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When I started writing this article, the story was about Neil Young leaving Spotify in protest over it placing the Joe Rogan podcast on its platform. That was over a week ago.

As of today, almost 100 episodes of the Joe Rogan podcast have been taken down from Spotify. While the reasons were unclear at first, it became obvious via a YouTube compilation that this was because it featured Joe Rogan using the “N” word. A lot.

The way this story has developed, and its implications for streaming content writ large, may prove pivotal in the public’s relationship with companies that control an artist’s catalog. It also has moral implications, pitting a kindly, old-guard musician who’s been the first to stand up for his values for his entire career, versus one of the most downloaded content creators in history on the world’s largest audio streaming platform.

How it began

This story is growing and evolving as we speak. And as with most modern stories that involve social media, it can be hard to suss out how this all started.

On January 24th, Neil Young announced that he would be removing all his music from Spotify. His reasons were clear.

“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Neil Young is not known for sitting on his feelings when it comes to wrongdoing. He
protested the Dakota pipeline. He converted his car into an electric hybrid in the ’90s to promote environmental causes. Lynard Skynard wrote the increasingly-out-of-touch-yet-foot-thumping-Dixie-anthem “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Young’s song “Southern Man”, which criticized the hypocrisy of touting Christian values while promoting hate against Black southerners. This man has not been shy of controversy in a long and storied career. And he’s usually (though not always) been on the right side of history.

His moral qualms with Joe Rogan were not based around the racist content on his show (more on that later). It was because Rogan was promoting false information on vaccines. While that quote above has been the most widely reported, it does not seem like Neil Young was asking to remove Joe Rogan. He wanted to remove himself from a platform that he did not agree with, and that he no longer wanted to be a part of.

Since then, a wave of other artists have also left, including Joni Mitchell, India Arie, Nils Lofgren, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Huge podcast creators like Roxanne Gay and Brene Brown have pulled their material as well.

Whether this will have a lasting effect on the streaming giant and the streaming industry in general, I have my doubts. But what it’s led to has been far beyond anyone’s expectations.

“You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough”

Spotify is now the #1 app for podcasts, on top of being the largest streaming platform for music. Before writing this article, I was a Spotify user. For those of you who still are, here’s a breakdown of the pay that artists get for their work on streaming platforms:

Per Million Streams

  • Napster: $9,160
  • Apple Music: $6,750
  • Deezer: $5,620
  • Amazon Music: $4,260
  • Spotify: $3,480
  • Pandora: $2,030
  • YouTube: $1,540

To put this in context, if an artist on Spotify were to have a song of theirs streamed 10 million times, they would earn $34,800. That’s not even a penny per stream. This in a world where a penny per stream is considered “fair” amongst other streaming services.

This is the low-roiling truth that all of that use streaming services have at the back of our minds. Since the days of Napster, musicians have not been paid as much as they deserve. Spotify, rather than correct this trend, has codified it with a subscription model.

Adding podcasters into the conversation complicates matters. They’re paid based on how many people their ads reach. They receive sponsorship deals. There’s a growing feeling that podcasters may have a better bargain when it comes to streaming services, or at least a more stable income, than musicians.

So there is little goodwill when it comes to music streaming services, particularly one where the CEO laments the work ethic of musicians while paying them the least of any of the major services. Making a move for Joe Rogan’s podcast was part of Spotify’s acquisition spree that included major podcast players like Bill Simmons’ The Ringer and Gimlet Media. But when you acquire content like the Joe Rogan podcast, you inherently give your blessings to its message.

My coffee is bulletproof

Many watching this controversy from the outside might think, “So what? Joe Rogan’s a podcast host. Listen to someone else”.

As it currently stands, the Joe Rogan podcast has over a billion downloads per year. His
listenership is 11 million per episode. In comparison, Tucker Carlson Tonight has an average of just over 3 million listeners per episode. Rogan is one of the most popular figures in media, ever. Not of this year. Not of this decade. Ever.

Some may say that he is not that much different than shock jocks in years past, that he has a lot in common with people like Howard Stern, who also shocked people and had an outsized influence on popular culture. Like Rogan, Stern had a massive cult following that culminated in a massive, multi-million dollar deal with a platform.

The differences appear in who they are as people.

I will not sit here and cast aspersions on anyone’s character. I will only go by what they have said.

As far as I’m aware, Howard Stern has never used his platform to advise listeners about their health. He has never told them that he disagrees with government mandates and regulations. He has never taken a sham cure for a global virus and then told his listeners to do so as well, leaving untold numbers either dead or infertile.

Howard Stern is shocking and crass. But he does not presume to be the arbiter of truth. He is an entertainer.

Howard Stern had a segment on his show where he would get pornstars to sit on a device called a Sybian. The Sybian is a vibrator. Guests would sit on this device while Howard interviewed them. It was both titillating and shocking. Howard would ask questions, but really, it was about a partially naked woman sitting on a vibrator being recorded for a live audience of millions.

If Joe Rogan were running this segment, he would tell the pornstar, as they were orgasming, that it was fucked up that the government was creating all these mandates that violate our personal freedoms. Then he’d Google an answer to a complex scientific question.

Or even worse, after they had climaxed, the guest might tell Joe about their thoughts on said global virus, and that it could be cured by benching 300. Joe, in awe, would nod and agree with them, saying something like “that’s so fucked up, but you know it’s probably true.”

And that is the major difference. Joe Rogan believes that he has the right and the intellect to tell millions how they should respond to complex and critical issues. Howard Stern just wants to put some people on a Sybian.

Mabye Howard Stern as a comparison doesn’t leave the best taste. In the decades Stern has been on air, he’s done a raft of questionable things. But I draw your attention to a pivotal moment.

Howard Stern occupies a vaunted status in the New York media strata. It is only fitting then that, on 9/11, he stayed on the air as planes crashed into the World Trade Center. He comforted an ailing city during a time of uncertainty and fear.

Joe Rogan had the same opportunity during the pandemic. And his response was not to comfort, or to provide clarity.

His response was to tell people to take a horse de-wormer.

With great power, et cetera

I live in California. During the pandemic, an enormous number of people I know decided to leave California to move to Austin, Texas. This was because of Joe Rogan.

He moved to Texas, largely because of the lack of state income tax, and many of his listeners did the same. Not every person who moved to Austin did so because of Joe Rogan, but they’re part of the wave that he started.

This is the level of impact one person with the right platform can have. Joe Rogan is his audience. Dudes who talk a lot about bison meat and bulletproof coffee. Dudes who wear hats indoors. Dudes who believe, deep down, that they are the smartest person in whatever room they’re in, and that their Googled answers are better than your years of education.

Rogan reflects a particular type of person and has in turn become their mouthpiece. He has also chosen to not do the morally responsible thing. He could just stick to booking genuinely interesting guests. (Yes! Your boyfriend/gym buddy/coworker is right! He really does have interesting guests!) Instead, he feels the need to be the purveyor of all knowledge for his (mostly young white male) listeners, while also feeling comfortable enough to talk about Black people using the “N” word, questioning their inherent intelligence, and spreading lies about a vaccine that saves lives.

Neil Young did not want to silence Joe Rogan. He just didn’t want to support the platform that paid his bills. Joe Rogan does not have to be silenced. You just have to make the choice to stop listening, and stop supporting the platforms that choose to support him.

Post-Script

Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...