Spotify’s Joe Rogan Deal Is Said to Be Worth Over $200 Million

Spotify's Joe Rogan Deal Is Said to Be Worth Over $200 Million thumbnail


It was the deal that helped make Spotify a podcasting giant, but has now put the company at the center of a fiery debate about misinformation and free speech.

Spotify was already the king of music streaming. But to help propel the company into its next phase as an all-purpose audio juggernaut, and further challenge Apple and Google, it wanted a superstar podcaster, much as Howard Stern helped put satellite radio on the map in 2006. Spotify executives came to view Joe Rogan — a comedian and sports commentator whose no-holds-barred podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” was already a monster hit on YouTube — as that transformative star.

In May 2020, after an intense courtship, Spotify announced a licensing agreement to host Mr. Rogan’s show exclusively. Although reported then to be worth more than $100 million, the true value of the deal that was negotiated at the time, which covered three and a half years, was at least $200 million, with the possibility of more, according to two people familiar with the details of the transaction who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss it.

But in recent weeks the show that helped Spotify catapult into a market leader for podcasts has also placed it at the center of the sort of cultural storm that has long engulfed Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, over questions about the responsibility tech behemoths have for the content on their platforms.

It began when several prominent artists, led by Neil Young, took their music off the service to protest what they described as Covid vaccine misinformation on Mr. Rogan’s show. Then clips from old “Joe Rogan Experience” episodes caught fire on social media, showing him using a racial slur repeatedly and chuckling at jokes about sexual exploitation, prompting Mr. Rogan to apologize for his past use of the slur. A #DeleteSpotify social media campaign began calling for a boycott. And some Spotify podcasters publicly criticized Mr. Rogan and the platform.

Spotify declined to make company executives available for interviews. Dustee Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the company, declined to comment on the terms of Mr. Rogan’s deal. Representatives of Mr. Rogan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Even in the frothy podcast market, the deal for “The Joe Rogan Experience” was extraordinary. Spotify had purchased entire content companies, Gimlet Media and The Ringer, for slightly less than $200 million each, according to company filings.

With tens of millions of listeners for its buzziest episodes, “The Joe Rogan Experience” is Spotify’s biggest podcast not only in the United States but in 92 other markets, with a following that hangs on every word of his hourslong shows. In its financial reports, Spotify cites podcasts — and Mr. Rogan’s show in particular — as a factor in the long-sought growth of its advertising business. At a recent company meeting, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s chief executive, told employees that exclusive content like Mr. Rogan’s show is vital ammunition in Spotify’s competition against tech Goliaths like Apple and Google.

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“We’re not in the business of dictating the discourse that these creators want to have on their shows,” Daniel Ek, Spotify’s chief executive, told employees. But dozens of episodes of “The Joe Rogan Experience” were recently taken down.Credit…Lucas Jackson/ReutersAs Mr. Rogan faced growing public criticism, Spotify responded by reaffirming its commitment to free speech, even as dozens of Mr. Rogan’s past episodes have been removed. It also made its content guidelines public for the first time, said that it would add “content advisory” notices to episodes discussing the coronavirus and promised to contribute $100 million for work by creators “from historically marginalized groups.”

The moves came as Spotify faced growing dissension among high-profile creators. This month Ava DuVernay, the film director who announced a podcast deal with Spotify a year ago but has yet to produce any content under it, severed her ties with Spotify, according to a statement from her production company, Array. And Jemele Hill, the former ESPN commentator, said that Spotify’s defense of Mr. Rogan had created problems with her audience, and raised questions about the sincerity of the company’s dedication to minority talent.

“What I would like to see,” Ms. Hill said in an interview, “is for them to hand $100 million to somebody who is Black.”

A Pivot to PodcastingFor Spotify, the move into podcasting is the culmination of years of strategy to find a business that is more profitable than hosting music, for which it must pay about two-thirds of every dollar to rights holders.

The company dipped its toe into video around 2015, but little came of it. By 2018, the year Spotify listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange, it was forming plans to pursue Mr. Rogan, hoping to supercharge its market position in non-music audio and to chip away at the dominance of Apple and Google’s YouTube.

To make Spotify a player in podcasting, Mr. Ek and his deputies, including Dawn Ostroff, a former television and magazine publishing executive, and Courtney Holt, formerly of Maker Studios, an online video network, set out on a multipart strategy. Spotify would buy audio studios, like Gimlet, and acquire exclusive rights to existing shows. With Spotify Originals, the company would also create buzzy new programs in partnership with creators like Ms. DuVernay’s Array and Higher Ground, the production company of former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.

Developing a portfolio of podcasts unique to Spotify, as Netflix had built a walled garden for video, was a key aim, according to several employees involved in the strategy discussions.

“All music streaming services are offering the same plain vanilla ice cream at the same price,” said Will Page, Spotify’s former top economist, who was not involved in the Rogan deal but is a frequent commentator on the digital media business. “The overarching issue is how do you make your customer proposition distinct.”

Number of podcasts

available on Spotify

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Spotify users

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Spotify revenue

$10

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8

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Share of

revenue

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including

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4

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12.5%

9.5%

10.0%

10.3%

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Number of podcasts

available on Spotify

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Spotify users

Spotify revenue

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Share of

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100

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The strategy had seemed to be working for Netflix, which produced its first original show in 2012 as a way to differentiate itself from other streaming services. Barry McCarthy, a former top executive at Netflix, was Spotify’s chief financial officer until early 2020 and is now on its board. (Earlier this month, he was named the chief executive of Peloton.) Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive officer of Netflix, is also on the board.

With podcasts, Spotify could be more in charge of its own destiny, and could pocket more of the advertising and subscription fees it relies on. And with the company’s later acquisitions of start-ups like Megaphone and Whooshkaa, Spotify could provide better tools for both the many podcasters who work with Spotify and the marketers who purchase ads on the platform. This week, Spotify expanded its portfolio of podcast tools by acquiring two more companies, Podsights and Chartable.

Ultimately, the goal was to provide a pathway for different kinds of content to make its way onto the platform, as the company made clear when it announced that “audio — not just music — would be the future of Spotify.”

Courting Joe RoganThere was one podcast that executives felt could accelerate Spotify’s growth at the pace the company wanted: “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

Since the show’s debut in 2009, Mr. Rogan, a mixed martial arts enthusiast and comedian, had made himself into a podcasting heavyweight, landing an eclectic range of guests and engaging them in freewheeling, uncensored conversations.

The results could be wildly entertaining, as when Mr. Rogan smoked marijuana with Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla, in 2018. Or they could be inflammatory, as when Mr. Rogan hosted the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — who has spread bogus theories that the 2012 killing of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax — despite Mr. Jones being barred from Spotify for violating its prohibition on hate speech two years prior.

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“The Joe Rogan Experience,” which is Spotify’s biggest podcast in 93 markets, has been accused of spreading misinformation about Covid and vaccines.Credit…Cindy Ord/Getty ImagesMr. Rogan is no standard, one-sided media talking head. He supported Bernie Sanders for president and stumps for universal health care. But he also has some libertarian views and expressed skepticism about vaccines, suggesting that “healthy” young people, for example, do not need to get vaccinated for Covid-19, contrary to what scientists and health officials were urging. The left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America has documented more than 20 instances of what it characterizes as Covid-19 misinformation, bigotry and anti-trans language on Mr. Rogan’s show — in 2021 alone.

Mr. Rogan’s show was one of the biggest success stories in podcasting, but for years it was not available on Spotify. In May 2020, Spotify wooed him with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

After the deal was made official, Mr. Rogan had a message on his show for fans who might fear more corporate control: “It will be the exact same show. I am not going to be an employee of Spotify.”

Spotify’s stock price jumped 17 percent the week the deal was announced.

Concern Within the CompanyFor many rank-and-file employees at Spotify, landing Mr. Rogan was far from something to be celebrated. He was already known for elevating controversial figures like Mr. Jones and Gavin McInnes, founder of the alt-right group the Proud Boys. The news that Mr. Rogan would be joining the platform brought with it an initial wave of concern inside the company, according to several current and former employees.

That reached a flash point in September 2020, when a number of employees pushed back against episodes of Mr. Rogan’s show that they felt were transphobic. One employee group, Spectrum — made up of L.G.B.T. members or supporters — pressed management over why Spotify had made the deal with Mr. Rogan despite knowing how divisive some of his content could be, according to current and former employees who witnessed the events at the time.

There had also been concerns within Spotify that the company had not invested enough in moderation tools to review podcasts, an area known as “trust and safety.” The deluge of podcasts each week introduced new risks about harmful content that the company had not previously dealt with as a music service.

Mr. Ek defended the company’s decisions at the time, while meeting with many of the concerned employee groups to try to assuage their concerns. Management’s position, however, was clear: Mr. Rogan wasn’t going anywhere.

Managing the CrisisAs the months wore on and Mr. Rogan showed no sign of shying away from controversy, more people connected to the company began to speak out against his presence on the platform.

In January, after 270 scientists, medical professionals and others wrote to Spotify to raise alarms about Covid-related misinformation on Mr. Rogan’s show, executives made assurances internally that the company was taking the issue seriously and that it was continuing to review Mr. Rogan’s shows to make sure they were complying with Spotify’s rules, said a person involved in the discussions.

The issue exploded on Jan. 24, when Mr. Young, the rock icon, posted a public letter demanding that his music be removed from Spotify over coronavirus misinformation. “They can have Rogan or Young,” he wrote. “Not both.”

Joni Mitchell followed him off the platform, and within days, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who have their own deal to produce podcasts for Spotify but have produced only one, voiced their own concerns about Covid misinformation on the platform.

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After the musician India.Arie reposted a video compiling Mr. Rogan’s use of a racial slur on his podcast, he apologized and dozens of episodes of his show were removed from Spotify.Credit…Theo Wargo/Getty ImagesAmid the backlash, Mr. Rogan promised to add “balance” to the conversations on his show. But days later, the crisis widened when the R&B singer India.Arie posted a video compilation of Mr. Rogan repeatedly using a racial slur, and said she wished to withdraw her music as well. She and other musicians also used the episode to reiterate long-running complaints that the streaming economy does not pay artists enough.

As the controversy swirled, many Spotify workers felt management was too slow to respond, two current employees said. It also raised alarms on Spotify’s board of directors, where some members have been disappointed by the company’s halting response, according to a person familiar with the events who asked to remain anonymous because of confidentiality agreements.

Signs of a Cultural DivideManagement of the crisis in the United States may have been further complicated because Spotify’s headquarters is nearly 4,000 miles away, in Sweden, where Mr. Ek, a publicity-shy executive who grew up in a suburb of Stockholm, and many of the company’s engineers and longest-tenured employees are based.

Free expression is a deeply held belief in Sweden. Many employees there — and in the United States — were angry when Spotify removed music by R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from playlists in 2018 for content or conduct deemed offensive, a decision the company quickly reversed.

Mr. Ek has made it clear that he is wary of taking on the role of censor. “We’re not in the business of dictating the discourse that these creators want to have on their shows,” he told employees earlier this month in a speech first reported by The Verge, adding that “if we only wanted to make content that we all like and agree with, we will need to eliminate religion, and politics, and comedy, and health, and environment, and education, the list goes on and on and on.”

And as a business matter, censoring Mr. Rogan could alienate his legion of fans and set a slippery precedent with other podcasters, according to Mark Mulligan, an industry analyst with Midia Research.

“That could put at risk their future podcast strategy,” Mr. Mulligan said.

In a recent memo to employees, Mr. Ek wrote that “canceling voices is a slippery slope” but acknowledged that a number of episodes of Mr. Rogan’s show had been removed from the platform. He wrote that Mr. Rogan had decided to remove them after meetings with Spotify executives and “his own reflections.”

Katherine Rosman and Ben Sisario reported from New York, Mike Isaac reported from Oakland, Calif., and Adam Satariano reported from London. Additional reporting was contributed by Nicole Sperling in Los Angeles and Marc Tracy and Jessica Cheung in New York.

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