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Why Neil Young and Other Artists Can’t Remove Their Music From Spotify Without Asking

Billboard explains how labels — not artists — typically strike licensing deals with the streaming services.

“Before I told my friends at Warner Bros about my desire to leave the SPOTIFY platform, I was reminded by my own legal forces that contractually I did not have the control of my music to do that,” wrote Neil Young in a post on his official website Wednesday (Jan. 26). “I announced I was leaving anyway, because I knew I was. I was prepared to do all I could and more just to make sure that happened.”

And indeed he did: On Wednesday, Spotify announced that Young’s music would be pulled from the streaming service after the singer-songwriter demanded its removal over concerns about vaccine misinformation being spread on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which stuck an exclusive $100 million licensing deal with Spotify in 2020.

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As Young noted in his thank-you message, the singer-songwriter did not possess the unilateral ability to have his catalog purged from the platform – rather, he had to go through his label, Warner/Reprise Records, to get it done.

That’s because in most cases of popular music, labels, not artists, strike licensing deals with the streaming services, giving the labels ultimate control over whether to remove it. In the interest of expediency, labels and streamers typically reach these agreements for a label’s entire catalog, rather than doing so artist-by-artist, which would be time-consuming and impractical. But while the standard licensing process entails a comprehensive approach, individual artists can negotiate into their contracts the right to make an exception where they can opt out of some sales or licensing deal at their own discretion.

Songwriters, however, generally don’t have the same ability to pull their songs recorded by other artists from DSPs because the U.S. has a statutory mechanical license, and the two major performance rights societies are fairly constrained by antitrust consent decrees. That’s why you’ll continue to be able to stream Cowboy Junkies’ classic “Powderfinger” or Adam Sandler’s earnest take on “Like a Hurricane,” among countless other Young covers, on Spotify.

Indeed, Young isn’t the first artist to have his music removed from a streaming platform. Taylor Swift famously had her catalog pulled from Spotify in 2014 in protest of the service’s ad-supported free tier, before eventually returning to the platform in 2017. Another pop superstar, Adele, initially passed on making her third studio album, 25, available on streaming services, calling the platforms “disposable,” before giving in the following year.

The music of other major artists, including The Beatles, Metallica, Tool, Peter Gabriel, and Thom Yorke, only became available on streaming platforms more recently after holding out for years. Glam-metal gods Def Leppard went to war with their label, Universal Music Group, over what the band deemed unfair royalty rates, refusing to allow their music to be streamed anywhere before finally relenting (their catalog became available on all streaming platforms in 2018). Arguably the biggest country star of all time, Garth Brooks, made his catalog available to stream on Amazon Music in 2016 but has yet to license it to any other services.

As in Young’s case, it’s usually the artist that chooses to pull or hold back their catalog from streaming platforms — though it does occasionally work in the other direction. The most obvious example is Aaliyah, who died in 2001, long before streaming became the dominant form of music consumption. In that case, the late R&B star’s full catalog only became available on streaming services last year following a drawn-out dispute between her estate and Blackground Records founder Barry Hankerson, who held control of the masters from all of Aaliyah’s albums save her debut, One in a Million, which had been available to stream for years.

Another notable exception is Four Tet, whose label, Domino Records, pulled his catalog from streaming services after the veteran U.K. producer took legal action against the label over the royalty rate it was paying him for streaming and digital downloads.

In most cases, however, it’s the artist who initiates the removal – and it’s a request both the record label and the streaming service is inclined to honor.

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