It was the arrangement that propelled Spotify to prominence as a podcasting behemoth, but it has also placed the firm at the heart of a raging controversy about disinformation and free expression.
Spotify was already the undisputed ruler of the music streaming world. However, in order to help catapult the firm into its next phase as an all-purpose audio powerhouse and further fight Apple and Google, it sought a celebrity podcaster in the same way that Howard Stern was instrumental in putting satellite radio on the map in 2006. Joe Rogan, a comedian and sports commentator whose no-holds-barred podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” was already a massive smash on YouTube, was seen by Spotify officials as that transformational figure.
Spotify signed a licence arrangement with Mr. Rogan in May 2020, after a lengthy courting. The agreement will allow Spotify to exclusively air Mr. Rogan’s programme. According to two people familiar with the details of the transaction who spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to discuss it, the true value of the deal that was negotiated at the time, which spanned three and a half years, was at least $200 million, with the possibility of even more, according to two people familiar with the details of the transaction.
Although it has been a long time since a show like The Big Bang Theory helped Spotify become the market leader in podcasts, it has recently found itself at the centre of the same kind of cultural storm that has engulfed social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, over questions about what responsibility tech behemoths have for the content that appears on their platforms.
Neither Spotify nor its management agreed to be interviewed for this article. Dustee Jenkins, a spokesperson for the corporation, refused to comment on the specifics of Mr. Rogan’s agreement with the network. A number of inquiries for response from the media were not returned by Mr. Rogan’s representatives.
It was an incredible transaction, even in the bubbly podcast industry, to acquire “The Joe Rogan Experience.” According to corporate papers, Spotify has bought two whole content firms, Gimlet Media and The Ringer, for a combined total of just less than $200 million apiece.
Spotify replied by confirming its commitment to free expression as Mr. Rogan’s public criticism grew, despite the fact that hundreds of Mr. Rogan’s previous episodes had been deleted from the service. Also announced were the first time the company made its content rules public, that it would include “content advisory” notifications to episodes that discussed the coronavirus, and that it would give $100 million to projects by artists “from historically underrepresented communities.”
This may have made it more difficult to manage the crisis in the United States because Spotify’s headquarters are nearly 4,000 miles away in Sweden, where Mr. Ek, a publicity-shy executive who grew up in a suburban Stockholm suburb, as well as many of the company’s engineers and longest-tenured employees are based.
In Sweden, the right to freedom of speech is profoundly valued. In 2018, many Spotify workers in the UK — as well as in the United States — were outraged when the firm banned songs by R. Kelly and XXXTentacion off playlists due to material or behaviour considered inappropriate, a decision that was subsequently overturned by the company.
The CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, noted in a recent message to workers that “cancelling voices is a slippery slope,” but confirmed that a numberof episodes of Mr. Rogan’s programme had been deleted off the site. After conversations with Spotify officials and “his own observations,” Mr. Rogan made the decision to delete them, according to the author.