Neil, Joe, and Daniel – Thoughts on the Spotify Podcast Ecosystem

Recently, Neil Young decided to take a moral stance against Joe Rogan’s podcast by threatening to pull his songs from Spotify (Rogan’s owner/distributor) unless they pulled or otherwise limited some of Rogan’s podcast episodes surrounding vaccines. There’s a few layers here, starting with the immediate issue of COVID vaccines themselves, a conversation I have literally zero interest in and could just as easily be replaced with any other hot-button issue.

Stepping back, there’s the larger conversation of quote “misinformation” vs “censorship”. My opinions get a little stronger there so I’ll set them out ahead of time: I generally fall on the side of not-limiting ideas we don’t agree with. I don’t like this new ‘free speech is causing real world harm’ mindset, typically presented as fact without evidence. In the big free-speech debate, I just don’t think it’s the side we should err on. Young’s concern is ‘recognizing the threat the COVID misinformation on Spotify posed to the world — particularly for our young people who think everything they hear on Spotify is true.’ I just find that to be a massively simplistic view of human nature. But I’m also not sure that “free speech” is the right issue to look at here either. 

In this specific situation, Spotify isn’t a social network trying to filter out user-generated content; Spotify owns and produces Joe Rogan’s podcast. This is more akin to a publisher choosing to publish a book or a television network choosing to release a TV show. People may boycott, but Spotify will simply weigh its business interests and (almost certainly) continue airing Joe Rogan episodes.

Instead what’s most interesting to me is that Neil Young even can attempt a demand like this of Spotify. A few years ago, it would’ve been nonsensical to try to force a podcast off the internet, but with the corporate takeover of the podcast space, Rogan is actually one of the largest contributors to the ‘controlled’ media ecosystem he typically rails against. Where heterodox journalists are famously heading to the “free” waters of platforms like Substack, Rogan went against the current and sold his audience to the Google-esque behemoth of the audio filetype.

Technically, podcasts are an open medium that only exist as RSS feeds, basically lists of URLs pointing to MP3s on a self-hosted server somewhere. Anyone with an internet connection could theoretically subscribe and listen to any podcast. More importantly, they could do it anonymously. If there was a single point of centralization in the early days, it would’ve been Apple, who’s podcast directory is the de facto ‘search engine’ underlying most podcast players. But being listed by Apple almost barely counts as distribution, because you don’t technically need it to allow others to listen to your podcast. 

This was originally how Rogan, and all others, published their podcasts: an open RSS feed pointing to some free MP3s on a server, listed in Apple’s directory but not technically reliant on it to get the files from their servers to the listeners ears. So what changed?  $100m changed hands and Spotify bought Rogan’s podcast. Rogan’s show only exists inside of Spotify, not the open web, exclusive to the premium users of Spotify. In technical terms, The Joe Rogan Experience isn’t even a podcast anymore, and in a business sense, he’s more of a Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern than a Marc Maron at this point.

The old internet cliche used to be ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’. The meaning was generally that free services made their money letting middlemen like Google or Facebook track you and use that data to lure advertisers. The flip side assumption was that paid services wouldn’t need to do this sort of shady data harvesting, because you’re already contributing to their bottom line. The Spotify free/premium tiers offered an overly simplistic example: if you’re listening free, you get ads, if you pay, you don’t. At least that’s how it worked for streaming music.

Of course Spotify is tracking you inside their ecosystem either way- they want to know what music you listen to, in order to make better recommendations. Then they also offer paid product placement to record labels and musical artists in the app (there’s a reason some of the recommendations and curated playlists are so clearly off-base from your personal tastes). That sort of tracking still makes sense, and as long as they’re not following you around the internet or providing access to third-parties, it’s pretty normal stuff. 

Podcasts, though, are a different beast- mostly because it’s assumed that advertisements are a part of the product. In the same way that you can pay for an NYTimes subscription and still see ads on the website and in the paper, podcast listeners are trained to accept advertisements throughout the content. Some hosts even try make the ad reads as enjoyable as the rest of the show. 

Spotify bought Rogan (and a number of other podcast studios, podcast talent, exclusives like Obama and Springsteen, and so on) because they saw money on the table in the podcast ecosystem. There was little to no universal behavior tracking or the algorithmically-generated time-suck machines like Facebook and YouTube had monetized so well. There were almost no tracking of the ads inside of podcasts, and no way to dynamically insert them per user as robustly as Instagram dynamically inserts the ‘perfect’ ad into your feed. Spotify saw podcasts as their opportunity to create a Facebook-style walled garden for audio, built on dynamically-inserted, highly-specific advertising. 

What Spotify paid for was not really Joe Rogan’s content but his audience- they needed a cohort of podcast listeners inside their app that was large enough to fine-tune their advertising algorithms. Though if his content made headlines, like it did this week, that didn’t hurt. The trade-off was clear, Rogan’s audience now belongs to Spotify, and while I doubt they’ll take it away from him anytime soon, the fact that they could if they wanted to just shows how slippery the slope is for the whole podcast ecosystem. In the same way that blogs and personal websites gave way to Twitter threads and Facebook posts, Spotify hopes to build a large enough audience with enough detailed analytics to targeting advertising with the big boys (Facebook and Google). And you’re still paying them 15 bucks a month.

Where is Spotify heading with all of this? The best term here is surveillance capitalism, as in when your audio service literally listens to you (as Spotify has been testing) in order to push you towards ever more intuitive and invasive forms of advertising or even behavioral control. The bottom line is that podcasts are becoming more like every other domain of digital media. The wild west days are coming to an end and podcasts in Spotify are going to function a lot more like Facebook than the open web. It may not be an extreme as a social media feed, as podcasts are a much slower medium than an infinite scrolling feed of memes, but the larger implications stand.

So where does that put Neil and Joe? In my mind, both are missing the bigger picture here, in that they both are just feeding the outrage machine. Sure Neil is making a moral stance, essentially that he doesn’t want the company that produces Joe Rogan to sell his music. Rogan will continue pumping out content for money, these episodes probably getting a boost in listens from the extra attention. But these things have a way of changing, just ask all the news organizations that optimized their content for Google only to have it scraped and resold. Or who migrated their audiences to Facebook, and then lost the ability to share content with them without paying Facebook.

Spotify is the clear winner here, because in the end, this whole debacle will just help them to sell more ads.