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When Joe Rogan Offends You, Spotify Profits From It

Joe Rogan has a lot of opinions. Chances are you don’t agree with all of them.

That is what makes him so popular, and why Spotify is paying him tens of millions of dollars a year. It’s also why he’s a constant thorn in the company’s side.

On a recent episode of his podcast, Rogan said he understood why a healthy 21-year-old wouldn’t want to get vaccinated. Dr. Anthony Fauci rebutted Rogan, and deemed the perspective selfish.

Rogan then clarified his comments, describing himself as a buffoon who is routinely drunk or stoned while taping his show and doesn’t think before he speaks. He didn’t quite say that 21-year-olds should get vaccinated, but he acknowledged there was logic to the idea.

Spotify has remained quiet. The company said it had no conversations with Rogan about the episode, or about his follow-up remarks. When I asked CEO Daniel Ek about Rogan this past week, here is what he said:

“I don’t have any specific comments on that. What I will say is we have 8 million creators, and hundreds of millions of pieces of content. We have a content policy, and we do remove pieces that violate it.”

It’s a classic punt, which should surprise no one. Ek doesn’t want to defend Rogan, and then get condemned for feeding resistance to a vaccine that is needed to bring a global pandemic under control. He doesn’t want to criticize Rogan, and aggravate his biggest star.

The statement also reflects a clash between Spotify’s twin identities — that of a tech company and a media company. This will be a growing challenge for Spotify now that it’s acquired a bunch of podcasting studios, and struck exclusive deals for many shows.

Ek is a technologist by training, and his language positions Spotify as similar to Facebook or YouTube. These companies enable (almost) anyone to post a video or article, and are not legally responsible for what people post. They only intervene in extreme cases — when someone crosses one of their self-imposed guidelines (or they get in enough trouble with the press).

Spotify is similar in that it is using its Anchor division to allow (almost) anyone to post a podcast. Spotify hosts 2.6 million shows, and some of those definitely have content that will make Spotify look bad. The company has taken down podcasts for spreading Covid misinformation.

But when it comes to Rogan, Spotify isn’t like Facebook or YouTube. Spotify paid Rogan to be exclusive to its service, and has singled him out for attracting new users and driving ad sales. He is not just one of 8 million creators. While Spotify licenses Rogan’s show instead of owning it, limiting its control over the editorial process, there is a big difference between Rogan and “Poopcast the Podcast.” 

Imagine if ABC had said Roseanne Barr was just one of thousands of people on its network when she made racist remarks about Valerie Jarrett. (ABC also licensed “Roseanne,” and then decided to proceed without her.) 

Spotify’s Dawn Ostroff, who has worked in Hollywood most of her career, knows this game well. Of all the people I’ve spoken with about Rogan, she has been the most direct about where Spotify stands. Here’s what she said last year when I asked her if she regrets signing the Rogan deal.

“Joe is the #1 podcaster in the world. He has a huge following. His audience speaks for itself. We are very happy with the deal. Like any of our content, all of Joe’s episodes and shows have to adhere to our content policies. But he’s done an incredible job building an audience.”

There may come a time when Rogan says something so outrageous, offensive or dangerous that Ostroff and Ek decide it’s better for their business to distance themselves. But for the time being, Spotify is very happy with Joe Rogan, whether you like it or not. – Lucas Shaw