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Spotify removes Neil Young's music after he objects to Joe Rogan's podcast

Neil Young, performing in Lake Hughes, Calif. in 2019.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Neil Young, performing in Lake Hughes, Calif. in 2019.

Updated January 27, 2022 at 8:13 AM ET

Spotify has removed famed singer-songwriter Neil Young's recordings from its streaming platform.

On Monday, Young had briefly posted an open letter on his own website, asking his management and record label to remove his music from the streaming giant, as a protest against the platform's distribution of podcaster Joe Rogan. Rogan has been widely criticized for spreading misinformation about coronavirus vaccines on his podcast, which is now distributed exclusively on Spotify.

Late Wednesday, the musician posted two lengthy statements on his website, one addressing the catalyst of his request and the other thanking his industry partners.

In the first, he wrote in part: "I first learned of this problem by reading that 200-plus doctors hadjoined forces, taking on the dangerous life-threatening COVID falsehoods found in Spotify programming. Most of the listeners hearing the unfactual, misleading and false COVID information of Spotify are 24 years old, impressionable and easy to swing to the wrong side of the truth. These young people believe Spotify would never present grossly unfactual information. They unfortunately are wrong. I knew I had to try to point that out."

As of last week, more than 1,000 doctors, scientists and health professionals had signed that open letter to Spotify.

According to Rolling Stone, Young's original request on Monday, which was addressed to his manager and an executive at Warner Music Group, read in part: "I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them ... They can have Rogan or Young. Not both." The letter was quickly removed from Young's website.

Spotify's scrubbing of Young from its service was first reported on Wednesday afternoon by The Wall Street Journal. His removal from the streaming platform makes him one of the most popular musical artists not to appear on Spotify, where his songs have garnered hundreds of millions of streams.

In a statement sent to NPR Wednesday afternoon, a Spotify spokesperson wrote: "We want all the world's music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators. We have detailed content policies in place and we've removed over 20,000 podcast episodes related to COVID since the start of the pandemic. We regret Neil's decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon."

Earlier this month, Young sold 50% of his songwriting copyrights to the U.K. investment company Hipgnosis Songs, which was founded by music industry veteran Merck Mercuriadis. Most of the recordings in Young's discography are distributed by Warner Music Group, though a handful are distributed by Universal Music Group.

In his second open letter posted late Wednesday, Young thanked those partners and acknowledged the financial hit they are taking, and said that 60% of the streaming income on his material came via Spotify. "Losing 60% of worldwide streaming income by leaving Spotify is a very big deal," Young wrote, "a costly move, but worth it for our integrity and our beliefs. Misinformation about COVID is over the line."

He continued: "I sincerely hope that other artists can make a move, but I can't really expect that to happen. I did this because I had no choice in my heart. It is who I am. I am not censoring anyone. I am speaking my own truth."

Covers of Neil Young songs by other artists remain available on Spotify.

As of Wednesday evening, no other prominent musicians had followed in Young's footsteps. Many musical artists are unhappy with Spotify for a variety of reasons — not least of which is that Spotify pays what many musicians believe is an infamously stingy royalty rate.

Still, it is the most popular audio streaming service in the world. According to the company, it has 381 million users in more than 184 countries and markets. Musicians want to meet their fans where they are, and not every artist or creator is willing to go to the lengths that Young has, in terms of putting their money where there mouths are.

Moreover, Joe Rogan's podcast is extremely valuable to Spotify: it has been the most popular one globally offered on the service for the last two years, and the exclusive distribution deal he signed with Spotify in 2020 is worth a reported $100 million.

Spotify's CEO, Daniel Ek, has said that his company isn't dictating what creators can say on its platform. In an interview with Axios last year, he said that Spotify doesn't bear editorial responsibility for Joe Rogan. In fact, Ek compared Rogan to "really well-paid rappers" on Spotify, adding: "We don't dictate what they're putting in their songs, either."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.