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Tina Casey headshot

Neil Young, Brands, and the Backlash Over COVID-19 and Climate Disinformation

The influence that Neil Young has extends well beyond his music, and his powerful advocacy for vaccination has struck a nerve among Spotify users.
By Tina Casey
Neil Young

The music streaming service Spotify has attracted its share of criticism since its launch in 2008, mainly from artists charging that the company's payment rate is unfair. Now, the growing popularity of podcasts is bringing new controversy to the company. Spotify has provided Joe Rogan with a platform for what critics say is amplifying right-wing disinformation about COVID-19 and climate change as well, and now musicians, starting with Neil Young, are making their voices heard.

Spotify: money talks

Young brought the Joe Rogan issue to a head earlier this week. As described in multiple reports, Young posted an open letter on his official website explaining why he does not want his music the same online platform with Rogan’s vaccine misinformation. The letter was soon deleted, but Spotify took the hint. However, rather than removing Rogan’s podcast, the company removed Young’s music.

The emerging consensus among entertainment reporters is that Spotify’s decision to favor Rogan over Young was a foregone conclusion. The Swedish company paid Rogan $100 million for exclusive rights to his “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast back in 2020, and the multi-year deal is apparently working out very well for Spotify's bottom line. Rogan’s audience of an estimated 11 million listeners per podcast translates into big advertising dollars for Spotify.

Climate misinformation is also a problem

Rogan also lit another fire on Monday when he hosted the clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who peppered his appearance with specious claims about fundamental flaw in the models used by climate scientists.

“In waffling remarks, Peterson said that ‘there's no such thing as climate, right?’” as CNN reported on Thursday. “He then went on to mock ‘climate types,’ who he said typically suggest that climate is about everything.’”

The well-known climate scientist Michael E. Mann was among the many experts who took to social media to explain the science.

“Mann said that Peterson's claims were ‘nonsensical and false,’ and seems to boil down to the idea that climate science is so complicated that scientists could never model it or understand it,” CNN reported.

Another brand reputation on the line

The twin flare-ups have stirred conjecture that other influential musicians on Spotify may follow Young’s lead. After all, some of the top artists in the world, including Paul McCartney and Dolly Parton, have publicly supported COVID-19 vaccines. In particular, Parton donated $1 million in support of research which helped lead to the development of the Moderna vaccine. Others have participated in public service advertisements supporting vaccination.

Against this backdrop, the Joe Rogan Experience sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Earlier this week Salon’s investigative reporter Kathryn Joyce argued that Rogan is responsible for popularizing the anti-vaccination views of Dr. Robert Malone, promoting him into an influential “right-wing media star.”

“…Malone is probably best known as the ‘mass formation’ guy who got kicked off Twitter and promptly went viral on Joe Rogan's podcast — which, with an estimated 11 million viewers per episode, has a larger audience than most news outlets,” Joyce wrote. She also observed that exposure on the Joe Rogan Experience is the common denominator leading to a growing merger between violent right-wing extremists and the anti-vaccination movement.

“That also helps explain why, amid all the other reasons the big anti-vax rally made headlines this week — its cynical invocation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington; Kennedy's strategically inflammatory suggestion that unvaccinated Americans have it worse than Anne Frank during the Holocaust; how it drew Proud Boys and Groypers together with anti-vaxxers in what's quickly becoming a unified, far-right machine — Defeat the Mandates is a media story too,” Joyce added.

Malone is not the only example. Rogan has also provided a sort of Twitter ban “insurance” for the extreme right wing member of Congress Marjorie Taylor Green over COVID-19 disinformation. In effect, he is turning Spotify into a refuge for anti-vaccination extremists suspended or banned from other online platforms.

Inspired by Neil Young, Spotify users take action, and competitors pile on

As of this writing, there has been no discernible movement towards a widespread artist boycott of Spotify, at least not yet.

The platform’s users, though, are a different story. The influence that Neil Young has on popular culture extends well beyond his music, and his powerful advocacy for vaccination appears to have struck a nerve among Spotify users.

Spotify users were already primed for a boycott last fall, when news broke that CEO Daniel Ek invested 100 million euros ($111 million) in the military technology company Helsing.

The flare-up over Neil Young has pushed many of Spotify's users to take action.

Many Spotify users are angry and jumping ship to competitors for their music streaming. The hashtag #BoycottSpotify is trending on Twitter, where several artists have promoted the cancellation of their accounts,” recounted Digital Music News reporter Ashley King.

That dustup does not appear to have had a lasting impact on Spotify, but the Neil Young letter has already sparked an intense round of blowback from users, and this one may be far more damaging.

By Tuesday, one Spotify competitor, Apple Music was already taking jabs at Spotify on Twitter and drawing attention to its own Neil Young catalogue. On Thursday, Rolling Stone reporter Ethan Millman noted that “Apple Music’s pinned tweet declares the platform ‘The home of Neil Young,’ while the app features a dedicated a tab on its browse page to Young titled, ‘We Love Neil.’”

Millman also caught wind of a potential movement among other musicians in support of Neil Young. He cited Peter Frampton, who wrote “Good for you Neil. I’ve always been an Apple guy for streaming. No Joe Rogan for me thank you!” on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the #boycottspotify hashtag has blown up on Twitter. As with Frampton, many of the tweets recommend an alternative platform, such as this representative sample by user “Teak:”

Just deleted Spotify from my phone. I'll use Amazon music or Pandora for now on. I don't even like Neil Young's music and I totally support him. Spotify is helping get people killed with spreading misinformation, an easy decision. #cancelspotify #DeleteSpotify #BoycottSpotify.”

Billboard also reports that Sirius XM revived its Neil Young channel for a limited-run series that began on January 27.

Other entertainment media platforms are also making hay out of the Spotify boycott, by offering users detailed guidance on how they can go about deleting their account.

Sirius XM is among the services that is offering Neil Young's music after the recording artist's rift with Spotify
Sirius XM is among the services that is offering Neil Young's music after the recording artist's rift with Spotify (Image credit: Leon Kaye)

When boycotts work

Consumer-driven boycotts are notoriously difficult to sustain successfully. Starbucks is just one example of a leading company that has survived one consumer boycott after another through the years.  

Business-to-business boycotts are a different matter altogether. Over the years, boycott organizers have learned that pressuring advertisers can be an effective course of action to change behavior on YouTube and other leading news and social media platforms. Leading brands have also learned to flee from bad behavior before a boycott even coalesces.

On the heels of the Neil Young letter, outrage over Spotify’s support for the Joe Rogan Experience is beginning to seep into the area of brand reputation. A list of the show’s sponsors is readily available online, and while most of the names belong to little-known consumer products, high profile online platforms including DoorDash, LegalZoom and Zoom Video Conferencing are also on the list. It is only a matter of time before boycotters begin turning up the heat.

Consumer boycotts are most likely to work when brand reputation is already in decline. By supporting Joe Rogan over Neil Young, Spotify may be on firm bottom-line ground for the present, but it has also set itself up for future risk.

Image credit: Reet Talreja via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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