The market lesson in the Spotify, Joe Rogan drama: Morning Brief [Video]

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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Focus on the fundamentals, ignore the outrage brigades

Since Neil Young noisily departed Spotify in protest over its hosting of Joe Rogan, the platform has endured a slow drip of chart-toppers from a bygone era opting to join Young, and a torrent of bad press. Meanwhile, related Google searches have spiked dramatically in the last few days.

Within the last few days, Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, Graham Nash, India Arie (a personal favorite) have also pulled their music off Spotify (SPOT) in solidarity in an effort to oust the podcaster — by far Spotify’s most popular personality, with 11 million listeners. 

On Sunday, the streaming giant vowed to promote “rules of the road” for its content, and plans to add a content advisory to any podcast episode about COVID-19, Yahoo Finance’s Alexandra Canal reported.

However, in the midst of a clamor to “delete Spotify” the company flatly — and quite correctly — refused calls to jettison Rogan, or “take on the position of a content censor.”

It’s perhaps a symbol (or symptom?) of our outrage-addicted cultural moment that CNBC published an explainer on how to quit Spotify — and even gave Apple (AAPL) Music a free plug in the process, while The New York Times pointedly asked if Spotify has an identity crisis (i.e., is it a music/podcast streaming platform or a media company).

Bloomberg rightly observed that Spotify is being dragged into territory normally reserved for Big Tech offenders like Facebook, Twitter and Google — but missed the mark by suggesting the public was “trapped in Spotify’s cage.” It’s all part of what tech entrepreneur and professional Twitter contrarian Mike Solana recently wrote was a “national rage-apology cycle” that’s “endless.”

There’s a lot that can be said about the Rogan brouhaha: whether it’s worth the breathless headlines (it’s not); whether he’s guilty of “spreading misinformation” as a vaccine skeptic who sometimes interviews people with similar views (a debatable point at best), and whether the effort to de-platform him constitutes censorship (unquestionably, yes).

Reasonable people can disagree. However, whenever a publicly traded company runs afoul of public opinion, it’s best to rely on a few bedrock principles the Morning Brief has invoked before.

Is the controversy rooted in business fundamentals? What do shareholders think, and what does the stock price reflect? And most importantly, can the company in question successfully take a stand against a social media mob?

One canard that emerged last week was that Spotify cost investors billions by choosing Rogan over Young. That idea deserves to be thoroughly debunked.

Last year, a similar canard surfaced during Netflix’s (NFLX) flap over Dave Chappelle, and during Meta’s (FB) scandals over its impact on teenage girls. In both cases, the same principles the Morning Brief raised at the time holds true for Spotify: The stock price will tell the story.

When the Young controversy broke last week, Spotify was one of many high-flying stocks caught in the maelstrom of a market fretting over the coming era of higher interest rates, anathema to investors in general but tech stocks in particular.

Spotify’s stock was behaving accordingly, and not in reaction to what an aging, temperamental musician’s departure would do to the company (or its listeners, who it should be said are the real victims when content gets blacklisted, or music is no longer available). The stock’s woes were more a reflection of a volatile market, and less fears of an artist exodus.

It bears mentioning that, as a couple more names bolted on Tuesday, Spotify jumped by over 3%, in line with a broader market rally. And since hitting a 52-week low on Jan 28, the stock has now rallied by nearly $40. 

And for now at least, Wall Street still likes the stock. Oppenheimer rates it as a Perform (worse than an Outperform but better than an Underperform/Sell rating).

“The artists who are leaving [Spotify] are not necessarily going to take [subscribers] with them,” CFRA analyst John Freeman told Yahoo Finance this week. Stiffer competition from Amazon and Apple are a risk to Spotify going forward, he warned.

Nevertheless, he has a Buy rating on the shares, because “there are some very powerful secular trends that are driving the growth of the company worldwide.”

And in the end, those trends are what matter most to investors — and not social media users with digital pitchforks, in hot pursuit of the latest witch to burn.

By Javier E. David, editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him at @Teflongeek

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