Who’s next? As it snubs R. Kelly, Spotify opens a moral can of worms

spotify hate policy r kelly

On Thursday, Spotify implemented its new Hate Content & Hateful Conduct Policy, which outlines the streaming platform’s ethical ideology, renouncing not only music with hateful and discriminatory messaging, but also artists whose actions — whether espoused musically or not — qualify as “harmful or hateful.”

The first two casualties of the new policy are R&B star R. Kelly — currently in the midst of a lengthy investigation triggered by allegations that the singer has long been engaging sexually with underage women and even, in some cases, abducting them and holding them against their will — and 20-year-old hip-hop sensation XXXTentacion, who has cultivated a contentious reputation through a series of public feuds, violent assaults, and controversial posts on social media promoting his music and his lifestyle. Young rapper Tay-K, who faces multiple murder charges at age 17, has also been axed, though to less fanfare.

That’s not all: According to Pitchfork, Apple Music has quietly been phasing Kelly’s music out of its own curated playlists over the past several weeks, though several dedicated R. Kelly playlists remain active. (Apple has not officially commented on the matter; Pitchfork’s source is “[a person] close to the matter.”) Pandora has also stopped promoting Kelly’s music, though it’s unclear whether this means he’ll stop showing up in computer-generated radio stations. Neither platform has levied any such penalties against XXXTentacion or Tay-K.

While Spotify’s decision to remove Kelly and XXXTentacion’s (birth name: Jahseh Onfroy) music from all Spotify playlists — this includes algorithmic playlists like Discover Weekly in addition to curated playlists — is reasonably justifiable from a moral standpoint, it raises a new set of questions surrounding the role of streaming platforms in the public consumption of music, questions which could conceivably apply elsewhere in the entertainment world.

Despite denials from his legal counsel (calling accusers “instigators and liars who have their own agenda for seeking profit and fame”) and no criminal proceedings of yet, Kelly’s culpability seems a foregone conclusion at this point. As with the ugly Bill Cosby saga, the proverbial woodwork appears rife with victims who, until now, lacked the courage (and, indeed, the promise of being taken seriously) to come forward with claims about Kelly’s alleged predations. The piper is on a sinking ship, and his rats are fleeing. A leaked video showing Kelly himself saying “It’s too late, they should have done this 30 years ago” isn’t helping his case, either.

Kelly’s not a convicted felon, and despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, nothing has been officially proven in court. Still, the decision-makers at Spotify saw fit to take action, likely in hopes of limiting Kelly’s streams (and, thus, his royalty payments). Meanwhile, the same punishment was meted out to Onfroy, who does have a comprehensive rap sheet, but whose public image resides in a sort of gray space. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to voice support for Kelly by now, but Tentacion’s fanbase is as vocal and active (if not as numerous) as his detractors.

Further, Onfroy’s entire career has existed in the Spotify streaming era. Artists might not get paid much per song stream (even after January’s court-mandated increases), but many of his 20 million-plus followers might have found his music through those same Spotify-endorsed playlists from which the rapper now finds himself excluded. He may have made his name on Soundcloud first, but Spotify is the music-streaming king, and fluctuations in its formula can shape the music industry.

Onfroy’s fame, as with many of his contemporaries, derives somewhat from a perception of honesty, even if that honesty depicts actions typically considered immoral. The removal of his music from Spotify playlists begs questions of subjectivity; after all, rappers (and musicians in general) aren’t necessarily known as paragons of virtue. Other young stars, like 6ix9ine (sometimes stylized as Tekashi69) — who pled guilty to one felony count of Use of a Child in a Sexual Performance in 2015 and later admitted it was “for [the benefit of his] image” — and Bobby Shmurda, currently serving 7 years in prison for conspiracy to murder, have seen no such sanctions from Spotify.

Who decides which artists (and which songs) are in violation of Spotify’s new policy? At risk of sounding dramatic, there’s no rubric for morality. You can’t say “Song X has Y curse words in it, this is where we draw the line” without upsetting certain listeners, whose outrage might well be justified. Is it even Spotify’s right to make these decisions? Last year, Spotify removed entirely a number of musical groups promoting white supremacy — a choice few would argue, I’m sure — in addition to some metal bands with offensive names (like Infant Annihilator). Yet those decisions came before the official policy’s implementation, and further, some bands with equally offensive names (see: Anal Cunt, Dying Fetus) went unscathed. What gives? Some have speculated that those bands’ associations with major labels tied Spotify’s hands.

Perhaps more interesting is the potential for Spotify’s policy to promote similar changes within the entertainment industry. Imagine if Netflix decided to remove all films produced by the Weinstein Company or all of Louis C.K.’s comedy shows from its library.

I can’t stand XXXTentacion, or 6ix9ine. They strike me as immature attention hogs, lazy lyricists, and generally reprehensible human beings. Similarly, I don’t foresee myself getting down to R. Kelly tunes anytime soon, which saddens me, because I did like some of his stuff. That said, I’m not sure how I feel about Spotify’s actions.

Do I think the removal of these artists from certain playlists will impact their bottom lines? Not particularly. In fact, the extra publicity might be a boon for younger artists who clearly subscribe to the “any press is good press” school of thought. (Update: Kelly’s numbers actually went up a bit, while Onfroy’s dipped.) Still, the possibility remains for abuse of such policies, both by Spotify and by any other company that follows suit. I encourage listeners to consider the ethical impact of their fandom and to ignore crappy “artists” like 6ix9ine altogether, but far be it from me to decide who you can or can’t listen to.

Spotify built a platform which has become a premier destination for music discovery, but to borrow the words of one Uncle Ben: With great power comes great responsibility. Use it wisely.

Update: Spotify has decided to reinstate XXXTentacion in promotional playlists following criticism from artists like Kendrick Lamar, who argued that the policy was set up to target artists of color. Kelly will not receive the same treatment.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Music

Music to our ears: Spotify at long last arrives on the Apple Watch

Spotify subscribers are now able to jam out to their favorite tunes on their favorite workout accessory, as the Swedish streaming service has finally released its official Apple Watch app.
Music

Jam out in style with the 25 best playlists on Spotify

Music is the world's most potent drug, and the best playlists on Spotify will make you catch feelings. We've scoured the service for its top collections, and brought them together in one place -- for you.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (November 2018)

Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be an undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Music

The best movie soundtracks of all time, from 'Star Wars' to 'E.T.'

Whether you're a lover of beautifully composed original scores or a fan of perfectly compiled popular music, these are the best movie soundtracks of all time — from Star Wars to Garden State.
Music

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Digital Trends Live

Hip-hop artist Rakeem Miles talks musical upbringing, ‘Dante’s Toys’

Rakeem Miles may be best known for his musical endeavors, but he's looking to change that with his forthcoming animated show. On Monday's DT Daily, we discuss Miles' origins, what drives his passions, his favorite superhero, and more.
Home Theater

Looking for a podcast? Pandora’s Podcast Genome Project is just the ticket

Pandora has created a brand new service for podcast listeners. Powered by calls the Podcast Genome Project, the new podcast offering uses an advanced combination of algorithms and human curation to deliver the perfect podcasts for you.
Home Theater

Get the most boom for your buck with the best headphones under $100

Everybody wants a bargain, and this list has a bunch. For those looking for a solid set of headphones without spending a big stack of cash, this list is is your starting point. Check out our picks for the best headphones under $100.
Home Theater

5 gorgeous turntables that spin stacks of wax in style for less than $500

Vinyl records are awesome, but they're also finicky. To get the best out of your stacks of wax, it's best to play them on a quality turntable. Here are the best turntables to be had for under $500.
Digital Trends Live

DT Daily: Waymo’s driverless cars, ‘Fallout 76’ tips, and Racella

In today's episode of DT Daily, we discuss Waymo's foray into the ridesharing sector, along with various tips for making the most of the recently launched Fallout 76. We also sit down with singer Racella to chat about her new EP, Waves.
Home Theater

A recent Twitter leak may show the upcoming AirPods 2 model

Apple plans to release new AirPods much the same as it does new iPhones, and a wireless charging case, water resistance, and better Siri integration are among the improvements we can expect in future models.
Music

How to convert and play FLAC music files on your iPhone or iPad

The high-resolution revolution is upon us, and FLAC files are a popular way to store hi-res sound. But what if you’re an iOS user? Check out our article to find out more about FLAC files, and how to use them on Apple devices.
Music

The best new music this week: Anderson .Paak, Ryley Walker, and more

Are you looking for the best new music? Each week, we scour the internet to find the most compelling new releases just for you. On tap this week: Anderson .Paak, Ryley Walker, and Tyler the Creator.
Computing

Don't use streaming apps? These are the best free players for your local music

Rather than using music streaming apps, you may want something for playing your local music. Good news! There are some good alternatives. These are the best media players you can download for free on Windows.