Neil Young’s battle with Spotify is principled – and comfortable

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

In pulling his music from Spotify in protest at Joe Rogan’s Covid misinformation, the singer continues a life of political action – but unlike others, he doesn’t need to please the streaming giant

If you had been forced to predict which blue-chip American rock legend was going to suddenly pull their music off Spotify in protest at the streaming site hosting a far-right-friendly podcast that spreads medical misinformation, Neil Young would have been a very safe bet.

Related: Spotify removes Neil Young music in feud over Joe Rogan’s false Covid claims

He is famously among the most ornery, uncompromising and capricious of said blue-chip legends. The years that produced his most famous work also played host to Young wilfully sabotaging his own commercial prospects in order to follow his muse (or, as he memorably put it, “heading for the ditch”); suddenly abandoning tours midway by directing his tour bus to pull off the motorway en route to the next show; whimsically declining to release a succession of completed albums; and incurring the wrath of his partners in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) by removing their contributions from the master tapes of his songs before releasing them. He spent a substantial chunk of the 1980s making wildly uncommercial albums, apparently with the specific intention of annoying his record label, which ended up suing him for being unpredictable – it lost, perhaps because, as his labelmate Elton John put it, its lawsuit “felt a bit like suing Neil Young for being Neil Young”.

He has failed to mellow with age: not for nothing is the news section of his website called the Times-Contrarian; according to Young’s recent post on it, when his lawyers advised him “that contractually I didn’t have the control of my music to [leave Spotify], I announced I was leaving anyway, because I knew I was”, which is pretty much the most Neil Youngian response imaginable.

He has a long history of political activism. It was Young who wrote Ohio, CSNY’s response to the Kent State Massacre, arguably the most famous protest song of the early 70s; Young who piloted the 2006 CSNY Freedom of Speech tour, its setlist so packed with Young’s new anti-Bush protest songs that audiences in red states booed and walked out; Young who threatened to pull out of a 2019 gig in Hyde Park with Bob Dylan unless the promoters ditched their sponsor, Barclays, “a fossil fuel funding entity”.

And he has longstanding beef with Spotify. He previously removed his music from the streaming site seven years ago (it later returned), complaining it offered listeners “the worst quality in the history of broadcasting”, a theme he returned to last week, directing his fans to other streaming services that “present my music today in all its high resolution glory”.

Adele, who has had her own tussles with Spotify.
Adele, who has had her own tussles with Spotify. Photograph: Raven B Varona/PA

Young isn’t the first artist to take issue with the world’s biggest music streaming company. Taylor Swift launched a three-year boycott in 2014, after a row over the site’s royalty rates in which she said Spotify was undervaluing art (she subsequently backed down, framing the decision as a gift to her fans). Adele withheld her album 25 from Spotify for months after release; new album 30 was there from the outset, but only after Spotify agreed to change its shuffle function being the default setting when playing albums – a mark of how major stars do have at least some clout with the streaming giants.

But Young’s disagreement feels different: it isn’t about money or artistry, but politics, or at least having a social conscience. Swift and Adele are huge streaming artists: they have 10 times Young’s monthly listens on the site. He may be a rock legend, but, in streaming terms, Young is David to Joe Rogan’s Goliath: Rogan’s podcast is the biggest on Spotify, which paid $100m (£82m) for its exclusive rights. There’s vague talk from Spotify of “hoping to welcome [Young] back soon”, a statement with a different tone from its obsequious response to Adele’s shuffle request: “Anything for you”.

Young has suggested that others might follow his principled lead: “I sincerely hope that other artists will move off the Spotify platform” he wrote. Thus far, they haven’t. Just as Bob Dylan didn’t have anything to say about Barclays or fossil fuels, high-profile messages of support have been thin on the ground, and no one else has pulled their music in support.

Perhaps that reflects Young’s relatively privileged financial status regarding Spotify. Last year, he sold 50% of his publishing rights to the investment fund Hipgnosis, netting him $150m (£112m): that’s a very significant cushion against losing Spotify’s royalties, where an artist is estimated to earn between $3,000 and $3,500 per million streams.

Moreover, Young isn’t the kind of artist who needs Spotify. Given the age of his core fanbase, it’s hard not to suspect he makes a lot more money from touring and from physical product – particularly the glut of archival recordings he’s released over recent years (five live albums and a 10 CD box set in the last two years alone) – than he does from people clicking on Heart of Gold or Rockin’ in the Free World.

Related: Neil Young – every album ranked!

His is a different position from a younger artist, with a younger audience, for whom streaming is the primary means by which fans access their music. They are reliant on pleasing Spotify: getting on playlists to promote their music and growing their fanbase in much the same way as artists were once reliant on getting radio play. The importance of streaming, and of the biggest player in the streaming game, has only been amplified by the effect of Covid on the live industry. Whether it’s healthy for any one company to have quite so much sway is a very moot point, but given the circumstances, it’s an extremely brave and principled artist who risks incurring Spotify’s wrath in 2022 without the kind of financial safety net that Neil Young has.

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