Spotify Pulls R. Kelly and XXXTentacion From Playlists, Stirring a Debate

Posted May 10, 2018 4:21 p.m. EDT

Spotify, the music industry’s leading streaming service, said Thursday that it would stop promoting or recommending music by artists whose content or conduct it deemed to be offensive, hoping to quell a furor over the singer R. Kelly but immediately starting another debate over who qualified for the ban.

The company, which made its Wall Street debut last month, introduced its new policy regarding “hate content and hateful conduct” by citing two artists — R. Kelly, the multiplatinum R&B singer, and XXXTentacion, the troubled young rapper and singer — who Spotify said had been removed from all official playlists and recommendation features on the service.

While their music will remain available for streaming by choice, it will no longer appear in Spotify’s influential curated packages, which often appear on the service’s front page. “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,” Spotify 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.”

In the case of R. Kelly, Spotify added its voice to the growing chorus attempting to hold the singer responsible after decades of accusations of sexual misconduct. Last week, the Time’s Up organization, which formed around the #MeToo movement to support victims of sexual abuse, joined a grass-roots #MuteRKelly campaign that has called on his record label and concert promoter, as well as local venues, radio stations and streaming services, to cease its support of the singer.

Oronike Odeleye, a founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, said she was “just dumbfounded and awe-struck” that Spotify had “decided to take this moral stance against R. Kelly’s amoral behavior.” She added, “Hopefully it’s a domino effect with the other streaming services.”

But by wading into the discussion about what responsibility digital platforms have to police content, Spotify also risked being seen as hypocritical — or insufficiently thorough. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have faced increased scrutiny since the presidential election about how they monitor and censor hate speech, and how their imperfect policies break down along ideological lines.

R. Kelly, who for years has faced lawsuits and news reports alleging sexual coercion and abuse of young girls and women, has denied each of the accusations against him. He is not currently facing any criminal charges and was acquitted in 2008 in a child pornography case that took six years to bring to trial. His management team has called the recent Time’s Up campaign an “attempted public lynching of a black man.”

In a statement Thursday, representatives for R. Kelly denounced what they called an “ongoing smear campaign against him, waged by enemies seeking a payoff,” and called Spotify’s decision “unfortunate and shortsighted.”

“Spotify has the right to promote whatever music it chooses, and in this case its actions are without merit,” R. Kelly’s management team said. “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.”

R. Kelly currently has one publicly scheduled tour date, on Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina. A representative for the venue, the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, said Thursday that the show had not been affected by the protest effort and tickets are still available via Ticketmaster.

In its new rules, Spotify defined hateful content as any 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 streaming service also noted that it has “thought long and hard about how to handle content that is not hate content itself, but is principally made by artists or other creators who have demonstrated hateful conduct personally.”

The chart-topping XXXTentacion, the other artist targeted by the new policy, is facing charges in Florida that include aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and witness tampering. As recently as Wednesday, XXXTentacion was featured on the popular Rap Caviar playlist.

Aishah White, a spokeswoman for XXXTentacion, said via email Thursday: “I don’t have a comment, just a question. Will Spotify remove all the artists listed below from playlists?” She included the names of 19 musicians, including Gene Simmons, Michael Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne and Dr. Dre, who have been accused over the years of sexual misconduct or physical violence.

Universal Music, which oversees XXXTentacion’s distributor, Caroline, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. R. Kelly’s label, RCA Records, a division of Sony Music, did not immediately comment either.

Official playlists can be a huge platform, especially for developing artists, on streaming services such as Spotify, which counts more than 70 million paying subscribers worldwide, and on competitors like Apple Music and Amazon Music. Streaming has become the dominant mode for music consumption in the United States — with hip-hop/R&B representing the most popular genre — and digital plays are directly correlated to royalty payouts from the services.

While R. Kelly, who has not had a Top 40 hit in more than a decade, was unlikely to have appeared recently on a flagship Spotify playlist like Rap Caviar (9.5 million subscribers) or Today’s Top Hits (nearly 20 million), a young artist like XXXTentacion may stand to lose more. His song “Sad!,” which had been a popular playlist staple since its release in March, is currently No. 15 on Spotify’s U.S. Top 50 chart.

As of Thursday afternoon, the track still appeared on Apple Music’s premiere rap playlist, “The A-List: Hip-Hop.” Apple declined to comment on its editorial decisions. Observers on social media were quick to question where exactly Spotify was drawing the line on conduct. Singer Chris Brown, who was convicted in the 2009 felony assault of his then-girlfriend Rihanna and is the subject of a restraining order by a subsequent ex-girlfriend, currently appears on Today’s Top Hits as a featured artist on Lil Dicky’s “Freaky Friday.” Other artists who have been accused (but not convicted in court) of violence against women, including Rich the Kid, Famous Dex and YoungBoy Never Broke Again, remained on influential playlists like Rap Caviar on Thursday.

And the question remained whether Spotify would confront the reputations of less popular artists, including rock bands like Brand New, PWR BTTM and Hedley, whose members have been accused in recent months of sexual misconduct, but have not been charged criminally. Legacy acts with checkered pasts — Jackson, for instance, or Jerry Lee Lewis with his marriage to his 13-year-old third cousin — could present their own challenges, though older or more obscure musicians are less likely to be actively promoted in general.

“As you can imagine this is a complicated process with room for debate and disagreement, so we can’t get into an artist-by-artist discussion,” a spokesman for Spotify said in response to follow-up questions. “In general we work with our partners and try to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”

Terrence Henderson, the executive known as Punch from Top Dawg Entertainment, home to Kendrick Lamar and SZA, wrote on Twitter: “Whoa. Are they censoring the music? That’s dangerous.”

Don Gorder, the chair of the music business and management department at Berklee College of Music, called Spotify’s decision “a big deal” given the influence of its playlists, but warned that “it is a slippery slope.”

“There are lots of bands in history that have been accused of bad behavior, but they’re not taking the pummeling that R. Kelly is taking,” he said in an interview, adding that while he found R. Kelly’s reported behavior “deplorable,” the singer had not been convicted in court. Spotify “created this new moral standard — what is it? Where is the line?”

Spotify said the decision to no longer promote an artist would be made by an internal committee led by Jonathan Prince, Spotify’s vice president of content and marketplace policy. The company said it had also partnered with advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League to help identify hateful content.

Though Spotify has previously removed songs from white supremacist acts, its new policy represents a more hands-on approach to editorial decisions such as the content of playlists and the algorithmic recommendations of features like Discover Weekly. Asked last August about its policy regarding artists charged with violent crimes, Spotify said: “As a general matter, Spotify does not alter its content library based on the actions of the individuals behind the content. We hope that Spotify’s users will use their own discretion to determine exactly what music they listen to.”

In its announcement Thursday, Spotify acknowledged that it was now entering thorny territory when it came to monitoring lyrics and artist behavior. “It’s important to remember that cultural standards and sensitivities vary widely,” the company said. “That means there will always be content that is acceptable in some circumstances, but is offensive in others, and we will always look at the entire context.”