published an open letter to his label and management on his own website asking that all his music (over 40 studio albums and many more live albums and compilations) be removed from the streaming service Spotify. Citing Spotify-exclusive podcast The Joe Rogan Experience and Rogan’s role as a voice of COVID-19 misinformation and vaccine scepticism, Young made an ultimatum: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”
The letter has since been deleted from Young’s website, but it appears that he’s sticking to his guns. By the end of the day on Wednesday, his albums were all gone from Spotify. All that remains on his artist page are a scattered array of collaborations and compilation tracks, the most popular of which is a 1992 live recording of Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and other stars singing Dylan’s “My Back Pages” from the 1992 Dylan 30th anniversary concert, which has over 9 million streams.
“We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon,” a Spotify spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.
Neil Young is one of the most respected musicians alive, both for his prolific and influential musical output as well as his personal integrity and outspoken activism. In the 1980s, Young and Geffen Records engaged in a historic legal battle over the “uncharacteristic” and “not commercial” albums he recorded for Geffen. Label owner David Geffen ultimately apologized to Young for the lawsuit, forever enshrining the rocker as an advocate for artists’ rights and creative freedom.
In 1985, Young also co-founded Farm Aid with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson, an annual concert to benefit family farmers across America. Beyond that, Young has written several notable protest songs and topical lyrics throughout his career, from his response to the 1970 Kent State shootings in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” to his 2006 anti-George W. Bush song “Let’s Impeach the President.”
The bottom line is that when Young speaks, many listen.
On paper, he may be the ideal candidate for a musician who can stand up to a huge corporation like Spotify and enact positive change. Throughout the week, countless fans and musicians have voiced support for Young’s letter and posted the hashtag #DeleteSpotify on social media. What we have not seen, however, is a domino effect with any more stars of Young’s stature delivering the same ultimatum to Spotify. And if Young continues to stand alone, will it make a difference?
Young isn’t the first major artist to pick a public fight with Spotify.
In November 2014, Taylor Swift pulled her catalogue from Spotify, citing the low rates at which Spotify pays artists per stream. But while Swift’s 2015 open letter to Apple Music about not paying royalties on streams from free trial periods got an immediate next-day response from Apple changing its policy, Spotify was much slower to budge. Swift eventually brought her music back to Spotify in 2017, and it’s been hard to tell whether she got what she wanted from Spotify or eventually caved. In 2018, Spotify announced a “Hateful Content & Hateful Conduct Policy,” which removed the music of alleged abusers like R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from official Spotify playlists and algorithmic recommendations. But Spotify walked back the policy after Kendrick Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, threatened to remove music from Spotify over what they saw as “censorship.”
Swift and Lamar may be able to lean on Spotify in their hit-making prime, but an artist like Young (who peaked commercially almost 50 years ago) may have less leverage. Young’s 1972 hit “Heart of Gold” had 236 million streams on Spotify before it was taken off the service this week, but the most popular track from his latest album, December’s Barn, has just 1.7 million streams and his last top 10 album was 2012’s Psychedelic Pill.
The truth is that Young has stuck his neck out before, and sometimes his missions have wound up feeling quixotic and aimless. In 2012, Young founded PonoMusic in an attempt to provide a digital music format with the superior sound quality compared to MP3s, iTunes and streaming services. Young promoted Pono on network television, got backing from major labels and raised millions on Kickstarter for an iPod-style device called the PonoPlayer. But the products never caught on, and PonoMusic was unceremoniously discontinued in 2017.
While Young has inspired countless musicians to fight unpopular battles, he hasn’t always had their backs either. Pearl Jam boycotted Ticketmaster around the same time they backed Young on 1995’s Mirror Ball. But Young continued selling tickets through Ticketmaster, and Pearl Jam eventually ended their battle with the ticketing giant after several years of it impeding their ability to tour, with few other major acts ever joining their boycott.
The latest battle began with Spotify’s major push into podcasting in 2019, with its $100 million acquisition of The Joe Rogan Experience in 2020 representing one of its biggest investments. Spotify’s decision to spend large sums on podcasters (after building its platform on the catalogues of countless musicians and fighting tenaciously to keep royalty rates low) has made it especially divisive among artists, even compared to competitors like Apple Music and Tidal. As predicted, Rogan’s enormously popular podcast has become Spotify’s biggest magnet for controversy, due largely to the political views and medical advice that he and his guests have espoused.
In 2021, Spotify removed 42 Rogan episodes from its platform, so it’s possible that Rogan or one of his guests will say something so inflammatory that Spotify will no longer stand by him. Earlier this month, 270 healthcare professionals wrote an open letter calling on Spotify to take action against the COVID-19 misinformation on Rogan and other podcasts. Just this week, Rogan’s comments about race in an episode with psychologist Jordan Peterson created a new wave of outrage wholly separate from the pair of open letters.
For now, Spotify seems committed to its investment in Rogan and his enormous audience. Neil Young gave Spotify a choice, and its response is crystal clear. if they can’t have Young and Rogan, they choose Rogan.