(February 8, 2022). A friend of mine recently told me that boycotts rarely work.
This was in a discussion we were having about the growing flap over Spotify’s continuing support of controversial podcast host Joe Rogan, whose show has aired on the music streaming platform since 2009 and who recently locked down a $100M contract to give Spotify exclusive rights to his program.
At the time of my discussion with the friend, the only Rogan offense that had come to light was his peddling of misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines. Since then, his liberal use of the N-word (and not even in the usual “I was simply quoting someone else or repeating a rap lyric” context) has resurfaced, along with his apparent condoning of the misogynistic treatment of women by one of his comedian guests years ago.
I initially agreed with my friend about the ineffectiveness of boycotts, at least in the context of boycotting Goliath-like institutions such as the NFL or, in this case, the world’s largest streaming company. The growing list of artists who’ve pulled their music from Spotify—including rock legend Neil Young, folk icon Joni Mitchell and now India Arie, the neo-soul pioneer whose beef this past week added a whole different grievance to the one her rock counterparts were filing—likely won’t even be a blip in the revenue stream Spotify sees from the billions of clicks it generates weekly.
In fact, before Arie added Rogan’s liberal use of the N-word to the infamous podcaster’s previous transgressions, the furor over the Covid-19 vaccine misinformation he was peddling (which formed the ire of Young and Mitchell) likely would’ve come and gone with the death of the omicron variant (or the dead of winter, take your pick), with Rogan riding the wave of added publicity to new ratings highs thanks to anti-cancel culture fanatics and the people that shared his beliefs but hadn’t heard of him until now.
Besides, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Indie Arie are hardly the first musicians to withhold their music from Spotify. In-demand giants like the Beatles, Garth Brooks, the late Aaliyah, and even Taylor Swift at one point went toe-to-toe with the streaming beast, with only Brooks still standing firm today (although I’m sure the Beatles—that is McCartney, Starr and the estates of Lennon and Harrison—and Swift inked some nice deals to allow their music to be captured by the platform).
But, for its part, Spotify will hardly miss the others. Sad as it is to say, there’s a reason true “working musicians” like Young, Mitchell and Arie—i.e., those who can’t rely on record sales or streaming for their livings like the Swifts and Adeles and Drakes of the world—get paid fractions of pennies by Spotify for every stream they generate.
Instead, the working musicians—as Arie termed them—have to work, with receipts from concert tours and festivals paying the bills. I don’t know their finances, but I would imagine—or at least hope—that Neil Young is set for life, having been a member of the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash and Young, not to mention his own stellar solo career. He likely can afford to pull his music from Spotify with little financial consequence.
Same goes for Mitchell, whose vinyl catalog from the late 1960s and early ‘70s is the stuff the late Prince used to fawn over (as did yours truly…”Free Man In Paris” and “Help Me” are still sublime in my book!).
But Arie emerged, unfortunately, at the tail end of the compact disc‘s heyday. Her first album, 2001’s Acoustic Soul, went double-platinum; her follow-up, Voyage to India, only platinum. Her third album stopped at gold (although it did become her first and so far only No. 1 in Billboard).
Since then, her last four releases (including a Christmas album, all released during the digital download or streaming era) have yet to be certified, suggesting that her streaming figures haven’t been at the level that would cause Spotify to want to fork out the kind of cash that a Swift or a Drake—or a Rogan—might get.
And therein lies Arie’s grievance. She says she has no personal beef with Joe Rogan, based on an interview she gave CNN’s Don Lemon on Feb. 7. There, the “Video” singer stated that, while she certainly doesn’t condone Rogan’s blatant and reckless use of the N-word, she accepts his apology and (dubiously) applauds his acknowledgment that the N-word is not his to use.
Instead, her beef is with Spotify.
Specifically, Black artists like Arie are having to toil on the platform, helping to fortify its bottom line, while the streamer turns around and writes a big fat check to a podcaster whose schtick is far more reckless than even Howard Stern’s was back in his salad days (he’s calmed down significantly since then) .
For Arie, it was that notion—and not Rogan’s previously known love affair with the N-word (which Arie said she simply tuned out upon hearing him say it before)—that became the last straw.
The remedy she seeks then is not that Rogan be “canceled,” but that artists—working musicians like herself and others—simply get paid. No, not payment of damages for any offense caused by the previous verbal recklessness of one of Spotify’s highest compensated employees (yes, Rogan can now be considered an employee with that $100M paycheck). But payment by Spotify for services rendered…for all the work that goes into creating albums and to all those musicians who have a hand in creating them.
Will these boycotts eventually work? There’s evidence that says they might.
Both Neil Young’s and Joni Mitchell’s album sales practically doubled in the week after they pulled their music from Spotify. And their total streaming figures—surprisingly—also increased (comprised mainly of clicks from Spotify’s top competitor Apple Music, which had gone on an immediate ad campaign heralding the availability of Young’s extensive catalog on its platform).
Arie, too, may see a sales spike when figures are released next week. After all, no publicity is bad publicity, and the increased awareness of the neo soul singer alone will generate interest and sales. That’s just how these things work.
But whether Spotify pays a penance for all of this is a different story. It would certainly take more than Young, Mitchell and Arie making a statement to affect that change. Their hope is that other artists will eventually join forces with them in sending a message to Spotify and causing a more significant dent in the streaming company’s phat bottom line.
The sales gains these artists have enjoyed thus far in the week since pulling their music might signal to other musicians that they, too, can survive without Spotify. Young’s former bandmate Graham Nash recently announced that he was also pulling his music from Spotify and others may join him.
With that in mind, I’m taken back to my earlier discussion with that friend and our somewhat naive stance that boycotts rarely work. I now recall the historic Civil Rights era boycotts and how they furthered the cause of racial equality in America. I, as a Black man, certainly wouldn’t be where I am without them.
My verdict has changed: boycotts do work. They just have to affect someone’s bottom line to be effective.
And that’s what artists like Young, Mitchell and, especially, Arie are hoping. A recent poll of Spotify users found that 19% said they had either cancelled or planned to cancel their paid subscriptions. The hashtags #DeleteSpotify and #CancelSpotify have blown up on social media in recent days, particularly since the N-word fiasco was unearthed.
Will that mass exodus happen? Will it make a difference? Only time will tell.
Until then, Spotify will likely continue to stand by Joe Rogan, while paying most musicians fractions of pennies for the streamer’s main source of revenue: the music itself.
That’s the vine Spotify is willing to die on…or live on, for now.
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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