It had to happen. As our societal polarization worsens, musicians are now taking up sides.
In a political, social, and economic environment that seemingly couldn't get more contentious, we're seeing some big names in the recording industry taking a stand. It's been happening in the world of sports for several years now, triggered first by Colin Kaepernick's knee, and this year, in the form of vaccine mandates, highlighted by stars like NBA superstar Kyrie Irving, and later Packers' QB Aaron Rodgers.
Over these past many months, fans have jumped into the fray, lighting up social media with acerbic, controversial strings of vitriol. There's tremendous passion on both sides of these arguments, of course, generally good for enablers like ESPN, sports talk radio, and other commentators seizing these moments where we're not arguing balls and strikes, but masks or no masks, or in this case, the values of vaxxing and related mandates.
A recent focal point has been Spotify podcaster Joe Rogan. The wildly popular host has become famous for his vaccination comments. And even after an appearance on his podcast by CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Rogan has been resolute in his position. In the middle of the Aaron Rodgers brouhaha this past fall, the quarterback noted he was getting his COVID information not from doctors or scientists, but from Rogan.
This one has been bubbling under for more than a year, mostly the province of politicians and regular citizens outraged about the other side's views on the topic of inoculations and whether or not they should be mandatory. For musicians, outside of the occasional tweet or interview question, there's been mostly radio silence.
Fittingly, Neil Young was the first to go. And unlike other outspoken rock stars, Young put his statement in ultimatum form last week. To Spotify, the often political Young put it simply: him or me.
“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”
In a letter to his manager last week, Young made his intentions clear:
“I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform, I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines, potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by (Spotify).”
But of course this interesting state of affairs goes well beyond COVID, its prevention, treatment, and ultimate cure.
It first exposes the Spotify rift that's been bubbling under for some time. Young, in particular, has complained for years about streaming platforms and their specious sound quality. Back in 2015, I even wrote a blog post about it – “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Stream)” – when Young put all streaming services on notice via his Facebook feed:
No love lost for Spotify and other music streamers.
In the Rogan protest, other “old-liners” followed Young's example, including Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren, along with Bette Midler – holy AC radio!
Neil Young is no stranger to protests, having exercised his influence many times over the years, letting his music from “Ohio” to “Rockin' In The Free World” make a statement. This time, Young weaponized his music again, removing it from the Spotify catalogue.
Interestingly, the boycott seemed to have a rather immediate and profound impact, as Spotify lost more than $4 billion of market value the next day. And apparently the heat forced both Spotify's CEO, Daniel Ek, and Rogan himself to comment on the issue of misinformation.
In the case of the company, Ek admitted Spotify hasn't been especially transparent about its policies on content from its host properties – like Rogan's podcast:
“It's become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time.”
Moving forward, Spotify says they will publish its content guide for its creators, add a “content advisory” to podcast episodes revolving around COVID, and test ways to highlight its rules in the platform's publishing tools, so everyone involved understands where the foul lines are.
Rogan offered up one of those qualified “apologies” (or “non-apology) we've become used to in this highly polarized environment:
“If I pissed you off, I'm sorry. I will do my best to try to balance out these more controversial viewpoints with other people's perspectives so we can maybe find a better point of view.”
Spotify's shares rebounded 12% yesterday. There's no question Ek will support his company's substantial investment in Rogan, as well as podcasting, as opposed to how the company cashes in on classic artists who fortunes peaked decades ago.
In the case of Young, Mitchell, and other artists that end up joining the protest, losses from their political stance may not be as great as many think.
These streaming proceeds are estimates from the rapper T-Pain (aka Faheem Rasheed Najm) who published his data in a recent social post. The story was carried by Digital Music News.
Unless you're Adele, Dave Grohl, or BTS, you're not making much of a living on their streaming spins. Add to that Spotify's reported $100 million deal with Rogan in the first place, and perhaps Young and other music protestors aren't walking away from much.
Plus, consider how Neil Young's exposure has been amplified during the past week. He's been trending in social media, and SiriusXM (re)launched an entire channel dedicated to the outspoken artist. Strange days, indeed.
Put your politics aside on this one because no matter which side you support (or if you've opted to remain on the sidelines), CNN recently nailed the net effect of this skirmish in an opinion piece by Richard Galant:
“Neil Young put his finger on America's great divide”
Lately, I've been going back to the lyrics of “For What It's Worth” from Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young's first band when he moved to L.A. from his hometown Winnipeg.
There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Singing songs and they're carrying signs
Mostly say, “Hooray for our side”
In many ways, the world of music is now undergoing what we've witnessed in sports during the past few years. Artists are taking sides in our societal wars.
And the “battle lines” are becoming clearer with each passing day. You can see it all over social media. In the post below, it's a response from media maven Evan Shapiro to a Twitter user who personally aligned with the artists at the bottom of this tweet:
White Van Morrison
Sorry, what was your point again Toni? https://t.co/3HFn8IHIBt
— Evan Shapiro (@eshap) January 28, 2022
Moving forward, will we – and our audiences – think politics when they hear Neil Young or Eric Clapton on the radio? What other artists will enter the fray, taking sides on this issue and others yet to come? And will younger artists – those on the Pop, Alternative, or Hip-Hop side of the spectrum make their feelings known – or will they stay on the sidelines?
And will that have an effect on radio station music tests?
I'm not sure of the answer to those first questions, but to the last one, I have to give a qualified “yes.”
I first remember seeing the phenomenon when Bruce Springsteen first supported John Kerry for President in the 2004 election. A story in Politico a decade later – “How Ronald Regan Changed Bruce Springsteen's Politics” – reported that Springsteen had been generally apolitical until the Reagan campaign started using “Born In The U.S.A.” during rallies. In recent years, many musical artists have taken exception to politicians using their songs as political fight songs.
I started seeing Springsteen songs getting hammered, even in markets where he always enjoyed great favorability. A deeper dive into the numbers revealed that a group of respondents (roughly one-third of the sample) gave every Springsteen song a “1” – the lowest possible score. Even though songs like “Born To Run,” “Dancin' In The Dark,” and yes, “Born in the U.S.A.” had considerable fan support, the negative scores were enough to drag all his songs below standard acceptance levels.
That could happen again – and some PDs might argue it's been happening for some time now. How programmers adjust their metrics to accommodate the politicization of their music will vary from situation to situation. But it very well may force conversations, and even music policy shifts.
We have asked political party affiliation in Techsurveys over the past several years (always the very last question in the survey because even its appearance rankles some respondents). The results, by format, are always very telling and interesting.
As the saying goes, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” It also divides us in ways that permeate just about every level of our lives.
Including, it seems, our radio stations.
I'd love to hear from you on this issue, but ask that in your comments here and on my social pages, you keep your comments civil. We have to find ways to dialogue on these issues without falling into the same traps that impact everyone else. Thank you. – FJ