Music

The Real Reason Neil Young Can Afford to Leave Spotify

The classic rocker is sticking to his principles, but he’s got a backup plan.

Neil Young carries a guitar and harmonica while performing onstage.
Neil Young performs at Painted Turtle Camp in Lake Hughes, California, on Sept. 14, 2019. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Neil Young has never been quiet about his hatred of streaming, Big Tech, or the digitization of the music experience in general. But the veteran rocker escalated the crusade earlier this week, when he posted (and then deleted) a letter on his website asking his manager and an executive at his label, Warner Bros., to pull his entire catalog from Spotify. Artists have long criticized the streaming platform for not compensating musicians fairly, but Young cited a different reason for his action: Joe Rogan. The most popular podcaster in the world has been trafficking in COVID misinformation and promoting quack treatments on his show throughout the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci has pushed back against Rogan’s snake oil, and earlier this month, 270 global health professionals signed an open letter countering the COVID misinformation on The Joe Rogan Experience. Neil Young, however, is the first major artist to strike back against Spotify’s continued platforming of Rogan by weaponizing his catalog. As of this writing, Young’s music is no longer available to stream on Spotify, with the exception of some scattered compilation features as well as the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young catalog.

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However, there are many facets of this situation that haven’t been cleared by the breathless reporting around this latest bout between Bernard Shakey and The Man. Does Young’s deletion of his letter mean Spotify is acting unilaterally? Did the company’s stock value actually start crashing as a direct result? Does this incident have anything to do with the folk rocker’s longtime distrust of streaming, or is there something else here? And what’s Young’s real relationship with Spotify and streaming, anyway? We break it all down here.

Wait, what’s the deal with Neil Young’s letter? He posted it and then removed it?

It appears that is indeed the case. On Monday, the letter was posted on the Neil Young Archives website and removed just hours later.

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Does anybody know why?

Young has not yet stated why he took the initial letter down, but he posted another piece on Wednesday, still up on his archives site, titled “Spotify: In the Name of Truth.” It provides a hint: “Before I told my friends at Warner Bros about my desire to leave the SPOTIFY platform, I was reminded by my own legal forces that contractually I did not have the control of my music to do that,” Young writes. “I announced I was leaving anyway, because I knew I was. I was prepared to do all I could and more just to make sure that happened.” It’s reasonable to infer from this update that Young retracted his first letter due to legal issues, as he doesn’t own his own masters—they belong to his label, Warner Bros., so he had to clear the move with the company first. This also suggests that Spotify’s decision to remove Young’s music was in compliance with Canadian singer’s wishes, and not retribution for them. After all, Young also mentions the health professionals’ letter, the young ages of Rogan listeners, and the fact that Spotify “represents 60% of the streaming of my music to listeners around the world.” The streaming service told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, “We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon.”

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Oh, gotcha. What did the first letter say?

Neil Young had written, in part, “I want you to let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform. They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Whoa.

Quite the ultimatum, right? It’s also worth noting that Neil Young had polio as a child, so there may be a personal nature to Young’s stance on COVID vaccines and public health guidelines.

So … Spotify chose Rogan over the guy who made After the Gold Rush? Even on a values-over-ethics level, I thought older music was ballooning in value.

Both of those assumptions are correct. And yes, as music historian Ted Gioia has noted in his newsletter, much of the growth in the use of and revenue to streaming services (and, thus, the music industry) has stemmed from older artists—Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Stevie Nicks—whose catalogs have been sold to investment funds in recent years. Neil Young is a part of that as well, having sold half the financial share of his back catalog to Hipgnosis Songs Fund for an estimated $150 million. (In his first letter, Young also thanked Hipgnosis for supporting his Spotify decision.) It’s not as though this automatically equates to a higher value for Spotify, however; the company has specifically made an economic bet on podcasting, and Neil Young does not often appear on lists ranking the most-streamed creators on Spotify, even when it comes to just the oldies.

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It does seem like a lot of people are making a stink online.

They definitely are. By Thursday, hashtags like #ByeByeSpotify, #SpotifyDeleted, and #CancelSpotify were trending nationally on Twitter; both Neil Young fans and people concerned about medical disinformation posted screenshots showing that they’d canceled their Spotify Premium subscriptions in solidarity. This didn’t equate to the millions of listeners Rogan gets per episode, however, even though his reach has dropped somewhat due to his exclusivity with Spotify. Rogan fans also made #ThankYouSpotify trend nationally on Thursday, as a show of support for their favorite podcaster. Prominent right-wingers joined in, eagerly downplaying Young’s relevance and popularity.

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So how do we listen to Neil Young now?

As Young wrote in his second statement, “Many other platforms, Amazon, Apple, and Qobuz, to name a few, present my music today in all its High-Resolution glory—the way it is intended to be heard, while unfortunately SPOTIFY continues to peddle the lowest quality in music reproduction.” Please: There are still records, tapes, and CDs.

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Wait, where did that “high-resolution” thing come from?

Glad you asked, because this has been one of Young’s favorite subjects for decades. In the early 1990s, when sales of compact discs surpassed those of cassette tapes and vinyl records, Young railed against CDs’ poorer sound quality compared with other sonic formats, arguing that they diminished the experience of recorded songcraft. “The beauty of music should be like water washing over you,” he wrote in the magazine Guitar Player. “But digitally recorded music is like ice cubes washing over you.” Young carried on this crusade well into the new millennium, excoriating the bad audio quality of compressed MP3s, the Macbook Pro, and, of course, streaming services as each of these innovations hit the market. In fact, in 2015, he yanked all his music from streaming services and launched a high-resolution digital music marketplace for audiophiles named Pono; however, the following year, Pono went on hiatus due to technical and financial problems, and Young put his music back on streaming. “That’s where people get music,” he explained to Rolling Stone in 2019. “I want people to hear music no matter what they have to get through to do it.”

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So Young gave up on trying to make his own music service?

He did not! In fact, in 2019 he went on to launch the massive Neil Young Archives, a paid subscription service allowing fans to hear his music in high-resolution audio through the Xstream platform, which Young developed as a streaming successor to Pono. The archives also offer access to some of Young’s legendary unreleased projects along with exclusive livestreams and photos. The service quickly gained tens of thousands of subscribers and, by January 2020, was providing Young with a $600,000 annual income.*

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Whoa! So Young is fine even with the hit from leaving Spotify, isn’t he?

Indeed he is. Needless to say, that’s a privilege not available to other musicians who need the exposure and publicity that Spotify can provide to its massive audience, despite the meager payouts. This may make it difficult for Young to persuade others to also leave Spotify, despite the vocal support he’s received from fans, peers, and even WHO’s secretary-general.

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So, the crash in Spotify’s stock price probably isn’t a result of this whole fiasco, as some have claimed online.

Oh no, it’s a decline that’s spilled over from last year’s drop in value. I’m sure the Young situation won’t help the company’s stock, as hundreds of devoted fans publicly cancel their Spotify Premium subscriptions or tweet about the trouble they’re having canceling their payments to the service. But this is definitely not the root cause of Spotify’s financial issues.

It’s commendable that Young stuck to his principles on public health. But it doesn’t feel like this is exactly a win for the little guy.

Fun fact: Neil Young wrote in Monday’s letter that he’s personal friends with Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify. So while Young may have pulled his music from Spotify, he isn’t exactly burning his bridges.

Correction, Jan. 28, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Neil Young earns $600,000 a month from his subscription service. He earns about $600,000 a year.

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