In the music streaming wars, no one wins.
Joe Rogan may have made many misleading, racist and transphobic comments on his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, but his language isn’t the only battle being fought on the streaming audio service. Unbeknownst to most users, Spotify has a secret endeavor — the support of the military-industrial complex.
In November 2021, it was announced that Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek’s investment company Prima Materia had invested €100 million ($114 million USD) in Helsing, an artificial intelligence company based out of Europe that assists in military technological ventures. Helsing’s AI technology is reported to assist with battlefield operations, helping to identify and assess multiple collected forms of data via sensors in order to assemble a picturesque viewpoint which military agents could then use at their discretion.
Ek was eager to show off his red hands in the war machine, stating that he was proud to make the deal, “to partner with teams like Helsing.” He also raved about the company, stating that the deal was, ”ambitious, ethical, & driven by a mission to help build a thriving society.”
Why would the CEO of a company whose purpose was to provide instant access to music use its profits to fund efforts of war? Although a report by Marie Charlotte Götting published on Statista stated that in 2021, 73.2 percent of Spotify’s revenue” “went mainly towards royalty payments towards music rightsholders and other fees”, the payout to individual artists who do not have big names are often miniscule. The scale of Ek’s investment in Helsing cuts deep to artists operating within Spotify’s payment distribution model.
However, the support doesn’t stop with direct investments. Spotify also hosts podcasts discussing several elements of military affairs from history, strategy and military technology. One podcast, Modern War Institute, gave an eerily close-to-home discussion about the presence of AI, technology, and its human relationship with war on an episode from last month entitled “The Robotic Revolution is Already Here.” While the program tiptoed around the real world elements of AI, a listener in the know might be able to pick up on some curious overlaps with Spotify’s real world investments. That episode, produced by West Point, talked about AI framework in its nuanced digital forms, connecting author August Cole’s vision of the future of trendlines within the context of the future of conflict, and the role developing technologies such as software and robotics may play in relation to the possible future of war.
“Imagine when we start applying these capabilities and technologies to things in the physical world,” stated Cole, who co-wrote Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution. He continued with a discussion that bid the audience to question, “what the role of the robot will be in the future of war.”
Another podcast, entitled From Balloons to Drones, actively discusses the development of military airfare power from past to the present. Episode 21, which aired in December, discussed how drones are a part of of modern war conflict. Michael J. Boyle, author of The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace stated on the program that, ”There’s also a degree of intimacy to it in the sense that you know your target very well. You know who this person is.” Drone pilots operate in a distanced but intimate way with targets, meaning they will “see them in the morning get up” and “maybe saying goodbye to their family.” Boyle explains pilots “likely connect” with targets to an extent because they’ve watched them for “long periods of time.”
The fact that these particular podcasts are not only hosted on Spotify, but are also available on other music streaming platforms with their own connections to the war machine, is sobering. Discussing these topics while actually collaborating on these militaristic efforts through their investments are even worse.
However, military connections are regularly defended by the companies that support them. Amazon and Microsoft have both reportedly received military contracts to assist with drones. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was adamant and proud of this, stating at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in 2019, “If big tech is going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble, that just can’t happen.”
Yet, despite this news flying under the radar, some artists on the platform have spoken out against Spotify’s military connections. On his Twitter, artist and DJ Darren Sangita wrote, “This is so vile. Music is NOT War! Just wrong on every level.” Sangita pulled his music from the platform when he learned of Ek’s investment and urged others to do so as well. He even went so far as to encourage others who might join him in leaving the platform. Sangita is calling for peace and an end to Spotify‘s involvement in arms corporations. A few other artists followed suit after this announcement, including DJ Michail Stangl aka Opium Hum, DJ Justin Space, and Gothtronica artist Saint Martyn.
But even with heightened awareness about Spotify’s actions, many artists still find their hands tied. Max Collins of rock band Eve 6 has spoken at length on Twitter about how he’s not able to avoid Spotify due to his contractual obligations with his record label, despite frustrations about Spotify’s ties to the military-industrial complex.
Military connections with technology are not exclusive to these streaming giants, however. Someone choosing to purchase from Tesla, for example, may be oblivious to Tesla’s connections to Taiwanese military contracts and police fleets. Someone ordering their groceries online via Amazon may not be aware that Amazon’s Web Services was awarded a highly contested contract to assist in creating an AI driven “war cloud” of services for the U.S. military. Someone doing a Google search (Alphabet, Google’s parent company, also owns Youtube) might not be aware of the company’s desire to work with the Pentagon on another form of war cloud technology, the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, or of previous military contracts contested by 3,100 Google employees. Someone who might be using an Apple piece of wearable technology might not know that the company has also contracted with the military to make wearable and stretchable electronics to be worn by soldiers.
These military tie-ins colliding with so many products and services of our everyday lives bring forward ethics conundrums. How are consumers supposed to operate within this framework? How do artists maintain their ethical integrity but still make a living wage reaching the right amount of fans? It currently remains to be seen. Unlike doctors, these platforms have no moral duty to their consumers or artists. Their higher power is the almighty dollar.
Streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Youtube have no legal obligation to uphold in order to do business. They are empowered partially because we have not insisted one be written for them. If we truly want a future where our music is free of the background of bombs and war, we need to reflect and push for more from the platforms and corporations that bring us our streaming services. It is only with compassionate and purpose-driven consideration that we can all dance to a more free and peaceful beat together.