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Spotify bet everyone would forget about the Joe Rogan controversy—and it paid off

Spotify’s star-studded lineup at Cannes Lion looks to turn the page. It’s a case study of a brand staring down criticism—and prevailing.

Spotify bet everyone would forget about the Joe Rogan controversy—and it paid off
[Illustration: Fast Company]

Branded is a weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.

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Remember when a dustup with several high-profile artists looked it might tip over into a genuine crisis for Spotify? Well, the streaming giant is poised to send a loud message at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity next week: “That’s all over.” Specifically, part of the brand’s festival presence at the premier advertising industry confab includes a series of live performances on “Spotify Beach”—including Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone, the Black Keys, and Dua Lipa.

It’s a notable show of strength given that it was less than six months ago that a lengthy dispute over the show of its mega-podcaster Joe Rogan spreading COVID-19 vaccine-related misinformation led to Neil Young bailing on the platform. When Joni Mitchell and David Crosby followed suit, it looked like things could snowball. But, by and large, Spotify held fast—Rogan hasn’t gone anywhere—and its all-star presence at Cannes feels like a declaration.

“Cannes Lions is not about the past; it’s about the future,” a spokesperson for Spotify said in a statement when I asked about the streamer’s agenda at the ad festival. “Spotify is dedicated to using our platform to connect people with their favorite artists and creators from around the world, and we view every Cannes Lions as an opportunity to do this in real life.”

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While that answer ignores any direct comment on the Rogan-Young imbroglio, it effectively consigns it to The Past. The future, meanwhile, is clear enough: It’s Spotify’s world, and at the end of the day, an overwhelming percentage of popular artists are going to stream in it.

To be sure, the company made some concerned noises in the wake of the original controversy and recently announced a Safety Advisory Council to “help Spotify evolve its policies and products in a safe way while making sure we respect creator expression.” But ultimately, the episode now looks like a remarkable case study of a brand staring down criticism—and, on some fundamental level, prevailing.

It all started with an open letter from more than 250 medical experts urging Spotify to discourage the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, citing The Joe Rogan Experience specifically. This inspired Young to put out a statement a few weeks later, in late January, announcing that at his request his record label was pulling all his music from the platform, which he said had “recently become a very damaging force via its public misinformation and lies about COVID.” He called for other artists to do the same. (Young initially posted and removed a statement that directly called out Rogan for giving a platform to dubious vaccine theories: “[Spotify] can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”)

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Initially caught flat-footed, Spotify and Rogan issued preliminary responses that conceded very little (free speech is important, etc.)—and that wholly failed to quash the uproar. “Spotify’s Joe Rogan Problem Isn’t Going Away,” the New York Times reported. And indeed, Mitchell and Crosby joined Young, followed by India.Arie (who brought fresh attention to earlier Rogan episodes in which he tossed around the N-word), Nils Lofgren, and Graham Nash. Apple announced that it was now the streaming “home of Neil Young.” The View‘s Joy Behar leaned on Taylor Swift to get involved. Also, “The Rock” weighed in, walking back his prior support of Rogan.

And taken together, this was all a great excuse to revisit Spotify’s often strained relationship to artists, in general. Young resurfaced to declare that the problem wasn’t just Rogan but also Spotify cofounder and CEO Daniel Ek, and urged Spotify employees to quit. There was also fresh scrutiny of just how rich Spotify’s deal with Rogan was—reportedly a $200 million blockbuster that suddenly seemed like a potential albatross—and how little the company seemed to have thought about the distinction between a publisher and the neutral platform it claimed to be.

Spotify and Rogan removed scores of old episodes of his podcast. And then there’s the company’s safety council, newly formed to reexamine its content moderation policies and practices. But beyond that, Ek stuck to his guns: “I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer,” he said in an internal memo quoted by the New York Times, adding that “canceling voices is a slippery slope.” The company seemed to be making a two-part calculation: First, that most artists simply couldn’t afford to walk away from Spotify’s massive audience; and, second, that the long-term payoff to its bet on Rogan as an anchor of its podcasting effort would outweigh a user backlash. 

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The real question, after all, wasn’t just what would artists do—it was what consumers would do. A full-fledged boycott never quite took shape, but the evidence of boycott effectiveness, in general, is mixed at best. And while there was a #DeleteSpotify social media campaign and traffic to Spotify’s cancellation page reportedly spiked, that didn’t seem to last. In fact, the controversy seemed to peak in mid-February and has gradually and quietly faded ever since. Spotify’s de facto gamble that the culture would move on to new squabbles and forget about this one paid off.

Recently, Spotify claimed that its podcast revenue hit $215 million in 2021 and is expected to turn a profit in the next year or two, and has hinted at a push into audiobooks. Basically, the Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem did go away, and Spotify is back to business as usual—keeping artists on the service and pushing ever harder into podcasting. “Our evening concerts generate a lot of buzz along the Croisette, and this year is no exception,” the Spotify spokesperson said—specifically pointing out that its Cannes Lion presence won’t be limited to megawatt music acts. “We’ve also built out our daytime programming slate, so attendees will be able to hear directly from some of the biggest voices in podcasting, too.”

“The Croisette,” for the uninitiated, is the local name for the Cannes waterfront, where a variety of “official festival fringe events” take place. Like any beach, it’s a perfect setting for what Spotify clearly has in mind this year: an impressive flex.  

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About the author

Rob Walker writes Branded, a weekly column about marketing and branding. He also writes about design, business, and other subjects

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