A close-up of a Time-coded vinyl record (via wikimedia.org) By Jason Ruck

Some notes on the Spotify kerfuffle

Here it is Friday after work, and I am without an obligatory Spotify playlist filling the background while settling into the dubious plan of attempting to write something on the blog.  Why? because I canceled my Spotify family plan and logged out of the account, and when time allows I'll export my mess of playlists elsewhere and delete it. Why? Because Neil Young (whose music I do enjoy but admittedly rarely listen to) has pulled his work from the platform. Why? Because Spotify paid $100 million to exclusively host a sketchy podcast series hosted by this guy Joe Rogan, who regularly puts out dodgy information about our current pandemic. I also don't really listen to Joe Rogan, and the scant bits and pieces I've heard of his show reaffirm that lifestyle choice. It's a dumpster fire of nonsense. So considering that the current drama is between two people I don't spend much time on, why would I close an account based on it? Let me explain, gentle reader, while listening to Reykjavík's own Apparatið radio on radio.garden.

As is this blog's policy, we're not going to go through the whole background of this story. It's all over the media, so go find it. Find it here. So you might think this story is about dangers of misinformation (disinformation if you think there's strategic intent to deceive), and there's surely elements of that here. Thousands of people are continuing to dro Spotify as I write this and maybe even as you read it (depending on when you're doing that)  for choosing misinformation grifter Joe Rogan over a principled rock icon Neil Young. They are proudly tweeting, facebooking or redditing that they'd jumped over to Apple Music, TIDAL, Bandcamp, and and so on because Spotify is platforming a dangerous anti-vaccine conspiracy nutter.

If that's the case, they're all in for a shock. Rogan left Apple Music not because he got booted out. Spotify just spent heaps of moola for exclusive rights to his show, that's all. Apple was fine with him being there and there's plenty of other legacy Rogan stuff still on its platform. And if you're worried about nutters having a right wing nutters and fascists having a voice, Apple hosts Steve Bannon's show. I don't know if you can find antisemitic, anti-science podcast TruNews on Apple Music, but you can find it on its iPhone app store. The point: A bit of searching and you'll find something sketchy on any of the platforms.

I don't think Rogan needs to be "deplatformed" or "canceled" or whatever the boomers are alleging the kids call it these days. The government isn't — and certainly shouldn't — censor him. I know some people do think he should be. I think they're wrong, and anyway, it's not going to happen. That word gets thrown around a lot, but censorship is not people deciding to go somewhere else when you're talking. That's just them telling you you're not worth their time. Censorship requires a structure aimed at silencing particular points of view. If you don't get paid for your views, that's not censorship. I've got this whole blog no one's paying for. Millions of people do. Censorship also requires power asymmetry (power, money, access to control regulation, etc.) I can't google any results of weaker parties successfully censoring more powerful or dominant groups. Celebrities aren't censored by audiences who have grown tired of them.

What people are attempting is a boycott, which is actually just more free speech. Neil Young wanted Spotify to choose between his music and Rogan's podcasts after an open letter to Spotify, signed by hundreds of doctors, asked the platform to implement a misinformation policy following Rogan's show featured a guest promoting various anti-vaccine conspiracies. It's not the only time that's happened. Spotify, in response, removed Young's music. So that's its misinformation policy.

It's important (central, even) to this story that Spotify bought exclusive rights to Rogan's show, and made this choice. It indicates that Rogan's content is part of Spotify's business model. A $100 million bet that a show that occasionally dabbles paranoid conspiracies that put people off life-saving vaccines is not an accident. This comes after another piece of weird news in which Spotify paid $30 million to royal exiles Harry and Meg for a show they subsequently never made. And all this spending resurfaced the fact that Spotify pays most artists horribly, wiped a bunch of content of comedians who complained they hadn't been paid, and essentially just being a shitty business that's only managed to show a profit in September due to its ad revenues.

So, considering the investment in douche podcasters, treating the majority of content creators horribly, I decided I didn't need to pay into that. And since I was only paying to not hear the ads, I've got no use case for Spotify. So importantly, boycotters: It's not enough to stop your subscriptions. If you want things to hit Spotify's wallet you need to close your account. Spotify avoided being in the red by the skin of its teeth and it was due to ads, not your subscriptions, and that's based on accounts and their activity. That's not censorship. Consider all the things you didn't listen to today. All those radio shows you missed, all those dramas you didn't watch because you didn't have the time or they looked stupid. You didn't censor any of them.

That's the good news. Now here's the bad news: The streaming industry sucks. Aside from Bandcamp, which is limited, there are no real good actors out there. So, you're still going to find on lots of them the horrible payment schemes, the bad podcasters and the ravenous, destructive, snake-eating-its-tale capitalism. That's because the music industry is itself awful, a subset of the exploitative entertainment industry. You can decide to boycott it all, but that may get kind of a grim, and it just means the people who may not be getting paid their worth are making even less.

So choose, but as DJ Gandalf says, choose wisely. Maybe pick a service that's not spending millions of dollars for exclusive rights to elevate hateful trolls and flat-earthers. Just remember that their existence is a whack-a-mole problem that spans all platforms of any decent size, and the mitigation needed is in education and better access to good information, and the sorts of social investment that don't create nihilistic hordes braying for an apocalypse that would be preferable to their wretched, vacuous existence and so are prime to believe anyone willing to tell them that sweet, sweet doom is finally happening. Carpet baggers are nothing new, and they've always known how to make a buck. The best you can hope for is a platform not going out of its way to turn them into multi-millionaires.

And now here's more bad news: We gave our freedom away, or let it be dragged away. And I'm talking about file formats, interpretability, the right to copy your own media and use it anywhere you want. While everyone's chirping their happiness of switching to Apple Music, the voice in the back of my head still holds Apple more than a little responsible for this mess. When it went down the DRM route in iTunes, it was a step towards the streaming world. Along the way we lost mixtapes and burned CDs or MP3s that could be moved from this to that device regardless of who made it or what software it's running.

The first format I bought with my own money was vinyl. I think I was in the 5th grade give or take a year, I had a couple of dollars at a garage sale up the road from home and picked up Janis Joplin's "Cheap Thrills." Had no idea what was going in in that, just taken by the Robert Crumb cover art., but obviously someone bought the album, and now was being resold. My sister and I still debate who's album that one actually belonged to, but it was mine. The thing about records is that they're not terribly portable.

File format evolution has been about shrinking things and making them portable. Vinyl was good for visual artists, and as formats got smaller they lost out, until most people were just looking at thumbnail images. During that transition, there was a brief, sweet spot for music fans between cassette tapes and burnable CDs, and then the early file sharing. But then the more copiable and digitised and intangible music became, more musicians started losing out. There's a whole history in this period on battles over intellectual property, copyright reform, even a political movement I was keen on for a while. Some good ideas started fermenting around that time and still exist, such as Creative Commons. But it taught the music industry new tricks. Criminalise uncontrolled file sharing and lower the cost barriers of file access, and also don't really still give that much cash back to content creators. Shrinking things has profit. Portability, not so much. Now the industry isn't even about purchasing the music files, just accessing them in lease contracts on specific apps in which whenever you complete a track some lucky performer somewhere you'll never pay to see live because of a pandemic will get $0.0033. Meanwhile, profits the platform suck in from your $10 per month will help it throw bags of cash at of some fuckwit you never listen to whose only skill is preying on the simple minded and the angry.

So, I'll probably make another Faustian bargain on some other service. You won't hear which one it is until I quit that one too, though. I'll give one free advertising when there's a good creator controlled service.

> Find more random thoughts on all this here.

This article was updated on 30 January 2022