Spotify CEO explains issue of artists’ pay, says it’s “hard to change the narrative”

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After years of criticism over how artists are paid through streaming, many people still think Spotify doesn’t pay the artists who are featured on its platform fairly. CEO and founder Daniel Ek has been trying to clear that up.

“We don’t pay artists directly,” Ek told CBS News’ Gayle King.

“[Artists] have their deals with their record companies and their deals with their publishers, et cetera,” he said. “And what Spotify does is we pay out to those record companies and these publishers, and don’t know what individual deals these artists may have.”

Spotify created a website in 2021 called “Loud & Clear” to clarify exactly who receives payments. But Ek said he wishes he had handled the issue differently.

“It’s a complex topic,” he said. “But I wish I would’ve handled it up front. And it’s very hard to change the narrative once that narrative has established itself.”

“That’s, I guess, the lesson learned from my side,” he added.

Ek said when he started Spotify in 2006, his dream was to combine his favorite interests – technology, computers and music – into one platform. Spotify says it is now the music industry’s No. 1 revenue generator, paying out more than $40 billion as of 2022. The platform also now has half a billion users. 

Ek said it’s been “an emotional roller coaster,” adding, “it never stops.” 

“It’s been the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done in my life besides my kids,” he said, but noted, “it’s not for the fainthearted.”

Alongside the topic of artists’ pay, Spotify has been criticized over issues related to content moderation. In 2020, the company announced an exclusive licensing deal with the No. 1 podcast in the world: “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which has been a source of controversy for the company. Last year, 270 doctors wrote to Spotify about Rogan spreading misinformation about COVID-19. 

Since then, Spotify has added a link to resources on COVID-19 on Rogan’s episodes, and has taken down dozens of his episodes that don’t meet their community guidelines.

But just last month, Rogan made a comment perpetuating an antisemitic stereotype, in an episode that is still up on the platform. 

The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League called out Rogan, saying, “Disturbing that at a time of rising anti-Jewish violence, when growing numbers of Americans believe in antisemitic conspiracy theories, [Joe Rogan] would use his immense platform to spew antisemitic tropes about Jews and money.” 

Ek said he found the comment “highly offensive” but defended the company’s practices. 

“We have these guidelines where if people are subjecting other people to harm, we do take action,” Ek said. “But, I think it is important that we are a place that allows a lot of diverse voices to be able to express themselves, to be able to communicate through art.”

“There are a lot of things that I disagree with that Joe Rogan and lots of other voices are saying on our platform as well. But I come back to it: is this violating our terms of service or not? And if it is, then we take it down. And if you take antisemitic comments, we’ve taken down thousands of podcasts that have violated our platform rules.”

“And in the broader context, it’s probably hundreds of thousands of episodes that are violating other terms and services as well. So we do take that very seriously,” he said.

Ek said he doesn’t decide what gets removed and what stays, saying Spotify has experts and a Safety Advisory Council “that take those actions.”

“I think it’s really important that this isn’t just a decision that’s made by me,” he said. “It is made by a diverse group of people too, with a varied perspective. … And the same rules apply to Joe Rogan as it would to any other podcaster.”

Ek wouldn’t say whether or not Rogan’s contract will be renewed, amid reports that it is up at the end of the year.  

“What I can say is the contract, I believe, has some more time to go than that. So we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.

For now, Spotify is in the midst of a big change. At its Stream On event in Los Angeles Wednesday, Ek revealed major changes to the platform’s user experience, including an “entirely new” home feed that is “completely redesigned from the ground up.”

Ek said Spotify took inspiration from the evolution of social media and added a “unique Spotify twist.”

“I don’t want people to think that we’re making this to be like TikTok,” he said. “We’re making it to be a much more interactive Spotify.”

Ek said a big focus for him is simple: “You have to live in the future.”

“And for me, the future is always the young people. What are they doing in various cultures?” he said. “Every few years in the industry someone brings something out from a design perspective that’s just [a] much, much better way for people to interact with it.”

Changes in Ek’s industry extend beyond design, as companies embrace major developments in artificial intelligence

Ek said AI technology does – and doesn’t – scare him.

“On a broader scale it is kinda crazy to imagine what the world may look like in five or 10 years if we go to what people call AGI, artificial general intelligence,” Ek said.

“Which basically means that you have an AI that might be smarter than any human alive, right?” he said. “So that’s kind of daunting to think about, what the consequences might be for humanity, as we’re there. And I think we have to be very careful about it.”

“But at the same time, on the other side, it’s also so obvious that AI can help so much by making, you know, both experiences better and easier for all of us to deal with,” he said.” And that’s pretty much in every single field.”

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