It’s a tough week to be Daniel Ek. The CEO of Spotify just wanted to turn his streaming music service into the most dominant platform for podcasts. All he needed was some exclusive content to encourage people to subscribe. Signing the world’s most popular podcast seemed like a great idea.
Now, he has had his hands full dealing with the fallout from the controversy surrounding his biggest star, Joe Rogan. First, a few hundred doctors published an open letter calling on the streaming giant to take action against the misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines being spread on Rogan’s podcast. Then, Neil Young asked that his entire catalog be removed. A handful of other musicians followed.
Ek responded by saying that Spotify would add advisory labels to any podcasts that talk about Covid-19. It’s understandable why Ek thought that would be enough. That is exactly the strategy Facebook and Twitter have adopted when it comes to misinformation on their platforms.
The thing is, it doesn’t take much to see that labels don’t work. If anything, they simply reinforce a reader’s predisposition to believe whatever conspiracy theory is being debunked by the label.
Besides, Rogan’s audience isn’t likely to click on a link to visit resources from the CDC. If you’re getting your pandemic-related advice from Joe Rogan, you’re not likely to be persuaded by anything public health officials might have to say.
Then, Spotify quietly removed a few dozen of Rogan’s past episodes. I say quietly because the company didn’t say anything about the removal. A previous guest who tweeted about the disappearance appears to have been the first to notice. Gizmodo then reported that it checked a website that catalogs Rogan’s podcasts and discovered that 70 episodes had been removed.
It turns out the move came after musician India Arie shared an Instagram post with a video of Rogan using racially offensive language. Arie had asked Spotify to remove her music from the streaming service. Rogan then released a video statement apologizing and confirming he had requested the episodes be removed.
Ek then sent an email to employees, apologizing for “the way The Joe Rogan Experience controversy continues to impact each of you.” There’s a problem, however. Ek’s apology isn’t an apology at all. On the contrary, it’s the perfect example of the type of thing no leader should ever do.
If anything, it’s a public relations move. Even if it was only ever intended for his employees, when you read the email carefully it isn’t actually apologizing to them. It’s meant to say a lot of words that sound like an apology, without actually admitting that Spotify was wrong.
That’s important because you can’t apologize for how someone else feels about something you did, especially when you stand behind your actions. You can only apologize for your actions.
Spotify paid Rogan $100 million to be the exclusive place to listen to The Joe Rogan Experience — which, by almost every measure, is the most popular podcast on earth. That Spotify says it isn’t Rogan’s publisher is a difference without a distinction. It knew exactly what it was getting when it handed over all of that money. In fact, Spotify was counting on Rogan to be controversial — it’s the reason he is so popular with his audience.
Ek isn’t apologizing for that. He isn’t apologizing for his decision to license Rogan’s show exclusively. In fact, quite the opposite.
“While I strongly condemn what Joe has said and I agree with his decision to remove past episodes from our platform, I realize some will want more. And I want to make one point very clear — I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer.”
I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s a lot of room between “silencing” someone and telling them to knock it off with the conspiracy theories that could pose a real public health threat. Instead, Ek is saying is he doesn’t want to get involved so he doesn’t plan to take additional action.
Or, put another way, he’s saying, “I know this thing is upsetting you, and I’m going to keep doing it, but I’d also like it if you weren’t upset.” Those aren’t his actual words, but that’s exactly how his “apology” comes across. It doesn’t work that way. At least — apologies don’t work that way.
Nothing about Rogan should come as a surprise. The episodes that were removed this weekend were recorded before Spotify gave him $100 million. There are no surprises here. Spotify made a calculated decision that any grief he might cause is worth the audience he brings.
Spotify’s employees clearly feel as though the company’s decision to stand behind Joe Rogan is the wrong one. It might be a good business move for Spotify based on the size of Rogan’s audience and the investment the company made in acquiring users in its goal to dominate podcasts. But any time you choose the bottom line over your employees, you’re making a decision that profit is more important than people. And that certainly doesn’t sound like an apology.