Neil Young, Jeff Bezos does not deserve you

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In recent days Neil Young has been hailed as a hero by some, and vilified by others. Opponents of conspiracy theories have praised his decision to break with Spotify over Joe Rogan’s COVID disinformation. 

What has attracted less discussion is that this bold decision was quickly followed up by a joint promotion with Amazon Music, where Young encouraged his listeners to subscribe to the Spotify competitor in order to receive four free months of the service.

Some more cynical observers have taken to social media to claim that the whole affair has been a grand marketing stunt. So what’s the deal, have we all been swindled? Well, probably not. Neil Young was reportedly not compensated for this partnership, but this does provide an opportunity to discuss the difficulties artists face in today’s music industry, and whether there can be anything approaching ethical consumption in an industry dominated by mega-corporations. 

According to investment site Quantum Marketer, Spotify has a 35% market share of music streaming compared to 15% for Amazon Music. However, unlike Spotify, Amazon Music is part of one of the largest international corporations in the world. On the other hand, Spotify routinely fails to turn a profit most years. 

Amazon, along with its competitor Walmart, is among the vanguard of the anti-union movement, and has come under fire for its grueling working conditions in which some of its employees were forced to urinate in bottles in order to keep up with its demands for speed and efficiency. The environmental impact of Amazon has also come under intense scrutiny.  

Neil Young made his announcement at the same time that Amazon workers in New York were fighting to unionize, with some of their complaints revolving around an insufficient response to safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

So what’s the deal? Is Neil Young just a hypocrite, a stooge for an evil corporation? We’ve got no evidence of this, and it’s probably not that simple. Neil Young has spent his whole life making music full of social commentary, and we should hold him accountable for not standing up for the rights of workers at Amazon, for their policies that hurt consumers and for the environment too. But we should ask ourselves, where else could he go? Apple? Their practices are no better, as illustrated by the notorious series of worker suicides in one of its affiliate factories several years ago.

Neil Young should not be anyone’s role model — perhaps nor should any rock musician — his homophobic past is well known, and throughout the 1980s he flirted with support for Ronald Reagan, who among many other controversial policies made significant cuts to medical research despite the then ongoing AIDS epidemic. Maybe regret over this past support has helped lead Young to his current ultimatum over our current public health emergency? 

We may agree or disagree with Neil Young’s embrace of Amazon during his controversy with Spotify, but we should recognize that just like those of us who are consumers, musicians are left with limited options when it comes to distribution. At the end of the day, whoever they decide is the “lesser evil” is still going to be an evil, and this is an unavoidable part of living in a capitalist system. 

For our part, our impact is not going to come from our purchasing decisions, but rather by what we’re willing to do to change society. If we’re listening to our Amazon Music, are we also showing up to support Amazon workers asking for basic human rights?

Do your best to support working artists, and remember that no corporation will save us. “Keep on Rocking,” and lend your “Heart of Gold” to those struggling for dignity in these trying times. 

Mr. Young, I hope to see you do the same some day. 

Christopher Hill can be reached at [email protected].