"When we look at promotion, we look at issues around hateful conduct, 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," Jonathan Prince, Spotify's vp/head of content and marketplace policy, tells Billboard. "So we've decided that in some circumstances, 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."
Kelly is the only artist that Spotify specifically acknowledged would fall under this new public policy, though others may also be affected. Later on Thursday, Billboard was able to confirm that controversial rapper XXXTentacion had also been removed from playlists, namely the highly influential RapCaviar.
The hateful conduct provision is one part of the new policy, which also includes a provision for hate content. The company is making a point to acknowledge there are different cultural standards as to what could be considered offensive in different regions around the globe -- Spotify is available in more than 50 countries worldwide -- but worked together with several advocacy groups to determine its definition of hate content, including The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Anti-Defamation League, Color Of Change, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), GLAAD, Muslim Advocates and the International Network Against Cyber Hate.
"Hate content is 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," the policy reads. "When we are alerted to content that violates our policy, we may remove it (in consultation with rights holders) or refrain from promoting or manually programming it on our service."
The company acknowledges that, with more than 35 million tracks on its service, it cannot police everything, and has introduced a three-pronged reporting system for hate content or hateful conduct, including internal monitoring from its teams already in place; consultations with expert partners, such as the advocacy groups it worked with to develop the policy; and user comments and reports. The company also says it has created a monitoring tool called Spotify AudioWatch to help it screen for and flag hate content.
The new guidelines for Spotify arrive not just in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements -- which helped springboard the #MuteRKelly initiative -- but also as YouTube, another music streaming service with a widely-used free tier and a massive user base, has had to deal with extensive criticism and an advertiser backlash revolving around its users uploading hateful content to its platform. YouTube has announced that it is working on ways to curb hate speech and content, and revealed a new filter to screen for "hate" videos and flag them for takedown, and to not place advertisements against them.
It's also not the first time Spotify has addressed hate content on its platform; Prince acknowledges that the company has had internal policies to address such content for years, and last August the company announced it had removed an array of white supremacist content from its catalog.
"We are pleased to be in partnership with Spotify, in identifying and setting standards to ensure content on their platform continues to allow for artistic and creative freedom and expression, while ensuring the most inclusive and just world we can live in," said Rashid Shabazz, chief marketing and storytelling officer at Color of Change, which worked with Spotify on its policy, in a statement to Billboard. "Spotify is a trendsetter, and we are encouraged and hopeful that the new policy will encourage others in the digital music industry to follow their example, and look to address content on their platforms that may foster hate, discrimination and bias."
"I think that, frankly, all of us have become increasingly aware of the responsibility that we have when we make recommendations about content, and particularly when we're doing that in a way that may send signals to our audience about what we believe and what we value," Prince tells Billboard. "So we thought it was really past time for us to take a really over-arching look at that. These are really complicated issues and this is our first iteration of a really comprehensive policy. We're going to continue to try to evolve our approach to these things."
Update (3:37 pm): In a statement released to Buzzfeed, Kelly's management team stressed that the singer has never been convicted of a crime and never "been accused of hate," adding that his songs are about love, passion and desire.
"Spotify has the right to promote whatever music it chooses, and in this case its actions are without merit," the statement reads. "It is acting based on false and unproven allegations. It is bowing to social-media fads and picking sides in a fame-seeking dispute over matters that have nothing to do with serving customers. Meanwhile, though, Spotify promotes numerous other artists who are convicted felons, others who have been arrested on charges of domestic violence and artists who sing lyrics that are violent and anti-women in nature. Mr. Kelly falls into none of these categories, and it is unfortunate and shortsighted that Spotify fails to recognize this."
Read the full statement here.