The announcement by Spotify on May 10 that it was removing R. Kelly’s music from all of its editorial and algorithmic playlists stunned the music world. The move, part of its new public hate content and hateful conduct policy, was because “we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values,” the company said in a statement. “When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful, it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
Yet the implementation of the policy, which also de-playlisted controversial rappers XXXTentacion and Tay-K, left many in the industry wondering why those three artists in particular — who have been accused but not convicted of felonies — were singled out. Several high-ranking Spotify executives were blindsided by the policy themselves and upset that the teams who interface with acts and labels weren’t consulted, while concern has mounted both inside and outside the streaming service that the policy initially targeted artists of color.
“Spotify’s got to realize that these are innocent people by court of law,” says one label executive close to a recently de-playlisted artist. “For them to be judge and jury is a very dangerous thing.”
While many music industry executives say streaming services are well within their rights to curate their homepages and playlists as they see fit — and without explanation — it’s Spotify’s creation of an official policy nearly impossible to apply fairly that has drawn the outrage. In statements, reps for both XXXTentacion and Kelly questioned why other artists, many of them white, were not also de-playlisted despite facing similar accusations and, in some cases, convictions. Jim Gordon, the drummer for Derek & The Dominos, for example, was denied bail for a 10th time in April, having served 35 years of a life sentence for killing his mother in 1983 — but “Layla,” on which he performed and co-wrote, appears on several Spotify playlists. Shaunna Thomas, executive director of women’s advocacy group Ultraviolet, publicly called for the service to also de-playlist artists like Chris Brown, Eminem, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nelly, among others.
“How many artists on the white side [is this happening to]?” asks one major-label branding executive. “We can go down the list and note all the disgusting things that they have done but they seem to still have access.”
A publishing executive at a major record company noted that “R. Kelly and Chris Brown are among those black artists who have amassed certain power through their writing and publishing, and that’s always been my observation: the more content or ownership you have, the more dangerous you become as a black artist.”
Spotify says it worked with advocacy groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change and GLAAD to develop the standards. In a statement to Billboard, Rashid Shabazz, Color of Change chief marketing and storytelling officer, said, “Spotify is a trendsetter. We are encouraged and hopeful that the new policy will encourage others in the digital music industry to follow their example.”
Kenyette Barnes, co-founder and national organizer of the #MuteRKelly campaign that launched in April following fresh accusations of sexual misconduct the singer has denied, believes the initial targeting of black artists is “more coincidence than anything else,” she tells Billboard. “Does the Spotify net need to be widened? Absolutely. It is imperative, for continuity, that other artists whose music violates this policy should also be subjected to the same scrutiny. But I don’t think Spotify’s policy is racially biased. And I’m speaking as someone who works in civil rights and social justice, where racial bias is always a chief concern.”
Artists Spotify deems guilty of “hateful conduct” won’t have their music removed from the service altogether, but between 20 and 30 percent of Spotify’s streams — and as much as half of new-music streams — come from its playlists, industry sources tell Billboard, resulting in greater fallout for new acts.
In the six days since XXXTentacion’s “SAD!” was removed from Spotify’s playlists including RapCaviar, where it held prominent placement, the track’s streams dropped 17 percent per day in the United States on average. That continued rate of decline, Billboard estimates, could cost the rapper as much as $60,000 in revenue in a year from — roughly equivalent to the United States’ median household income — from one song on one service in the U.S. alone. In the four days after “SAD!” was removed from Spotify’s playlists (May 10-13), its on-demand audio streams dropped 9 percent across all streaming services in the U.S. compared to the four days prior (May 6-9), according to Nielsen Music. Radio play for “SAD!” also began declining after its Spotify de-playlisting, although no stations appear to have removed the track from rotation altogether.
“If you’re accused of something that you haven’t done and public opinion is that you’ve done it, your livelihood can be taken away from you,” says the publishing executive. “Even if you’ve paid the cost for your actions, you can’t make a living because people are still coming after you. And that’s not right.”
While the new guidelines are Spotify’s first public stance on the issue, the service has maintained internal policies surrounding hate content for years, and last August removed an array of white supremacist bands from its service following public criticism. Spotify is not alone: Pandora confirmed it has a policy “to not actively promote artists with certain demonstrable behavioral, ethical or criminal issues,” though it declined to comment on any action taken pertaining to specific artists.
Apple Music declined to comment and doesn’t have a conduct policy, but it has also made conduct-related calls of its own, multiple sources say: Soon after the release of Chris Brown’s latest album last October, initial promotion was scaled back at least in part due to concerns about Brown’s past. Apple also removed R. Kelly from some top playlists in recent months. But because such moves at Apple haven’t driven by a broader official policy, the company hasn’t faced pressure to explain these editorial decisions, which are typically influenced by a range of factors.
Acts can fight back. After Spotify removed Tay-K’s “The Race” and “After You” from playlists on May 10, he launched his own, called Tay-K, which has gathered about 2,000 followers.
For Spotify, the world’s largest streaming service with 71 million paid subscribers and 160 million monthly users globally, the policy is unlikely to make a dent in its momentum among users. “For the vast majority of listeners on a particular service, it has little to no impact, if they’re even aware of this at all,” says Russ Crupnick, managing partner at research and consultancy firm MusicWatch. “Despite how passionate we are about our particular streaming services, to some extent it’s a utility — I flip the switch and I want the lights to come on.”
There are outstanding questions — such as whether the ban would apply to producers, writers or songs where the featured artist has been de-playlisted — which Spotify has declined to answer. (Aaliyah’s top five hit “Back & Forth,” produced by Kelly, is still available on Spotify playlists, for example.)
But while some details remain murky, some industry figures are already wondering about the potential longterm effects. Asks one major-label executive: “Will this change the practice of who’s signed? And what will those decisions then be based on? And who becomes the judge for that?”