Who will decide what we can listen to? Spotify

The music service Spotify is scrubbing its playlist of any content of any hate speech, a move aimed at rapper R Kelly, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual violence against them.

The action will wipe out music that “principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.”

But it also will eliminate music of artists who are accused of inciting hatred or violence.

It’s a policy “doomed to failure,” Reason’s Christian Britschgi|writes, citing rock classics that could — technically — fall to the new policy.

“Take Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing,’ Britschgi writes, which reached the top spot on the Billboard charts back in 1985 and now has been streamed some 88 million times on Spotify. This popular rock song contains such gems as

“See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up
Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire”

The Southern Poverty Law Center will guide Spotify in making the distinction in music. That’s a problem, Britschgi says.

Inevitably, some songs will cross lines of acceptable expression. Part of musical exploration is finding where that line is for yourself. But now Spotify plans to put itself in the role of defining where that line has to be, undercutting its own value as a library for listeners to explore.

It’s not censorship, counters NewStatesman’s Nic Wright because Kelly’s music isn’t being removed; it’s being changed with a remix. But Spotify won’t promote any of the music via its algorithm.

Spotify is making a choice – one that it will either be rewarded or punished for depending on how it is seen by its users. It’s no different in a moral sense to a music venue or record store choosing not to prominently feature artists which it feels do not align with the beliefs of its staff and customers.

While it’s possible to say that Spotify has now placed itself in the role of musical moral arbiter, it’s worth noting that not acting is a political statement in itself. Choosing to let R Kelly remain on its curated playlists would also have sent a message. In practical terms though, the company will now face calls to address issues with other artists, and a sustained outcry from fans of those that it does decide to push from playlists.

“Given these compelling allegations [against Kelly], it’s perfectly reasonable for a publicly owned company like Spotify to want to distance itself from such toxic public figures,” Daily Beast’s Aram Sinnreich concludes.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a black-and-white situation. (Or white-and-gold, for that matter.) To begin with, do we really want Spotify making these kinds of decisions for us? The company currently supplies music to 170 million monthly users, nearly half of whom pay for the privilege of accessing its catalog of tens of millions of songs on demand. Whatever its good intentions, this is a massively powerful and influential company, and we should be very wary when it uses that power selectively to remove individual songs and artists from its catalog.

There’s a long history of powerful institutions making decisions on behalf of the general public, he says, and it rarely ends well.

(h/t: P Tosto)

  • Gary F

    “The Southern Poverty Law Center will guide Spotify in making the distinction in music. That’s a problem, ”

    Yes it is.

    They really opened a Pandora’s Box here, didn’t they?

  • wjc

    BTW, the “Money For Nothing” lyrics are not written as an opinion of the songwriter, but how less knowledgeable / more reactionary / more homophobic people perceive rock musicians and what they do.

    • Jim in RF

      Yeah, that’s how I take them too. Interpreting lyrics is a rabbit hole (“American Pie,” anyone?), but I read them as making fun of the delivery guy’s homophobic rant. It’s a little like people who haven’t read it carefully banning Huck Finn.

      • Gary F

        Clampdown from The Clash. Oh, SPLC might be OK with that one.

        • Rob

          Not sure how a song about fighting against oppression would qualify as a song Spotify would look to ban under their new rubric.

          • Gary F

            Catholic Laity isn’t too pleased with some of the lyrics. But then, its OK to disparage the Catholic Church.

          • Rob

            The Catholic church has done its share of oppression throughout the centuries, so if it feels called out by The Clash, I’m not seeing the problem.

          • Mitch Berg

            The song attacked the racism of Brit public sector unions. Attacking Big Left is hate.

            Joe Strummer is credibly rumored to have quietly become a conservative in the years before he died. The SPLC will never allow his legacy to do lunch in Manhattan again.

          • Rob

            Booshwa. Give me a cite regarding Joe Strummer being //credibly rumored to have become a conservative in the years before he died.//

          • Mitch Berg

            Enh. Read it in an article about Strummer somewhere. I could go and look for it, but to be honest it just isn’t that important to me right now.

  • Erik Petersen

    We’re a Pandora family, though they do lack for a sea shanty channel

  • John

    Did they change their stance? Originally, when they announced this, my understanding was that Spotify wasn’t removing the content from the service, but would be removing R Kelly (and whomever else) from their own curated playlists.

    I see no issue with that – the music is still there, but they are not promoting it. It’s no different than any other reason that they may/may not put a given artist on playlists that they curate.

    If they’ve changed the plan, and are now removing musicians from the platform completely, then that’s a different issue, and I’m less comfortable with it (though they’re probably within their rights to exclude whatever music they want from the platform, for whatever reasons they want).

    edit; I reread the above – they’re not removing R Kelly, they’re just no longer promoting him. The music is still there if you want to listen to it, but you’ll have to seek it out – the shuffling algorithms won’t just put it in. Feels like much ado about nothing to me.

    • boB from WA

      I would agree that this is probably much ado about nothing. However i see it as whatever streams you listen to (including all those at MPR) there is some sort of curating going on, and that in the end no matter what you listen to that isn’t your own playlist, you will be at the mercy/grace of whoever chooses what is to be played.

      • John

        A much more succinct way of getting at what I was attempting to say.

        (Even your own playlist is limited by what you have heard somewhere before).

    • crystals

      I’m with you. Removing his stuff from selected (and promoted) playlists is entirely different than removing his stuff altogether. People can still choose to listen to R. Kelly and many other artists of questionable character on Spotify if they choose to.

      Let’s all take a deep breath.

  • wjc

    I would never listen to R. Kelly’s music based in part on his character (as captured in the allegations) and in part based on the music itself. That being said, I don’t need a service like Spotify making that decision for me.

    • John

      The service makes that decision for you in every playlist or shuffle that you listen to (on this or any other service) – the only difference, as far as I can see, is they’re being transparent about the reasoning in this case.

  • Gary F

    And the timing of this is not good also. They just went public. I’d get out quick.

  • Rob

    Wow. There’s tons of songs throughout the decades whose lyrics could readily be seen as hateful or as encouraging or describing harmful or criminal acts against others; misogynistic, stalker-like music abounds. Why, for example, is The Police’s stalker anthem, “Every Breath You Take,” or the Rolling Stone’s piggy “Under My Thumb” more worthy of being on Spotify than any given R Kelly tune?

    This attempt by Spotify to sanitize its song selections is bound to end badly.
    I look for them to announce a reversal very shortly.

    • John

      Because both those guys are English, so it’s okay.

      edit: note the sarcastic tone in my voice.

  • Gary F

    The Southern Poverty Law Center, the new arbitrator of what’s acceptable and the go to source for the anti-free speech crowd.

    • Rob

      I disagree with your characterization of the group, but am gobsmacked by SPLC’s participation in Spotify’s content-based song lyric regulation.

      • seedhub

        What lyrics are are Spotify and SPLC “regulating”?

        • X.A. Smith

          Probably skinhead neo-nazi music.

    • Veronica

      First Amendment free speech rights do not apply to corporations.

    • RBHolb

      So a private media company decides, for whatever reason, that they don’t want to carry a particular artist’s music for whatever reason.

      Why is that a blow to free speech? Has R. Kelly been arrested? Is he denied any other outlet? When did “free speech” start to mean the right to say anything without consequences?

      I’ll bet you’re in a high dudgeon over the way Colin Kaepernick is being treated by the NFL.

  • Postal Customer

    Spotify isn’t the only streaming service, not by a long shot. it’s the most popular, sure, but that can change.

  • jon

    Remember back when the only person who decided what you listened to was a radio DJ under the direction of the FCC (mostly for what words needed to be bleeped out), and of course corporate overlords at clear channel communications…

    What are we outraged about again?
    Seems like we never had a completely free choice about what we’d listen to… and that tradition continuing into the digital age vs. the analog age doesn’t seem like a major shift… particularly when there are other options (like there were in the analog age).

    • Rob

      Never been a fan of any kind of censorship, but at least with “The Seven Dirty Words That Are Radio and TV No-nos,” it’s an unambiguous, very short list.

    • Jim in RF

      Johnny Fever got fired for saying “booger” on the air.

      • Rob

        I remember that episode. He was about to spin some Parliament/Funkadelic and said: “Booger down, people!” as he cued up the song.

  • Tyler

    Just to clarify – what Spotify is doing is removing Kelly;s from its promoted playlists. They are not removing his songs from the service. If you search for his songs, you will still be able to find them and play them.

  • Nato Coles

    Responding to everyone complaining about potential censorhip of “hate speech” by Spotify: right now, I’m not seeing anything about Spotify taking down R. Kelly because of his lyrics – rather, his criminal actions outside of his art have brought the hammer down.

    I don’t think we need to worry too much about Dire Straits, the Clash, and those bands being taken down from Spotify for “hate speech”. I don’t use Spotify… but it seems G.G. Allin is available and I’m not going to be too worried unless they start removing the G.G. Allins of the music world.

  • Barton

    I suspect R Kelly’s downloads will actually go up as a result of this news. “Back in my day” I remember scouring the Cities looking for the uncensored 2 Live Crew album, simply because it was censored. I didn’t even really like the music, but it was something that was forbidden/restricted access.

    So, Spotify is removing certain songs from playlists: people are absolutely going to search these out.

    • Veronica

      Are they?
      The better parallel to draw is between Kelly and Roman Polanski, not Kelly and 2 Live Crew.

      • Nato Coles

        Exactly. People somehow are missing that it’s his behavior in his personal life, not his lyrics/music, that is causing all of this. He’s finally being held to account.

  • seedhub

    Who will decide what we can listen to on Spotify? Spotify. As they should. If you don’t like it, just use another service.

  • EB

    For what it’s worth, SPLC is only one of at least seven organizations Spotify is working with, according to https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2018/05/10/610051559/starting-with-r-kelly-spotify-pulls-artists-from-playlists-for-hateful-conduct

  • Joe

    What a weird take, Bob.

    Spotify has decided to no longer glorify serial abusers in their curated playlists. And you think that is… bad? Somehow a slippery slope, as though if we don’t constantly glorify those who abuse, we might lose our freedoms?

    It’s a little easy for Spotify in this case since he’s no longer releasing popular music, but still, a net positive.

    • Where did I say it’s bad? Or good.

      Spoiler: Nowhere.

      • Joe

        Well you phrased it fairly provocatively. The title is obviously not true. A song is being removed from a playlist (which you almost certainly don’t listen to anyway). How does that decide what you *can* listen to? It doesn’t.

        I assumed you had a reason for phrasing things in such a misleading way, i.e. that you were opposed to the idea. I could write an article “Bob is Trying to Take Away All Our Freedoms” and then hide behind the fact that I never explicitly said it was bad, even though you would rightfully assume that I thought it was bad from that hyperbolic headline.

    • Veronica

      And it’s not just Spotify. Apple Music and Pandora are doing the same.

  • Mitch Berg

    Richard Wagner was quite the anti-semite. Will the SPLC, Spotify (and Classical 99.5, for that matter) be banning him forthwith?

    • Rob

      If it makes you feel any better, Mitch, Spotlight and SPLC are also banning “The Producers” soundtrack. So you’ll need to catch “Springtime For Hitler” elsewhere.

      • Mitch Berg

        ” f it makes you feel any better,”

        It does not.