Neil Young’s Spotify Protest Isn’t Censorship, It’s Exercising His Free Market Rights. Why Are We Confusing The Two?

Tech Companies Who Strike Deals With Specific Creators Cease Being Neutral Platforms And Are Accountable To Repercussions Beyond Their Own Terms of Service

“Neil Young should stay in his lane and just play music” says the person who has never listened to Ohio or Southern Man and who thinks Rockin’ In The Free World is a politician’s campaign song. Next you’ll tell me Rage Against The Machine isn’t just a party band.

I can’t tell whether the ‘free speech’ pundits yelling at Neil Young actually believe what they’re accusing him of, or just found their next tribal rhetoric culture war issue [that’s a rhetorical question], but besides free speech literally *not* being an issue that’s possible between two private non-governmental parties, what Neil is doing is exerting the ultimate aspect of free market control: deciding who he does business with.

When Spotify signed Joe Rogan to a very large exclusive contract they took him out of the category of content that they “just host and make available to subscribers” and into the realm of strategic business partner. I’m a generally happy Spotify customer but I’m not a fan of Joe Rogan. I wish they didn’t pay him all this money, but it is what it is, and Spotify probably doesn’t care anyway, assuming that he brings them more subscribers than he loses them.

Neil Young — and a handful of other musicians — have made the decision that they don’t want to be in business with Spotify right now based on their beliefs being in conflict with some of Rogan’s beliefs (or guests’ beliefs). Specifically COVID and vaccine efficacy. They are punching up, not down. When they remove their music from the Spotify service they are losing out. If they can catalyze other artists to do the same, or Spotify employees to question their employer’s business decisions, well that’s activism, not censorship.

Given my own personal bias for Young and against Rogan, I tried to play this out in my head with different POVs using another Spotify scenario. Let’s say that Kanye West thought Bill Simmons (Spotify first party content) was publishing content that was at odds with his own health/science beliefs and decided said “hey, pull that episode where you have Derek Thompson (or whomever) talking about vaccine efficacy.” If Kanye pulled his music, I’d be bummed, but I’d hardly call it censorship or think he was brigading Spotify.

But but but it’s a slippery slope! No, not really. If an artist wants to hurt themselves financially by removing their content from a service because being in business with that service somehow is at odds with their own conscience, that’s fine. Doing so publicly is fine and loudly and via an implied ultimatum is fine when the service is specifically in business with the ‘offending’ party in the manner that Spotify and Rogan are partnered.

Where would *I* draw the line? I wouldn’t want to see Neil Young seek to deny hosting platforms the ability to host and serve Rogan content just because Young disagrees. If Rogan is compliant with, say, Apple podcast’s terms of service, and Apple is merely serving and a host and/or distribution vector, but is not operating under a specifically negotiated contract with Rogan, then we shouldn’t seek to deny people access to audience. (FWIW, and this is shades of gray, I don’t consider a creator merely monetizing via a platform’s standard self-service agreements to be a ‘special relationship.’)

I have no idea why I decided to write about this because typically I’ll stay out of outrage-of-the-day cycles, but I guess it’s:

  1. Tech companies can’t claim to “just be neutral platforms” when they’re also working with specific creators in separate lucrative arrangements, often exclusively, and always for business motivations. This doesn’t solely apply to Spotify but also my former home YouTube, Substack, etc etc etc
  2. Economic agency, the ability to decide who you want to be in business with, is a really powerful aspect of free markets. We all have that power. What you do with your time and your dollars are the two truest channels for showing what you value.

(I’m also always interested in well-thought out opposing views — alert me to links via @hunterwalk or hunterwalk at gmail)

Update: Spotify CEO Daniel Ek on updating their platform guidelines with regards to COVID

Update: Rogan posted his thoughts too