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Spotify’s Joe Rogan controversy moves onto racist content, prompting new statements

By | Published on Monday 7 February 2022

The Joe Rogan Experience

Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem continues to build. This weekend the spotlight fell on racist language and statements that have appeared on Rogan’s podcast, prompting another Instagram statement from the man himself, and another lengthy note from Spotify boss Daniel Ek, this time addressed at the streaming company’s staff.

Among the artists to join the Neil Young instigated boycott of Spotify last week was India Arie. However, on social media she stressed that – whereas Young et al were ultimately persuaded to remove their music from the streaming platform because of the COVID misinformation in Rogan’s Spotify exclusive podcast – she personally found said podcast “problematic for reasons other than his COVID interviews… for me it’s also his language around race”.

Arie subsequently returned to Instagram to explain what she meant in more detail, sharing a video that compiled clips of Rogan using the n-word and another where the podcaster tells a story in which he compares black people to the characters in ‘Planet Of The Apes’.

That prompted Rogan to also return to Instagram to again respond to the controversies around his podcast. This time he was more apologetic. Whereas with the allegations around COVID misinformation, Rogan defended his booking of controversial guests – but admitted he needed to do a better job of challenging their controversial opinions – this time he said he was wrong to use racist language on his programme.

He did insist that his use of the n-word was not in itself racist – he only ever said the word, he argued, when discussing the politics and cultural uses of it – however, he conceded, it was still wrong to use the racial slur on his podcast.

“There’s a video that’s out, that’s a compilation of me saying the n-word”, Rogan said. “It’s a video that’s made of clips taken out of context of me of … twelve years of conversations on my podcast, and it’s all smushed together, and it looks fucking horrible, even to me. I know that to most people there’s no context where a white person is ever allowed to say that word, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that”.

He went on: “Now, I haven’t said it in years, but for a long time, when I would bring that word up, like if it would come up in conversation, instead of saying ‘the n-word’, I would just say the word. I thought as long as it was in context, people would understand what I was doing”.

As for the other clip shared by Arie, he said: “I was telling a story in the podcast about how me and my friend Tommy and his girlfriend, we got really high, we’re in Philadelphia, and we went to go see ‘Planet Of The Apes’. We didn’t know where we were going, we just got dropped off by a cab, and we got dropped off in this all-black neighbourhood”.

“I was trying to make the story entertaining”, he went on, “and I said: ‘We got out, and it was like we were in Africa, like we were in ‘Planet Of The Apes”. I did not, nor would I ever, say that black people are apes, but it sure fucking sounded like that. And I immediately afterwards said: ‘That’s a racist thing to say’”.

Adding that he had now deleted the edition of the podcast that contained that story – one of a number of editions that were removed from the Rogan archive last week – he said: “I was just trying to be entertaining. I certainly wasn’t trying to be racist, and I certainly would never want to offend someone for entertainment with something as stupid as racism. My sincere and humble apologies. I wish there was more that I could say”.

Back at Spotify, as the Rogan controversies continue to unfold, Ek and his top team are still busy trying to placate his company’s music industry partners, its customers and its investors, and its employees, while standing by earlier commitments regarding the importance of championing freedom of expression.

It’s no secret that a lot of the Spotify workforce are concerned about the recent Rogan controversy, and that Ek – and by association Spotify – is going to such great efforts to defend its most famous podcaster, and his more controversial content.

In a new letter to Spotify’s staff – shared on Twitter by the host of the Recode Media podcast Peter Kafka – Ek writes: “There are no words I can say to adequately convey how deeply sorry I am for the way The Joe Rogan Experience controversy continues to impact each of you. Not only are some of Joe Rogan’s comments incredibly hurtful – I want to make clear that they do not represent the values of this company. I know this situation leaves many of you feeling drained, frustrated and unheard”.

Noting the latest controversy around the racist content, he adds: “I think it’s important you’re aware that we’ve had conversations with Joe and his team about some of the content in his show, including his history of using some racially insensitive language. Following these discussions and his own reflections, he chose to remove a number of episodes from Spotify. He also issued his own apology over the weekend”.

“While I strongly condemn what Joe has said and I agree with his decision to remove past episodes from our platform, I realise some will want more”, he goes on. “And I want to make one point very clear – I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer. We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope. Looking at the issue more broadly, it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress”.

During a company ‘town hall’ meeting last week, Ek tried to distinguish between Rogan’s podcast and those made by Spotify’s own studios, arguing that the former was just another third party podcast that the company distributes. Therefore, while it should apply the same content policies to the Joe Rogan Experience as any other third party podcast, it doesn’t have any direct editorial control. Except, of course, it has an exclusive licensing deal with Rogan, which means that – while Spotify may not produce that podcast – it is much more closely linked to it.

Ek acknowledges that point in his new letter: “In last week’s town hall, I outlined to you that we are not the publisher of JRE. But perception due to our exclusive licence implies otherwise. So I’ve been wrestling with how this perception squares with our values. If we believe in having an open platform as a core value of the company, then we must also believe in elevating all types of creators, including those from underrepresented communities and a diversity of backgrounds. We’ve been doing a great deal of work in this area already but I think we can do even more”.

With that in mind, he adds, “I am committing to an incremental investment of $100 million for the licensing, development, and marketing of music – artists and songwriters – and audio content from historically marginalised groups. This will dramatically increase our efforts in these areas”.

While that’s a sizeable commitment, it’s unlikely to placate Rogan and Spotify’s critics, it appearing a little like Ek hopes he can buy himself out of this current controversy. However, he insists, more free speech not less free speech is the solution here.

“While some might want us to pursue a different path”, he writes, “I believe that more speech on more issues can be highly effective in improving the status quo and enhancing the conversation altogether”.

As for Ek’s commitments last week around Spotify’s content policies in general, his letter goes on: “One of the things I am thinking about is what additional steps we can take to further balance creator expression with user safety. I’ve asked our teams to expand the number of outside experts we consult with on these efforts and look forward to sharing more details”.

And so the controversy continues. It’s still not clear what actual impact all this is having on Spotify’s subscriber numbers and to what extent it is resulting in large-scale cancellations.

A survey by Forrester Research last week found that up to 19% of Spotify subscribers had cancelled or were planning to cancel their subscriptions because of all the Rogan hoo haa – which would be a huge number overall – although said survey only consulted 657 people of which only a third were Spotify subscribers. So a very small sample. And of those who said they planned to cancel, it can be assumed only a portion will.