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The World Health Organization chief has backed the veteran rock star Neil Young in his dispute with the music streaming behemoth Spotify, thanking the musician for “standing up against misinformation and inaccuracies” around Covid vaccinations.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, tweeted that “we all have a role to play to end this pandemic and infodemic” – in particular social media platforms.
Spotify has begun removing Young’s music from its platform after an ultimatum issued by the star earlier this week to the company. Referring to controversial podcasts by Joe Rogan hosted by Spotify, Young said: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”
Spotify swiftly made its choice, triggering an almighty storm over anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, cancel culture and the policing of social media.
Many of Young’s fans and supporters of his stance called for a boycott of the streaming platform, and for other artists to follow his lead. “I stand with Neil Young” and “#CancelSpotify” became rallying calls on social media on Thursday.
There was no immediate sign of other big names in the music industry siding with Young against Spotify – an indication perhaps of its market dominance. Between 2010 and 2020, Spotify’s share of the US music market rose from 7% to 83%.
The controversy began with an open letter from Young to his manager and record label, posted earlier this week but since taken down. The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, hosted exclusively on Spotify and with an estimated audience of 11 million, had “tremendous influence”, the letter said.
“Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them,” Young wrote. The streaming platform had a responsibility to “mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform.”
He instructed his manager to “let Spotify know immediately TODAY that I want all my music off their platform. They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Spotify responded by saying: “We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon.”
The company also said it had “detailed content policies in place and we’ve removed over 20,000 podcast episodes relating to Covid since the start of the pandemic”.
Rogan signed a $100m deal in 2020 giving Spotify exclusive rights to his show, which features conversations with guests on a range of issues, including politics, comedy, conspiracies and cancel culture. It is Spotify’s most popular podcast and one of the biggest in the world.
Three months ago, the company reported its revenue had grown 27% over the previous year, and it named the Joe Rogan Experience as a factor in the double digit growth in its podcast business.
Last year, Rogan was criticised by the White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci for suggesting that young, healthy Americans did not need to be vaccinated against Covid. The comment was “incorrect”, said Fauci.
In the past few weeks, hundreds of scientists and medical experts have signed an open letter to Spotify, saying that Rogan had “repeatedly spread misleading and false claims on his podcast, provoking distrust in science and medicine” and had “spread a number of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories”.
They highlighted a three-hour episode of Rogan’s podcast, in which Robert Malone, a scientist and vaccine sceptic, claimed that “a third of the population” had “become hypnotised” through “mass formation psychosis” as if in Nazi Germany and “totally wrapped up in whatever Fauci in the mainstream media feeds them”.
Despite Spotify’s claim that it has removed thousands of podcasts relating to Covid since the start of the pandemic, Rogan has repeatedly said the company has not policed his content.
“Spotify has asked me to change nothing. They’ve never – they’ve been amazing. I’m very happy with them, I’m very happy,” he said last year.
Young, 76, whose hits include Heart of Gold, Harvest Moon, Helpless and Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World, has a long if inconsistent political history. His album, Living With War, released in the aftermath of the Iraq war, called for the impeachment of President George W Bush.
Donald Trump, he said, had “betrayed the people, exaggerated and amplified the truth to foment hatred” and that “social media … is crippling our belief system, turning us against one another.”
Last year, he sold half of the rights to his song catalogue to Hipgnosis for an undisclosed amount, but believed to be nine figures.
A clue to his views on viruses and vaccines may be found in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, published in 2012. He recalls contracting polio as a five-year-old before a vaccine was widely available, quoting his brother, Bob: “It was obvious that his life was on the line.”
Young wrote: “We had a quarantine sign on our house that said Poliomyelitis on it, and warned people about not entering or something to that effect. No one wanted to be near me for a while.”
He has had other serious health issues during his life, including epilepsy and a brain aneurysm.
A spokesperson for Young said it was not known whether the star would make any further comment on the issues concerning Spotify and Joe Rogan. “He’s very much his own person on things like this,” the spokesperson said.
Spotify has been contacted for comment.