Artists, music listeners ditching Spotify over vaccine disinformation

Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell has joined her compatriot Neil Young in pulling her catalogue from streaming service Spotify.

"I've decided to remove all my music from Spotify. Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives. I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue," she said in a statement.

Young quit Spotify earlier this week, alleging podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience were platforming vaccine disinformation.

Rogan's podcast is the most listened to on the streaming service, drawing 11 million listeners per episode. Spotify reportedly paid US$100m for the rights to the podcast.

While Rogan is yet to publicly respond, his fans have accused Young of supporting censorship, something he denies.

"I support free speech. I have never been in favor of censorship. Private companies have the right to choose what they profit from, just as I can choose not to have my music support a platform that disseminates harmful information," Young said in a follow-up statement.

Some listeners are taking Young and Mitchell's side, taking to social media to say they're jumping ship to rival services like Tidal and Apple Music.

"For a lot of people it's just a handy, useful part of their lives and they'll just keep using it. But for some, in increasing numbers, this will be the final nudge that'll make them go 'well OK, I'm going to use other platforms'," says music journalist Grant Smithies.

It comes as Spotify's value fell by US$4 billion in just one week. While Young isn't solely to blame for the slide, a wave of customers cancelling and artists bailing could spook investors.

Smithies says this latest controversy could be the tipping point, on top of Spotify's reputation for paying artists poorly.

"It's not like a lot of other musicians are running to the aid of Spotify, defending Spotify against this, because they've been seen as an exploitative company for a long time," he says.

He expects more artists to pull their catalogues in the coming days.

"The more people join this boycott, the more and more they'll be getting shaky. It's bad publicity on top of a lot of previous bad publicity."

For now, Spotify may feel it can afford to lose one or two 'legacy artists' like Young or Mitchell, whose fans are likely to own their music on vinyl or CD.

"Joni Mitchell's not a massive issue for them, Spotify tends to be younger, some people will miss her but probably not that many," says Matt Deegan, host of The Media podcast.

But others could have the power to make Spotify reconsider.

"The problem is, [Mitchell's] one of Taylor Swift's favourite acts," says Deegan.

"And if she suddenly said, 'ooh, I stand with Joni Mitchell', then that becomes much more problematic."

The controversy has also provoked debate on Spotify's content moderation responsibilities, and freedom of expression.

"Spotify is a platform for artists and creative expression. Artists need to express things that we find uncomfortable, which makes regulating artistic expression difficult," says Tom Barraclough, director and consultant at consultancy company Brainbox.

"Freedom of expression isn't just about protecting powerful people. It's also about protecting the rights of vulnerable people. Any suggestion to limit freedom of expression therefore needs careful reflection."

Barraclough says large tech companies are facing a difficult issue: how to moderate content and where to draw the line on what people can or cannot say.

"Podcasts are particularly difficult when it comes to content moderation. That's because they are comprised of live audio of human speech, which requires different automated detection methods than for text, video or imagery. Automated detection methods can be unreliable. They also require human oversight and appeal processes."

And there's a protest of a different kind with British singer James Blunt tweeting a warning: "If @spotify doesn't immediately remove @joerogan, I will release new music onto the platform."

That could be a threat too big for Spotify to ignore.