Last year, before XXXTentacion inked a distribution deal with Capitol Music Group for his Bad Vibes Forever label, Spotify reached out to the Florida artist about creating editorial content around his album 17 as he faced multiple felony charges, all of which he has denied.
Spotify staff then reached out again for his editorial participation surrounding his album ? that was released in March through CMG’s Caroline.
So it came as a surprise to the 20-year-old artist and his team on Thursday (May 10) when Spotify removed his music from its top playlists without warning to him or his camp, announcing a new "hate content and hateful conduct" policy that affects its relationship with artists who do "something harmful or hateful." As part of the new policy, Spotify also de-playlisted works by R. Kelly, who has faced a slew of sexual abuse allegations he denies but who "never has been convicted of a crime, nor does he have any pending criminal charges against him," Kelly’s team said in a statement Thursday, noting that the "lyrics he writes express love and desire" while 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."
A rep for XXXTentacion, in response to the new policy, asked in a statement provided to Billboard whether Spotify intended to remove the music of stars like David Bowie, James Brown, Jimmy Page, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis and Dr. Dre, among others, from its playlists as well.
While Spotify’s move directly answered a call to action earlier this week by the #TimesUp movement, which asked Spotify, Apple Music, R. Kelly’s label RCA and Ticketmaster to join its efforts to "mute" R. Kelly, Spotify’s policy announcement is troubling to many in the music industry, and even to some top executives within Spotify, who were blindsided by the announcement themselves, sources tell Billboard.
Some within Spotify have characterized the policy as a slippery slope, given the subjective and seemingly arbitrary application of the guidelines so far — a sentiment that reps for both Kelly and XXXTentacion expressed after Billboard reported on the new policy. Multiple sources also wondered internally why Spotify chose to announce the new policy at all, given the potential ramifications within the artist community and the company's long-standing outreach efforts to artists, labels and the music industry at large. What this means for the programming of new artists on the platform and who has the final say on playlists, multiple sources have told Billboard, seems up in the air.
"Banning a particular artist because of allegations is dangerous," Laurie Soriano, a partner at Los Angeles firm King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, LLP, tells Billboard. "I have confidence that our legal system is the best way to determine whether or not someone is guilty of or liable for bad behavior."
Though Spotify isn’t removing music by Kelly and XXXTentacion from the service altogether, its sheer banning of acts from its playlists could be crippling — especially for newer artists — as streaming amasses subscribers and playlists become paramount to music discovery. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of Spotify’s streams now come from its playlists, while as much as 50 percent of new music streams stem from playlists, industry sources tell Billboard.
"Spotify is wrong," tweeted rapper 50 Cent Thursday, noting that neither Kelly nor XXXTentacion were "even convicted of anything."
Soriano says that while she sees "why platforms like Spotify would want to exclude material that is strongly hateful or otherwise extremely offensive…they run the risk of alienating this or that constituency if their judgments end up silencing certain types of artists or art that may have offensive elements but is still valuable art."
While Spotify is now the biggest on-demand streaming service, with more than 71 million paying subscribers, Apple Music is catching up fast and could potentially provide promotional support to artists that Spotify won’t — but it’s not clear how its approach will compare going forward. Apple, which declined to comment, has long policed "hate" speech and hateful content behind the scenes on iTunes and Apple Music, and several months ago also stopped promoting R. Kelly’s music on its top playlists. Spotify, for its part, says it has had internal policies for the last several years that have resulted in similar actions. But neither had ever previously publicly announced a policy governing the personal conduct of artists it promotes.
Music industry executives have a range of concerns.
"It’s very odd to start this policy with two artists, even if rightfully so," one publishing exec told Billboard. "Spotify needs to make sure that this policy goes across the board in every genre."
A promotion executive, meanwhile, questioned whether Spotify will hold label executives accountable for their conduct as well with the playlisting policy. "What about artists on a label run by someone who has harassed interns? Feels like a slippery slope for them," the person said.
And while Spotify gave no official warning about the policy to artists or label partners, a Latin music executive tells Billboard that it has "been an unofficial policy in the Latin world for a long time. For us, there is an understanding that this policy is in place. Perhaps it wasn’t company-wide, but it was within certain editorial groups. Many Latin trap songs that are more explicit, for example, don’t get the support."
While this executive likes the policy "because it's a strong position against violence, and against hurting women," it also "limits artists’ creative ability. What are you going to do if an artist likes to write about violent things? It’s like the renaissance…where artists got commissioned to paint very specific paintings, and others were condemned for painting what they wanted. In the end, an artist may think twice about what they produce because they’ll be positioned in a certain way on a playlist."
But music merchandisers — whether they be digital services or brick-and-mortar retailers — have long believed they have the right to determine what wares they will carry and what wares they will promote.
To some, this represents the latest chapter in an old debate. In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), co-founded by Tipper Gore, started pressuring lawmakers, retailers and record labels to stop selling albums with what they deemed offensive subject matter or cover art to minors, and in 1990 the industry introduced the standard parental-advisory sticker warning about explicit content. Some retail chains, like Walmart, refused to carry albums with the sticker, sparking complaints that artists were being "censored," even though the albums could still be found in thousands of stores in the United States.
While label executives in Los Angeles and New York at the time were upset that some retailers wouldn’t carry albums with a sticker, merchants who lived and had stores in middle America said they were making their stores family-friendly and were exercising their right to curate their stores as they saw fit.
What it came down to then was an economic decision: If artists wanted the chance to sell millions of copies of their albums through Walmart, they would have to compromise and release clean versions of their albums. And many artists did. Others stuck to their guns and wouldn’t compromise, yet still were able to achieve substantial sales through the remaining stores carrying their music.
Spotify is not taking down the music of R. Kelly or XXXTentacion from its plaftorm; the discographies of each are still readily available to those searching for their catalogs. But in an age of near-endless access, playlists increasingly function as shelves once did for big-box stores.
Says Soriano of Spotify’s new policy: "I have faith that the market of both artists and fans will keep them from going overboard with this."
Additional reporting by Ed Christman, Leila Cobo, Gail Mitchell and Melinda Newman.