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Music Streaming, Hateful Conduct and Censorship

Written by Rebecca Brown

Last month, one of the largest music streaming services in the world, Spotify, announced a new ‘hate content and hateful conduct’ policy. In it, they state that “We believe in openness, diversity, tolerance and respect, and we want to promote those values through music and the creative arts.” They condemn hate content that “expressly and 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.” Content that is found to fulfil these criteria may be removed from the service, or may cease to be promoted, for example, through playlists and advertisements. Spotify further describe how they will approach “hateful conduct” by artists: 

We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions – what we choose to program – to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

An immediate consequence of this policy was the removal from featured playlists of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, two American R&B artists. Whilst the 20 year old XXXTentacion has had moderate success in the US, R. Kelly is one of the biggest R&B artists in the world. As a result, the decision not to playlist R. Kelly attracted significant attention, including accusations of censorship and racism. Subsequently, Spotify backtracked on their decision, rescinding the section of their policy on hateful conduct and announcing regret for the “vague” language of the policy which “left too many elements open to interpretation.” Consequently, XXXTentacion’s music has reappeared on playlists such as Rap Caviar, although R. Kelly has not (yet) been reinstated. The controversy surrounding R. Kelly and Spotify raises questions about the extent to which commercial organisations, such as music streaming services, should make clear moral expressions. 
I shan’t discuss the accusations directed against R. Kelly in detail here (there is plenty of further information available online for those who seek it). Briefly, R. Kelly has been accused of numerous sexual offences, including sex with underage girls, possession of child pornography, and holding women against their will in an abusive cult. Whilst R. Kelly has been charged in relation to some of these, he has not been found guilty of any sexual offences. He has, however, made settlements out of court with some of the accusers.

Spotify’s initial decision seems to have been influenced in part by pressure from groups such as TIME’S UP and the #MeToo movement, which have gained traction in the wake of revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s inappropriate and abusive behaviour towards women. A campaign was started called #MuteRKelly, which demanded that R. Kelly’s record label, concert promoters, and music streaming services cut links with the artist.

Other music streaming services, including Apple Music and Pandora, also appear to have taken steps to distance themselves from R. Kelly. Pitchfork reports that Apple Music begun to stop promoting R. Kelly through its featured playlists prior to the initial Spotify announcement, and that Pandora has also stopped promoting his music. On both these services (as with Spotify) R. Kelly’s music is still available to play – it has not been removed from the service altogether, but the actions taken by Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora make it less likely that users will come across his music spontaneously or be recommended it. Playlists have become an important feature of services such as Spotify, with curated playlists for particular genres, moods, activities, or decades designed to make it easier for people to find music they’re likely to enjoy, and to provide personalised recommendations to listeners. Exclusion from these playlists will mean less exposure and fewer listeners, particularly for artists with a lower profile. Inclusion can all but guarantee a hit.


So, should the actions of Spotify and other music streaming services have been considered censorship of R. Kelly, as a number of fans and free speech advocates asserted? Classically, artistic censorship is focused on the supposedly offensive or corrupting nature of the art itself. This would include, for instance, material that falls within the first part of Spotify’s ‘hate content and hateful conduct’ policy. Indeed, Spotify has removed a number of bands whose songs promote white supremecist ideology. This seems like a good candidate for censorship.

R. Kelly’s music does not appear to have been removed from playlists on the basis of the content of his songs. Instead, it seems to have been a move to distance the streaming services from an individual who’s character has, for some time, been seriously compromised. Music streaming services that have chosen to stop promoting R. Kelly don’t reference his music at all, but focus entirely on him. Spotify’s head of content and marketplace policy, Jonathan Prince, told the Daily Beast that “where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don’t want to associate ourselves with… we may choose to not work with that artist or their content in the same way—to not program it, to not playlist it, to not do artist marketing campaigns with that artist.”

This doesn’t look like straightforward censorship, since it is not the content of the music that has led to R. Kelly’s non-promotion. Instead, it is R. Kelly himself who is the subject of criticism from music streaming services. Moreover, his music was not removed altogether, remaining available for those who searched for it on Spotify, Apple Music, and so on. Classic cases of censorship are those performed by the state, using its coercive power to prevent the sharing of what it considers immoral, highly offensive or dangerous material. This can include outright bans, such as the attempt to block the publishing of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the UK, or the requirement to alter material to comply with the censor’s demands, such as editing movies to remove explicit content in order to be certified by the British Board of Film Classification. Spotify is not the state: it does not have the coercive power to ban R. Kelly’s music. Nor does it have a monopoly on music streaming. People who are dissatisfied with the way Spotify has responded to the accusations against R. Kelly were free to take their custom elsewhere. It seems some people did so. It is unclear what role this could have played in Spotify’s subsequent reversal.

Signalling and Association

Instead of seeking to censor R. Kelly, it seems that Spotify, and to a lesser extent Apple Music and Pandora, were seeking to distance themselves from his behaviour. The function of refusing to promote him was intended to signal Spotify’s disapproval of R. Kelly’s alleged behaviour, and refusal to associate with the kinds of misogyny and abuse he is believed to have engaged in.

However, some argue that it was inappropriate for Spotify and others to act to distance themselves from R. Kelly on the basis of allegations alone, and point out that he has never been convicted of any of the sexual offences of which he stands accused. This is a broader concern in the current climate where allegations of misbehaviour (particularly directed at famous and powerful men, often regarding sexual misconduct) can and have been announced and widely shared via social media. It might be argued that the veracity of such claims is difficult to judge, and that such judgements should be left to legal systems – mostly, we should remain neutral and refrain from taking action which could harm an individual until we can be sure that they are guilty of what they have been accused.

Whilst I have some sympathy with this sentiment, it also seems misguided. The bar for establishing someone’s guilt in the eyes of the law is set high: evidence must be presented which is able to establish that the accused individual is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt of the crime they are charged with committing. This is so as to avoid miscarriages of justice that result in the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. Setting the bar high means it is not unlikely that someone who is in fact guilty will be found not guilty, but since this mistake seems less bad than convicting the innocent, we are generally willing to take this hit.

The consequences of a conviction can be severe, including lengthy spells in prison. Hence the demand for such high standards of evidence. But we do not (and, I would argue, should not) demand such standards of evidence in other areas of life, when we make decisions about whether or not we believe people to have done bad things, and when we judge who we choose to associate with personally and professionally.

How should commercial organisations, including music streaming services, behave? Should we expect them to behave like states, and remain largely neutral with regards to what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, so long as it is legal (or rather, not proven illegal)? Or should we expect them to behave as an individual would, and to exercise personal discretion about who they associate with, and what kinds of behaviour they are and are not willing to tolerate?

My suggestion is that, so long as the organisation does not provide a vital, irreplaceable service, nor holds a monopoly over the particular domain within which it operates, then it should be permitted to act in accordance with its own moral preferences. This would be limited to ‘reasonable’ moral codes – something that is notoriously difficult to flesh out, but would exclude, for instance, reasoning that was explicitly racist. So music streaming sites would not be justified in refusing to promote R. Kelly’ music because he is black, but they would be permitted on the basis that they believe him to have committed statutory rape, even if this has not been proven in a court of law.

Given the position of power and influence that companies like Spotify have, they ought to require higher standards of evidence when assessing how likely they believe it to be that an individual has committed some immoral act. Whilst I have argued this need not meet the ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ requirement of the law courts, it will be higher than the standard required for a single individual to use when judging whether or not to listen to R. Kelly. So Spotify and others have an obligation to dig further, and to convince themselves that R. Kelly really has acted unacceptably before taking any actions to condemn him, given that those actions are likely to influence what other people believe about him, and to affect his earnings and status.

In general, it seems commercial organisations will typically be reluctant to take any action likely to harm their profitability, such as failing to promote popular music and artists. But we should hope for some heterogeneity in companies, just as we expect in in individuals. Just as reasonable people will disagree over whether R. Kelly should be considered innocent until proven (legally) guilty, or think that he is creating too much smoke for there to be no fire, the free market in music streaming should allow different organisations to operate with different value structures. If Spotify had maintained its original decision to operationalise a hateful conduct policy, those preferring to move in a direction where sexual misconduct is not tolerated in the music industry could have voted with their wallets and supported Spotify. Simultaneously, those feeling strongly that artists must be separable from their art, and that speculation about crimes should not affect commercial success could have sought their music from elsewhere.

There’s much more that could be discussed here – such as why only R. Kelly and XXXTentacion were singled out, when there are plenty of other musicians whose work is available on Spotify who are accused (and some convicted) of committing serious crime. Or whether Spotify was not only justified in removing R. Kelly from playlists, but would also be justified in going further, and removing his music entirely from the service. What I hope is apparent from this discussion is that commercial organisations cannot act independently of morality – they cannot avoid making moral decisions. Given this, it is preferable that those decisions are made transparently and in a manner that is principled and subject to reasoned debate.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Alberto Giubilini

    Thanks for this blog, very interesting, as I expected after the conversations we had about it. I am not sure whether I agree though. You are asking two questions here: 1) whether private companies like Spotify “should be *permitted* to act in accordance with its own moral preferences” and therefore should be permitted to exclude RKelly’s music from their playing lists, and 2) whether they *ought to* make decisions like the exclusion of RKelly’s music on the basis of some reasonable moral standard. I agree that the answer to the first one should be yes, but I’m not sure what your answer to the second is, so I am not sure I would agree. Especially when it comes to work of art, I am not sure providers should have “moral” policies (but this might not be what you are suggesting here anyway). Although of course there is a meaningful connection between an artist’s life and her/his products, the quality and value of the latter are not affected by the morality of the former, in my view. It is a good thing to allow people to enjoy work of art as much as possible, because there is an intrinsic value in work of art that is independent of the “value” of the producer as a person, even when the producer’s (bad) personality explains the piece of art (which is often the case, of course). Art brings value into the world, or at least to the portion of the population who enjoy a certain form of art (eg. RKelly’s fans). We certainly have to find ways to condemn certain behaviours, but (partial) censorship of their work is not the way to go, I believe: enjoying art and giving people the opportunity to enjoy art is not a way of endorsing the immoral behaviour of the artist, and does not suggest that the audience would be unwilling to stigmatize the behaviour or the artist. At some point you say that we should leave it to the market to decide: people would choose which provider to go with depending on whether they agree with their moral choices. But if everyone followed the “moral line” of Spotify, there would be no such market for the fans of RKelly and all the other immoral people in history who produced work of art. For example, I don’t think it would be right to deprive me and (other) children in the world of the pleasure to read Alice in Wonderland just because Lewis Carroll was, besides a great writer, *probably* also a pedophile:

    1. Alberto Giubilini

      well, I should add, assuming that the kind of pedophilia attributed to Carroll and the way he expressed it in his behaviours was actually morally bad or harmful, which is not obvious (but it is just one example, it doesn’t really matter here)

  2. A couple of points come to mind. First, I notice, the impetus for these actions did not come from the streaming services but from an external – apparently, very effective – lobbying operation by third party organisations. The result of this was not that a single distribution platform was removed, but that (to an extent) all of them were. There is no opportunity here for the market to operate; a customer who can no longer find “the sort of music I like” on one platform has no recourse by moving to another. In short, it was TimesUp, #MeToo et al. that were setting themselves (very likely in agreement) up as the moral arbiters and not in fact Spotify, Apple Music or Pandora. This of course partially answers the question of why these musicians were targeted particularly; they were, presumably, picked by the campaigners perhaps as examples pour encourager les autres

    Second, correct me if I’m wrong but surely an organisation cannot make a “moral” choice; a corporate body has no overarching conscience? The best it can possibly achieve is a code of conduct that its members can adhere to without having to hold their noses too often. Of course, as you point out, for retail organisations in a free market, the customers’ moral choices will decide or at least strongly influence which code of conduct survives.

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