1. This is not how I wanted to spend my Black History Month.
I usually look forward to Black History Month. It’s a time when companies try to flex their pro-Black bonafides by linking Civil Rights battles for freedom to our freedom to buy things we don’t need, or by making pledges to “elevate Black voices.”
This month, however, many of us have been preoccupied by the decision of a company based in Sweden (very white) to invest millions in elevating an American podcaster (also very white) who has spread contrary takes on COVID-19 and used the N-word on multiple occasions over a multi-year period. The fact that this February is only 28 days long further heightens the misappropriation of these weeks. We have literally 11 other months to spend dissecting a white man’s potential racism, but no, we’re doing this now, apparently.
2. The N-word is ours exclusively.
It should go without saying, but clearly we need to keep saying it: Unless you’re Black, you don’t get to say the N-word. Given the history of the United States, it’s especially fraught for white people to use this word, and anyone who pretends to not understand this is doing just that: pretending. I’m Black, and even I write and say “the N-word” much more than I would ever use the actual word. Yes, Black rappers say it a lot. No, that doesn’t mean you can. Haven’t Black folks given up enough to the broader culture? The Blues, barbeque, Barack Obama, and Kanye. We in the West collectively have let white people hold on to many things that weren’t theirs to take: indigenous lands, capital gains from slave labor, Brooklyn, and yoga. We’re holding on to this one word.
3. This isn’t about “silencing.”
One easy way to win an argument is to engage on terms different from those of your opponent. When President Obama tried to use the conservative Heritage Foundation’s framework to extend healthcare to all Americans, the Republican Party said they weren’t going to let him run death panels to determine if your grandma lived. When, as a child, I tried to engage my mother in debate over why she wouldn’t let me eat cookies for breakfast, she said it was, “for your health,” and I said it was, “because you don’t love me like my friends’ parents love them.” When Neil Young and India Arie said they didn’t want to make their music available on a platform that paid for the exclusive ownership of Joe Rogan’s voice, Spotify’s C.E.O. Daniel Ek said his company didn’t want to silence Joe Rogan.
But silencing, as in, “unable to be heard” isn’t on the table. Joe Rogan would reach millions of people without Spotify. We know this because before his exclusive deal with the company, Joe Rogan already reached millions of people with his podcast which was distributed through the open RSS protocol.
What I see people questioning is Spotify’s decision to invest a reported $100 million into one person’s voice while paying roughly one-third of one cent per stream to the musicians whose work has allowed the platform to exist. That investment decision is made all the more significant when we note that Spotify has, on net, lost billions of dollars as a business. Its music catalog, like the music catalogs of most streaming companies, is powered heavily by Black artists. But Spotify has leveraged money from the public markets to dig its way out of the financial hole it created partly by betting on a volatile voice who has on numerous occasions demonstrated deep disrespect for Black people. It’s literally a question of value.
4. Joe Rogan is neither simply harmful nor helpful, but he is sloppy.
I have a mixed perspective on Rogan. I’m not a regular listener to his show, but one of the most impactful episodes I ever heard was on March 11, 2020. I remember it so clearly because it was the day I flew home from New York City to Los Angeles, right as the Covid curtain was coming down. A friend I ran into at JFK airport asked if I’d heard the latest Rogan episode. “No,” I said. “I don’t really listen to Rogan.” But I listened to that one. His guest was epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, and I’m 100 percent certain that that episode helped keep me, my wife, and millions of others safe. I still listen to Dr. Osterholm via his own podcast and had him as a guest on my podcast, How To Citizen.
That same Joe Rogan has also had more fringe voices on his show, and he’s so influential that people take their medical advice from him, not just his guests. He’s questioned established science, which on its face isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Science is a process, not an outcome, and questions are part of the process. (If you doubt that, just go back and look at the “evolving” recommendations from U.S. public health authorities about masking over the past two years.) But Rogan engages haphazardly and lazily, repeating skeptical questions right alongside false assertions, agreeing with nonsense alongside common sense, creating a fog of confusion around an already confusing topic.
On the racism front, that haphazard and lazy approach is on full and disturbing display. I don’t know if Joe Rogan is a racist or is not a racist. I also don’t care. What I do know is that he has a history of bringing on guests who assert ideas about Black people that are racist.
His conversation with Jordan Peterson about Black people not really being Black because our skin isn’t literally “black” is, how do I put this… dumb. It’s just dumb, and they talked about it as if it were Black people who had simply invented ourselves as a category when history shows it was white people who lumped us all together in one dehumanized pile of Blackness. And when Rogan lets someone come on his show to talk about Black people’s genetic proclivity toward violence, that is more than just dumb. That’s dangerous. That’s the same generations-old attempt to justify treating Black people as something other than normal or fully human. If we are genetically dangerous, then hunting, caging and killing us is justifiable as an act of self-defense.
5. Spotify calculated that the benefit of Rogan outweighed the cost.
This entire episode reminds me of a refrain I’ve heard from Rashad Robinson, the executive director of the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. It goes a litle something like this: too often, institutions aren’t afraid to disappoint Black people, and we have to change that; we have to make institutions more afraid of disappointing Black people. I’ve heard him say this in the context of Hollywood and its lack of diversity, and in the context of the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina.
What I see in Spotify in this moment is a company that was willing to bet its future business success on a volatile and often sloppy voice like Joe Rogan with a high degree of confidence that no one who mattered to them would care. I assume they checked out his show before they offered to license it. There was plenty of analysis showing that Rogan helps to launder or mainstream ideas that ought to stay on the fringe, from Alex Jones conspiracy theories to white supremacist wannabe tough guys, like the Proud Boys. Spotify is a famously tech-forward company that is so proud of its algorithms that it features them in billboard ads. So this tech- and data-centric company likely knew exactly the content Rogan engaged in and calculated that they had much more to gain than lose. So what if the math is different now?
6. Could this be avoided if we all just paid more for music?
When I first read Ek’s comments to his employees, I was shocked at the level of transparency about the transactional nature of the Rogan deal. Basically, Ek said, Rogan helped Spotify differentiate itself from all the other streamers. It was business.
But I’ve always found “business” to be a generous term when applied to technology companies that consistently lose money for years as they gain market share, devalue the products and services they offer, and lean on venture capital or public market funding to continue their operations until they get acquired by an actual business that, you know, makes more money than it loses. This subsidy model of product pricing is something we’ve seen with Uber and Spotify but also beyond tech: Walmart’s low prices justified low wages which resulted in its full time workers relying on public assistance as part of the company’s business model.
But I digress slightly. With streaming music services, we’ve all accepted a world in which music is essentially free. I’m old enough to remember the great hand-wringing over Napster, where music really was free to consumers. Apple came along and charged $0.99 per song and restored some revenue to the industry, but then streaming emerged, and we all got real comfortable with the idea that we have a God-given right to every song ever created for about $10 per month.
Spotify has a particular challenge with getting people to pay for its service, especially given that the price of most music subscriptions hasn’t changed much in 20 years, and while all services pay tiny amounts per-stream, some pay more than others. Tidal pays much more than Apple, which pays more than Spotify. There are many analyses out there, but this one from Producer Hive is among the clearest. (Quick aside for math: revenue-per-stream is a tricky number to focus on in a vacuum. If we all paid $10 per month and streamed just one song, all these services would pay out $10 per stream! Usage has an effect on the per-stream rates I’m referencing, so if the goal is to get more money into musicians’ pockets, simply switching streaming services may not solve that problem). Spotify has struggled to increase its revenue per customer, so it went out and invested in podcasting—which it assumed would lead to more customers paying for something that didn’t incrementally cost them money they had to pay out to music rights holders. If we decided collectively that music was worth more, we would create a different market condition, one in which Spotify might not make a deal with an MMA commentator and comedian to grow its business.
7. This is about Spotify’s choice and Rogan’s popularity.
I’ve been asking myself how things might be different if Rogan just had a normal podcast available on a public RSS feed through any podcast player. He would be making the same show with the same guests. His back catalog would have included the same utterances of the N-word. He would fail to push back on the same pseudoscience related to race or vaccines or anything else. And he would still command the attention of millions of people who want to fill their heads with that content while filling his pockets with millions of dollars from advertising or subscription revenue or some combination.
In that world, perhaps someone would have made demands on his advertisers not to support him because of the way he used his platform, and those companies would have to decide whether or not to stick with that choice. But we live in a world that Spotify created, one in which they’ve made themselves the only place one can listen to Joe Rogan. They heard what he said, they saw how many people listened, and they decided they wanted to go all in on that. They paid a lot of money and used their in-app promotional powers to make sure they became the focus of critics’ attention. They made an active choice, and from the looks of it, they are sticking by it. Fortunately, we as podcasters, music artists, and listeners can make our choices as well.
8. Rogan is an output, not an input
How did we get to a point where a comedian/MMA commentator/public weed puffer and pontificator came to occupy such a central point of influence in our culture on matters of race and public health? Why does anyone care what Joe Rogan thinks about… anything?
In a healthy society, I think most of us wouldn’t, but our society isn’t exactly healthy. At worst, it’s degenerating and collapsing rapidly. At best, it’s in tremendous flux, with old rules no longer applicable but new ones no longer clear. We are living in the age of institutional distrust. All incumbent institutions, from Big Pharma and Big Banks to The Vatican, The C.D.C. and The Two Party System in the U.S. have lost credibility. Ask any doctor, and they’ll tell you about the self-diagnosis via WebMD they must now compete with. If you’ve historically had authority, you’ve inevitably lost some of it over the last few decades. This isn’t the first time that established authority has waned, but it may be the first time there’s been so much competition to replace it.
Rather than one religion replacing another, or one political system rising from another, we have a thousand possibilities everywhere. Instead of a regional paid cable TV monopoly, we get to choose from dozens of video streamers. Don’t trust the New York Times, Fox News, NPR, or CNN? That’s fine. Now we have infinite alternate voices to choose from, including our own, on every sized screen and speaker within reach. We are overwhelmed by voices seeking to fill the vacuum left by our distrust of traditional authority. QAnon, crypto, GOOP, TikTok influencers, and Joe Rogan are all outputs of a system undergoing massive change. We know enough to understand that we can’t always trust the voices we used to. We haven’t yet sorted out how to figure out who to trust next. So our attention goes to those with charisma, tenacity, a little luck, and even less vetting.
9. Here’s what I’m going to do.
I’ve found it interesting to see the range of responses by music artists and podcasters and listeners/customers in terms of what they want Spotify to do. Neil Young was clear: either Joe goes or I go. India Arie was clear: she’s making a moral decision to align her inside values with her outside actions. Some people I admire are choosing not to distribute their podcasts through Spotify to send a signal to the company that they are disappointed. And even as folks make that choice, many acknowledge there’s no moral purity here. Roxanne Gay wrote that “living in the world, participating in capitalism, requires moral compromise.” True dat. Apple, Google, and Amazon all have their controversies and failures related to human rights, labor, and more, so everyone’s got to decide (or not) where their own lines are.
For his part, I watched Rogan’s apology and as far as these things go, his was pretty good. I expected the man who’s made such a fuss about straight white men not being “allowed” to say things to double down on his right to say a word he has no business saying, but he showed up contrite and acknowledged that it’s not his word to say.
Where things got a little slippery for me is in the excuse he made for having said the word at all. He talked about using it to quote other people using it or to talk about how weird it is for non- Black people not to be able to use it, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t cover all the cases we’ve seen. I would have appreciated him not saying it at all, of course. But given that he did, I would have liked to hear him admit he just didn’t care and, in fact, was trying to be edgy and transgressive in using the word. He was gleefully playing with fire when using that word just as he was when he compared viewing a movie in a mostly-Black theater to being in Planet of the Apes.
For me, I’ve decided to keep my podcasts available to Spotify users. My show’s availability there doesn’t contribute anything financially to Spotify, and I don’t find it personally meaningful to make it harder for Spotify users to find my shows. I’ve made media in many formats, and much of it sits next to people whose ideas I don’t like, including folks funded by those places. I’m not pulling my books, videos, and status updates off the shelf for sharing space with them. However, I also decided not to move forward with an exclusive Spotify promotion that would have featured my face alongside a curated playlist of podcasts. I don’t want to visually endorse the company while I’m disappointed in its behavior.
Finally, this situation has made me look at my music consumption and how I’ve been contributing to devaluing this incredible art form. I’m investigating where I might spend my music dollars in ways that fund artists more fairly or at least make me feel better about my own choices. If that interests you, I encourage you to look into User Centric Payment Systems and other forms of direct artist payments. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s a start.
Damn, it’s been a long Black History Month, and we’re just past the halfway mark.