Why We Don’t Stream with Spotify Anymore (examining the Joe Rogan/Spotify Controversy)

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Have you ever heard the saying, “many a truth hath been spoken in jest”? Or, more simply put, “there is truth in folly” – which essentially means that there are often nuances of truth found in comedy (apparently this quote comes from William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The character of Regan tells her sister Goneril that “jesters do oft prove prophets” as they argue over the affections of Edmund, a man they are both romantically interested in – solid medieval drama!). The whole Joe Rogan/Spotify controversy that has recently erupted evokes a similar such sentiment to me because, according to Rogan, we really shouldn’t be taking him seriously in the first place. Which then begs the question, why has he been addressing an issue as serious as Covid-19 (which has taken the lives of close to 1 million Americans to date) on his podcast at all, if we are to assume that what he says is pure comedy? The answer is quite simple: it’s not intended for comedic relief. 

The controversy over Rogan’s podcast The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify started with his spread of Covid-19 misinformation. At the very end of 2021, Rogan hosted virologist and vaccine skeptic Dr. Robert Malone (who was permanently banned from Twitter the day before) on the show. The pair discussed conspiracy theories about the pandemic for over three hours, even comparing the current Covid-19 vaccine to Nazi medical experiments, among other baseless conjectures. As a result, in January 2022, 270 US medical professionals wrote an open letter to Spotify, calling for the platform to “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform”. They cited that the average Joe Rogan Experience (‘JRE’) podcast listener is 24 years old and data shows that unvaccinated 12-34 year-olds are 5 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than those who are fully vaccinated. By having Dr. Malone reinforce current anxieties around vaccine hesitancy, Rogan offered his version of medical authority on a topic that has real life-or-death consequences to his audience of 11 million daily listeners. Which, frankly, isn’t a joke.

The controversy intensified when singer Neil Young took a stand, asking Spotify to remove his music from the platform because it was “spreading fake information about vaccines… [Spotify] can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both.” Spotify acknowledged Young’s letter and started to remove his music. The backlash against Spotify started to grow as other singers and content creators started to also remove their music from the platform. R&B singer India.Arie joined in at the end of January to follow Young’s lead, but stated that she was making her decision because of Rogan’s highly problematic statements on race, not just his perpetuation of Covid-19 misinformation. 

Since Rogan wants us to lean into the fact that he’s a comedian by trade, let’s examine his comedic content both on his podcast and during his stand-up routines. For starters, he took to the stage just this week to mock the current controversy surrounding his commentary on Covid-19 and his gratuitous use of racial slurs, even comparing a Black neighborhood to “Planet of the Apes”. This kind of language relies on racist tropes that still circulate in contemporary use (shout out to India.Arie for providing the video compilation that prompted her to pull her music from Spotify). This is after Rogan issued a formal apology just days prior, where he insisted that his use of racial slurs were “taken out of context”. What’s important to consider here is that there is never an acceptable context whereupon a white person can fully utilize language that has such a traumatic history. To deliberately use this language, and to do so multiple times, is not only racially insensitive and inflammatory, but also gives others permission to do so by virtue of his position as a heralded public figure. This doesn’t even take into account his tendency for ableist, sexist, language and propensity for entertaining far-right guests. But, you know, it’s all jokes, chill.

So where does Spotify stand in the middle of this anti-vaccine, racist, sexist mess? Right where you’d think they would: on the side of profits over people. At the end of 2020, Spotify reported that the JRE podcast was the #1 podcast on its platform in 17 markets (now currently top-ranking in 90 markets), solidifying their $100 million investment in an exclusive multi-year licensing deal with the JRE. The addition of Rogan’s 11 million daily listeners means serious coin for Spotify. And when you deal in numbers with that many zeros behind the comma, companies are less apt to do what’s right for their customers or act with a modicum of integrity. In a nutshell, Rogan stays

Sure, Spotify is going to add some content warnings and take down a few episodes, but the JRE will still have a comfy, multi-million dollar home at Spotify (it’s not like we would never hear from Rogan again if they were to remove him anyway, as he has been courted by platforms more in line with his prevailing ideologies). To offer some redemption, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has promised “an incremental investment of $100 million for the licensing, development, and marketing of music (artists and songwriters) and audio content from historically marginalized groups”. This, to me, is the real joke.

Instead of divesting from an individual who has long espoused pernicious rhetoric, promoted harmful conspiracy theory, and relishes in misogyny, Spotify has decided to allow this one individual to remain on the platform while committing to throwing the same amount of money at multiple artists from marginalized groups (I smell white supremacy). Basically, Rogan can continue to spend hours chatting it up with conspiracy theorists railing against the only proven recourse against the Covid-19 pandemic (we are in YEAR THREE y’all) with a mere content warning, settle in with his sexist remarks about women, and revel in a paycheck that allows him to get on stage and mock the whole ordeal just days after “apologizing”, on a platform that allows him to continue to rake in the profits while assuring us that he and they will vaguely do right by marginalized groups. What’s really funny is that there is an expectation that this is enough; that these faux-reparations are sufficient recompense for the ripples of harm that cause waves of consequence for the people who both admire and abhor Rogan.

And for us, that’s no laughing matter. Therefore, the team at She+ Geeks Out has decided to remove our podcasts and playlists from Spotify. We encourage other creators and listeners to explore their own relationship with Spotify as well.