Who will decide what we can listen to? Spotify

The music service Spotify is scrubbing its playlist of any content of any hate speech, a move aimed at rapper R Kelly, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual violence against them.

The action will wipe out music that “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.”

But it also will eliminate music of artists who are accused of inciting hatred or violence.

It’s a policy “doomed to failure,” Reason’s Christian Britschgi|writes, citing rock classics that could — technically — fall to the new policy.

“Take Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing,’ Britschgi writes, which reached the top spot on the Billboard charts back in 1985 and now has been streamed some 88 million times on Spotify. This popular rock song contains such gems as

“See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up
Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire”

The Southern Poverty Law Center will guide Spotify in making the distinction in music. That’s a problem, Britschgi says.

Inevitably, some songs will cross lines of acceptable expression. Part of musical exploration is finding where that line is for yourself. But now Spotify plans to put itself in the role of defining where that line has to be, undercutting its own value as a library for listeners to explore.

It’s not censorship, counters NewStatesman’s Nic Wright because Kelly’s music isn’t being removed; it’s being changed with a remix. But Spotify won’t promote any of the music via its algorithm.

Spotify is making a choice – one that it will either be rewarded or punished for depending on how it is seen by its users. It’s no different in a moral sense to a music venue or record store choosing not to prominently feature artists which it feels do not align with the beliefs of its staff and customers.

While it’s possible to say that Spotify has now placed itself in the role of musical moral arbiter, it’s worth noting that not acting is a political statement in itself. Choosing to let R Kelly remain on its curated playlists would also have sent a message. In practical terms though, the company will now face calls to address issues with other artists, and a sustained outcry from fans of those that it does decide to push from playlists.

“Given these compelling allegations [against Kelly], it’s perfectly reasonable for a publicly owned company like Spotify to want to distance itself from such toxic public figures,” Daily Beast’s Aram Sinnreich concludes.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not such a black-and-white situation. (Or white-and-gold, for that matter.) To begin with, do we really want Spotify making these kinds of decisions for us? The company currently supplies music to 170 million monthly users, nearly half of whom pay for the privilege of accessing its catalog of tens of millions of songs on demand. Whatever its good intentions, this is a massively powerful and influential company, and we should be very wary when it uses that power selectively to remove individual songs and artists from its catalog.

There’s a long history of powerful institutions making decisions on behalf of the general public, he says, and it rarely ends well.

(h/t: P Tosto)