Spotify, Part II: The Drama Continues

Today I want to return to the ethical imbroglio at Spotify, because I saw an excellent analysis of the company’s internal operations that bears relevance here. Indeed, the crisis that Spotify is suffering with its star podcaster Joe Rogan is something that many companies could face in the modern world. 

The analysis appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, in a long article recounting how Spotify came to be in such a difficult spot, defending Rogan and his inflammatory podcasts while musicians such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell cut ties with the company. That allegiance to Rogan is putting Spotify in an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight with consumers, musicians, and its employees. 

The important paragraph for ethics and compliance professionals is this one, about halfway through the article:

Spotify tries to foster an egalitarian culture and encourages employees to openly debate topics as diverse as app updates and the snacks available in the office. Since Mr. Rogan’s addition to Spotify in September 2020, some employees have used message boards to express their concerns about his show, said people inside the company.

Why is that important? Because it shows just how potent and adversarial a strong speakup culture can become for large companies. 

That is, Spotify went from employees speaking up about operations, such as app updates and office snacks, which is something senior managers typically want; to employees speaking up about ethics — much more treacherous terrain, that can leave senior management on the defensive. Which is exactly what’s happening with Spotify and chief executive Daniel Ek right now. 

That said, the root of the problem here is Ek. He is the CEO. He is supposed to define the company’s ethical priorities and corporate culture, and he has defined something out of ethical step with Spotify’s employees and customers. It’s his job to resolve the issue. 

Statements on Priorities

Ek did indeed try to resolve the issue over the weekend, when he vowed to keep Rogan on the Spotify roster. His ham-fisted efforts give us in the ethics and compliance community even more food for thought. 

Here’s what happened. Spotify, Ek, and Rogan had already been under increasing pressure for Rogan’s eagerness to entertain anti-vaccination quacks on his podcast, which prompted Neil Young and others to pull their music off the platform. Then Ek announced on Jan. 30 that Spotify would start slapping content advisories on Rogan’s Covid-19 podcasts and direct listeners to a “Covid-19 hub” that would provide “easy access to data-driven facts” about the virus and vaccinations. 

By the end of last week, things got worse. Old podcast episodes surfaced where Rogan used racial slurs against blacks, including repeated use of the N-word. Rogan apologized for that over the weekend, but now Spotify had an even bigger problem. At least with the anti-vax nonsense, one could try to argue that Rogan is just a clueless idiot. The racial slurs make Rogan look like a mean-spirited idiot, too. 

Ek, however, doubled down on his decision to keep working with Rogan. He circulated a memo to employees on Sunday (the full text of which is circulating online) that opened with, “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.” 

Except, Ek then went on for another eight paragraphs about how Spotify will continue working with Rogan. Newsflash: When you say, “This person doesn’t represent the values of our company, but we’re going to keep working with him,” — that is the statement of values about your company. The proof is in the doing, not the saying.

Ek tried to dodge the ethical implications of his decision by saying that Spotify is merely a platform for a wide range of views, rather than a publisher of content. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

As I said in last week’s post about Spotify, this is tripe that uses trigger words like “silencing” and “slippery slope” to conjure up scary feelings, all so that Ek can abdicate his fundamental responsibility here: to decide whether a potential business partner (Rogan) has sufficient ethical character that it can be in a business relationship with Spotify.

Yes, This Is Spotify’s Responsibility

For anyone who believes that content platforms such as Spotify shouldn’t apply ethical standards to business partners, we can demolish that argument with a simple thought experiment. 

The experiment is this. Instead of talking about a podcast host giving “anti-vaxxers” air time, substitute “Holocaust deniers.” If that were the circumstance, how many people would still argue that, yes, it’s perfectly fine and ethical for Spotify to keep a podcast personality like that on the air? 

Nobody, that’s who. Nobody would argue that Spotify should support a Holocaust denier’s free speech rights by giving him space on the Spotify platform. Moreover, nobody would accept half measures like a content advisory warning (“This podcast explores whether the Holocaust really happened”) or a fact hub (“Here’s where you can learn more about one of the worst events in human history”). We would all be clamoring for Spotify to kick that podcast host and all his kooky guests to the curb.

My point is that clearly an ethical demarcation line does exist, even for platform companies. The only question is where that line exists for your company, and how readily a CEO will draw it and stick to it. 

Ek is just using scary words like “censor” and “silencing” and “slippery slope” to distract everyone from the truth that he’s trying to draw that ethical demarcation line as faintly as possible. But that is what he’s doing.

That’s nothing new, of course; CEOs have long tried to duck the tough ethical choices that might cost them money, or alienate certain portions of the customer base. In today’s world, however — when companies profess their supposed ethical values so publicly, and all parties can see and dissect corporate actions so easily — we shouldn’t be surprised that tensions then follow. 

That seems to be the case at Spotify. Consumers and employees have one sense of where Spotify’s ethical lines should be drawn; Ek has another. And after so many years of encouraging open debate within the company, that principle has now come back to bite Ek on his ethical rear end.

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