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Neil Young Struck a Nerve. Did He Really Start a Movement?

Being on Spotify no longer seems like a necessity for some legacy acts.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to one of the smartest music executives I know about how legacy acts can remain relevant in the streaming age, as well as how that often involves licensing their music to films, TV shows and ad campaigns. He compared the success of a few older acts to Neil Young, who in the 1988 song “This Note’s for You” took a stand against corporate sponsorship but in the process “painted himself into a corner,” the executive said. “When’s the last time anyone heard new Neil Young music?”

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That was back before Apple Music billed itself as “the home of Neil Young.”

More to the point, it was before Young went from idealistically old-fashioned to downright odd, at least to judge by the tone of the initial coverage, by asking that his music be taken down from Spotify, in protest of the COVID-19 misinformation presented on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. At a time when streaming is the biggest source of revenue for recorded music, and Spotify is by many measures the most important streaming service, it was a bold move from an artist who has always insisted on doing things his own way. Young is now presenting his archives on a purposely old-fashioned website billed as “the cutting edge of filing-cabinet technology,” and one of my colleagues just reminded me that journalists who wanted to cover Young’s Pono high-resolution audio service used to have to send interview requests by fax.

The hot take on Spotify is that the company depends more on Rogan, whose deal with the service is said to be worth more than $100 million, and increasingly on podcasts in general, partly because it can acquire rights for a fixed cost, instead of paying royalties that go up as more music is streamed. And for all the consumers who tweet about canceling their subscriptions to Spotify, how many really mean it, let alone follow through? Would this movement get any more traction than Pono?

Yes, as it turns out. Joni Mitchell pulled her music, followed by Nils Lofgren, then Graham Nash, and fans started to wonder who would be next. (It wasn’t Barry Manilow.) Then, on Tuesday, Indie Arie said she wanted to pull her recordings from Spotify as well, for Joe Rogan’s “language about race,” she said. “Neil Young opened a door that I must walk through.” Now Crosby, Stills & Nash are trying to follow as a group – presumably for their albums both with and without Young — although it’s unclear if they have the rights to do so.

When was the last time Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young agreed on anything?

Other artists could follow, partly because they recognize that Rogan’s misinformation about COVID-19 can have life-or-death stakes, and partly because they can do so without alienating fans with different politics. (Rogan, who has at various times supported Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, seems consistent only in his opposition to coherent politics.) Leaving Spotify can also cost legacy acts less than most fans assume: Spotify accounted for about 14% of Young’s streaming and sale revenue, according to a Billboard analysis, and 12% of Mitchell’s. In both cases, that’s a significant hit – but one that’s much easier to take than it would have been in a market without other streaming services, like Apple and Amazon, or before the vinyl boom. Suddenly, being on Spotify no longer seems like a necessity.

For all of Spotify’s focus on its future in podcasting, the company sure looks worried. It clarified its podcast policies, and Rogan made a statement that didn’t quite amount to an apology. In the short term, this may just impose limits on the company’s ability to produce more extreme podcasts, which could mean losing listeners to platforms with lower standards. Ek went straight to the Big Tech Platform Playbook about how more information is better. “Pick almost any issue and you will find people and opinions on either side of it,” Ek said in a statement. In other words, what about people who like getting sick?!?

Like other technology companies, Spotify tends to see itself as a platform, in a way that lets it avoid tough decisions, and it has always marketed itself as a place to hear everything – including the Beatles and other acts that came late to downloads. But that doesn’t mean it’s a neutral platform – it chooses what music to promote in some cases, as well as what podcasts to produce. Which means it’s going to be increasingly hard for it to avoid the kind of choices the big tech companies generally shy away from. Those choices will be hard, just as they are for artists. The executive I spoke to would say – rightly – that by leaving Spotify, Young is cutting himself off from an important source of revenue and potential fans, just as he did with “This Note’s for You.” At first, MTV wouldn’t even play that song’s video, which featured a Michael Jackson look-alike with his hair on fire. That decision also defined him – uncompromising, artistically ornery, and unafraid to barbecue a few sacred cows – and within a few years he was hailed as a hero to a new generation of artists, the “Godfather of grunge.”

So far, Spotify has managed to be all things to all listeners — a platform as well as a product. And while Young and these other acts will almost certainly decide to come back, the real danger is that they won’t be the last ones to leave. Soon Spotify, too, will have to show consumers what it stands for.

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