Spotify Ushers in a Brave New World With Its “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct” Policy
I’ve been waiting curiously to see how the music industry would react to the cultural shift the #MeToo movement has caused, and Spotify has fired off one hell of a shot. On May 10, the streaming giant announced its new policy on “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct”. In a press release, Spotify explained:
“When we are alerted to content that violates our policy, we may remove it (in consultation with rights holders) or refrain from promoting or playlisting it on our service.”
Don’t skim over the word “playlisting” — it’s where all the meat is.
Spotify produces and heavily promotes playlists that are either curated by tastemakers or generated by algorithms. These playlists are huge for discoverability on the site. The exposure can be instrumental in launching new artists and can help more-established artists’ keep their back catalogues in rotation. Being banished from Spotify’s playlists isn’t exactly a death sentence (most offenders’ music would remain available to stream on the site), but it would be an enormous blow to any artist.
Spotify didn’t just shake the table with its announcement of its new policy, though. It bared its teeth, and made examples of R. Kelly, XXXTentacion, and Tay K. Spotify will no longer promote or playlist any of these artists’ work.
R. Kelly has been embroiled in allegations of the sexual abuse of minors ever since it was revealed that he’d married a then 15 year-old Aaliyah in 1994 (Kelly was 25 at the time, and the marriage was thankfully annulled). He’s most recently come under scrutiny for allegedly holding women as sex-slaves at his homes.
Nothing has ever stuck to R. Kelly in criminal proceedings, but in his 2004 trial for child pornography, the judge prevented pornographic photos of him with under-aged girls from being presented as evidence, because the police violated procedure while searching his home. There was a smoking gun. R. Kelly is what people are claiming he is; he was just able to get off on a technicality.
It was only a matter of time before the #MuteRKelly movement gathered enough momentum to take down a predator. Spotify severing ties with Kelly after key members of his management and P.R. teams jumped ship and radio stations stopped playing his music could be put down to the company dodging the bullet of getting caught out with an R. Kelly feature on its launch page when more horrible news about him inevitably surfaces.
XXXTentacion and Tay K are different situations, though.
17 year-old rapper, Tay K, is currently awaiting trial for a slew of charges, including a murder, which took place while he was on the run from the authorities after having cut his ankle bracelet and fled house arrest. He is facing the death penalty.
20 year-old rapper, XXXTentacion, is under house arrest awaiting trial for charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering. The charges stem from an alleged attack on his then live-in girlfriend, who testified to being subjected to routine physical and emotional abuse by the rapper.
Getting into all the allegations leveled against Tay K and XXXTentacion would take ages, so I’ll just say there’s plenty more and social media activity from both of them that only makes things look worse.
XXXTentacion was on the verge of becoming a breakout star when his legal troubles ballooned. His second studio album, ?, released earlier this year, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Since Spotify announced its new policy, streams of his song SAD! are decreasing at a rate of 17% per day. This is a huge financial hit. Tay K has yet to release a studio album, but streams from his mixtapes are probably way down too, along with the numbers for his hit song, The Race, which chronicles his outlaw lifestyle and peaked at number 44 on the Billboard 200.
Neither of the young rappers’ cases has been adjudicated, and there aren’t decades of ever-thickening smoke, and clear pictorial and videotaped evidence as there was with R. Kelly. They’re also at the beginning of their careers and don’t have the fan base R. Kelly does. Spotify’s decision to refuse to promote or playlist their music may do irreversible damage to them.
Is what we know about Tay K and XXXTentacion and their bad behavior enough to justify destroying their careers?
I honestly don’t know the answer to this question or where the line should be drawn. Private companies can choose whom they do business with, but being capricious with the kind of immense power Spotify possesses is ill-advised.
Requiring court-adjudicated “guilty” verdicts before excluding an artist from Spotify’s playlists is too high a bar — there’s too much nastiness that will go unaddressed. And smacking every person who makes a living being “controversial” with the Hammer of Thor would catch a lot of jerks who are just in it for the shock value, but it would also suppress plenty of valuable art being made by creative people who are pushing boundaries.
By publicly appointing itself as an adjudicator, Spotify has put itself between a rock and a hard place.
It’s not surprising that out of the gate Spotify is focusing on the conduct and not the content portion of its hate policy. Condemning content, no matter how lacking it is in artistic merit, is dangerous business. Plenty of great art offends, and plenty of terrible art is widely pleasing. The only thing that is certain about art is that there will never be any true consensus about what fits the bill. Spotify is already making careful decisions about what content it promotes, and will likely end up regretting using that process as a mechanism to discipline artists.
That three Black men are the first people Spotify chose to mete this draconian punishment out to is disquieting, as is how young two of them are. What these decisions boil down to is determining who deserves the benefit of the doubt. Who gets the chance to defend themselves? Whom do we value? Who gets thrown in the trash? Who gets the opportunity for redemption?
In my assessment, R. Kelly’s punishment is well-deserved and long overdue. I’m less sure about XXXTentacion and Tay K.
Spotify’s test cases show that rappers will be firmly in the crosshairs of its new policy. And this is where things get knotty. Rap is the most popular genre of music in the world. It is a cash cow. It isn’t in Spotify’s interest to rock the boat too much. This raises questions about how much of Spotify’s outrage against XXXTentacion and Tay K is performative. Are they being sacrificed so Spotify can get ahead of criticism for cheerfully promoting problematic artists who produce content filled violent, misogynistic lyrics? How much of this is culling the injured antelope who’ve been left behind by the herd? Are XXXTentacion and Tay K simply easy targets? Are rappers, in general, easy targets?
None of this may matter in the long run. Even without Spotify’s intervention, a reckoning of some sort is on the horizon for the music industry, particularly for anything hip hop adjacent. #MeToo will continue to pick up rocks the industry doesn’t want moved. A lot of ugly stories from credible sources are going to come out. There already seems to be pre-emptive scrambling to prepare.
Many hip hop fans are finally going to have to face and grapple with the mountains of evidence showing that the men who have been rapping about violence and misogyny for decades are violent misogynists. Shrugging it off as “it’s just a song” isn’t going to fly anymore. Artists with cleaner images and more family-friendly catalogues will also be exposed, as will many executives. Lines will be drawn, and careers will be ended.
I’m unsure if all of this will shift the landscape and trajectory of the music business. It may mean more “conscious” artists will find their way onto those highly coveted playlist spots. Or maybe things will remain the same.
This should all come down to consumer choice, to us voting with our dollars. But what’s becoming clearer is how much our choices are being programmed. Spotify’s playlists decide what many of its users listen to. Just the way radio programming used to. There have always been masters of the universe. We know this, but it is incredibly uncomfortable to have one of them tell us so in such certain terms.