Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 3, 2022

Artists take control? The impact of COVID-19 misinformation on the music industry

By SOPHIA PASALIS | February 11, 2022

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PARADISE4764/CC BY-SA 4.0

Pasalis argues that consumers, not only artists, are responsible for taking action against large streaming platforms. 

On Jan. 26, industry legend Neil Young requested the removal of his music from Spotify, a private company, due to its complicity in allowing misinformation about COVID-19 to spread on the streaming platform. Digital platforms, like Spotify, present a perfect landscape for the spread misinformation, due to their relatively discrete algorithms and immense volume of participating voices.

His decision came in support of an open letter to Spotify, authored by a cohort of medical professionals and scientific researchers, demanding the company take responsibility for the spread of misinformation about the virus that has caused millions of deaths worldwide.

The letter cited the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), Spotify’s most popular podcast. Specifically, the concerned group of professionals referenced JRE episode #1757, in which Dr. Robert Malone, who holds a medical license from the state of Maryland, was included as a guest. Malone is banned from Twitter for the spread of COVID-19 misinformation and is especially appealing to an anti-vaccine audience due to his clarity of speech and fluency with medical terminology

In May 2020, Joe Rogan signed a $100 million deal with Spotify, which allowed the company to acquire exclusive streaming rights to JRE, which has existed since 2009.

In a public statement, Young framed his protest as a moral issue, and not an easy one at that, since he receives 60% of his streaming income on Spotify.

“I did this because I had no choice in my heart. It is who I am,” he wrote.

Young was lucky to have this choice. Young and established musicians and creators like Joni Mitchell and Brené Brown, who stand in solidarity with him, benefit from longevity, power and social prominence. In contrast, less established artists who rely on the heat of internet fame and record deals must keep their music on Spotify to stay afloat, especially with the lack of reliable touring during the pandemic.

Moreover, Young’s call to action seems hollow. Despite his alleged moral calling, in the same statement, Young referred to the CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, as a “friend.” To ignite a movement — a mass exodus from an extremely popular platform — likely requires losing more than a few friends that control the platform.  

As a half-baked solution, Spotify recently announced that they would provide a warning before any podcast that mentioned COVID-19.

In a call with the New York Times, Young’s buddy Ek made his values clear, valuing profit above the eradication of COVID-19 misinformation. 

“I think the important part here is that we don’t change our policies based on one creator nor do we change it based on any media cycle or calls from anyone else,” he said.

If not one creator, even one with millions of monthly listeners, what will push the company over the edge? 

For any movement to take hold, it must be built from the ground up, including artists that are not as established or as lucky as Neil Young. Artists, however, are controlled by their record labels. A truly impactful movement would likely only be possible in the hands of the consumer. Spotify relies on subscriptions as well as ad-based revenue. Without people buying into the platform, Spotify’s business model would not be able to function. 

Yet people should still be able to consume art. Spotify provides access to endless music and podcasts, a feat that enriches people’s daily lives. Everyone wants to listen to music. Many people have a favorite podcast they turn to. As a society, we should not have to sacrifice the consumption of art for protest. Instead, art should be consumed as a form of protest. Perhaps that means turning to other streaming platforms, though it is a difficult issue without a clear solution. 

COVID-19 has infiltrated all imaginable portions of our society. We have relied on entertainers to spread information through TV shows, podcasts and more. Our access has become decentralized, fracturing universality, allowing misinformation to proliferate. 

This moment will not have a huge impact on the future of streaming or affect Spotify’s gargantuan earnings, but we must remember that art has always been rooted in resistance. Artists should continue to act upon that revolutionary instinct. Most importantly, consumers, too, must realize the power they hold in the future of art and entertainment.

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