Last week, Spotify announced it was implementing a new policy in which it would stop promoting "hate content" and artists who engage in "hateful conduct" within its very powerful playlists and through its equally powerful suggestion algorithm. In the week since, the move has been greeted with celebration, derision and skepticism. Asked for a response this morning, a Spotify spokesperson wrote that the company was "not in a place where we can comment right now."
Spotify is leveraging the considerable power it has cultivated in becoming the foremost enabler of music streaming (and a traffic cop to the many stakeholders — songwriters, record labels, publishers, promoters, managers, engineers — dotting the road) to define and impose a moral perspective, but the effect the policy will have on artists isn't theoretical. "Spotify playlists, and Spotify charts, and Spotify plays," access to which Spotify is restricting through the new policy, "have become the number one tool that labels and artists and managers are using in order to break artists and measure success," Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst, told Wired last year. Being added to a Spotify-sponsored playlist reportedly drove a 50 to 100 percent increase in streams for certain artists. This will have a direct economic impact on artists.
Apple, the world's most-valuable company, and web radio giant Pandora have followed its lead.
The waves caused by this tech giant wading into the long-murky waters of artist conduct and content may have even been enough to cause a rift within Spotify itself, with the industry rumor mill whispering of an impending exit by one of its top executives.
A representative for the rapper XXXTentacion, one of the two musicians first affected by the new policy (the other is R. Kelly), responded to their client's ousting from Spotify's good graces by questioning whether Spotify would also stop promoting other artists accused of stomach-churning violence, according to The New York Times. On Monday, the anti-sexism advocacy group UltraViolet praised Spotify's policy in an open letter that included a request to remove many of the same artists named by XXXTentacion's team.
The imperfections and inevitable failures of Spotify's policy are obvious when those two reactions are put side-by-side. An advocacy organization focused on ending violence against women, and the spokesperson for an emblematic SoundCloud rapper waiting to stand trial for charges of violence against his former partner both made, by different routes and with vastly different motivations, essentially the same request.
The missions of institutions are aspirational and unrealistic. The Internal Revenue Service aims to wield "tax law with integrity and fairness to all." The Federal Bureau of Investigation aims to protect and defend the country from, essentially, every form of violence. NPR's mission is to "create a more informed public." In a perfect petri dish, all three regularly fail — and succeed.
From individuals to entire governments, intentions and efforts tend to bend, in aggregate, towards the — poorly defined and overly broad, surely — greater good. Looking out onto a riven, polarized culture undergoing profound social shifts both pro- and regressive, as the stormy imbalance of "post-truth" swirls overhead, any position can appear unbelievable, untrustworthy, poorly considered. And, maybe, bad business.
At the heart of the dispute over this policy is a basic question: Should a distribution system have a viewpoint? Record labels' fortunes are now inextricable from music streaming services' success — from them now flow the majority of money generated by recorded music. To that end, the discomfort of the major labels towards Spotify's policy was plain. "How do you appoint yourself the arbiter of where the line is," one executive wondered, in conversation with NPR. Spotify isn't just a distribution system, though, like the record stores of yore — it is the world's most-valuable music company, a data-mining behemoth tracking your every move (like everything else you use these days), a kingmaker. And they have a point: XXXTentacion is accused of shocking things, but he hasn't been convicted of them. Neither has R. Kelly.
Historically, labels haven't taken much interest in arbitrating, or even locating, the line. The vast majority of artists mentioned in "what about" responses to Spotify's announcement — The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ted Nugent, Eminem, Chris Brown, Dr. Dre or Dr. Luke — are or have been signed to major labels before, during and after being accused of violence, sexual or otherwise. "What about Dr. Luke," another major-label executive wondered of how a policy like Spotify's would deal with Lukasz Gottwald, the once-reliable producer of hits, accused by his former signee, Kesha, of sexual coercion and abuse. Of Gottwald's previous work with other pop stars, that executive wondered if Spotify should stop promoting the songs he helped Katy Perry create in order to abide by the new policy. Both executives NPR spoke with said their company had not been informed of Spotify's decision in advance. In its investigation into R. Kelly, The Washington Post reported the former record executive Barry Weiss as saying Kelly's behavior — which had resulted in the label Weiss ran and that Kelly was signed to, Jive, reportedly being named in two lawsuits arising from that alleged behavior — was not his business.
"At some point, record labels need to make a decision with their system of values," says Heather Cronk, co-director of Standing Up for Racial Justice, one of the organizations Spotify consulted while creating the policy. "They've gotten away with pretending to be agnostic, or not making a decision. Oftentimes, when you're pretending to be agnostic, you're taking a side — you're taking a side that you don't need to take action." R. Kelly's current label, RCA, has declined all requests for comment on Kelly made by NPR in the past year.
It's possible that the time of businesses remaining agnostic has ended, even for companies at a remove from the people paying, as record labels are. Streaming services, from Netflix to Spotify, are face-to-face with the real world.
And the real world is changing. Advocacy from Time's Up and #MeToo and rigorous reporting on sexual misconduct has sparked a historical repositioning of where our tolerance line lies. That work has helped make a demonstrable pattern of sexual assault an obvious a reason for exclusion and punishment. Take the deadlocked jury in last year's trial of Bill Cosby and the post-Time's Up guilty verdict last month — and the subsequent move by the Kennedy Center to strip Cosby of awards it gave him in 1998 and 2009 — as an imperfect litmus of how this has changed. This moment, and the change occurring in it, has not only opened up the possibility of victims being believed, but has also created space for more nuanced (and equally late) re-examinations of social and power dynamic. (See: "Cat Person," a short story published in The New Yorker last December, which told the story of a nascent and doomed relationship and the awkward, not-assaultive-but-not-really-welcome-either — mostly, bad — sex that it culminated in.)
In editorially silencing — again, poorly defined — bad actors, Spotify is, for better and worse, joining this new moment. But it is far away from engaging with any of its nuance. The failures around technology companies' attempts to deal with these ongoing shifts are consistently uneven, because technology companies' policies aren't designed to confront them.
In 2010, the video for M.I.A.'s song "Born Free," built on a sample of Suicide, climaxed with a scene of harrowing and potentially genocidal violence against people with red hair. The video, intended as social commentary, was removed from YouTube. "On YouTube the rules prohibit content like pornography or gratuitous violence," the company explained at the time. "If the content breaks our terms then we remove it." Would the company even consider doing the same for "This Is America," an equally violent and (more legibly) trenchant social satire released by Donald Glover just over a week ago, now the No. 1 song in the country? Both videos make their points through beautiful execution, violence and not-very-nuanced critique.
The bottom-line benefits to listening to your customers, for a company that went public only a month-and-change ago, likely played a part in Spotify's announcement, too. Rohit Deshpande, a Harvard marketing professor, pointed to another example, from this year, of an industry leader staking out a moral position: the largest investment management group in the world, BlackRock. In his annual letter, CEO Larry Fink wrote that his company, which manages $6.2 trillion in assets, would begin to consider the social footprint of the companies it holds stakes in. Fink wrote that "society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society." As with Spotify, BlackRock's position was criticized. Would they ask Philip Morris to stop making cigarettes, or Coca-Cola to stop selling sugar water? It's a response that boils down, in essence, to the notion that engagement with social reality is a slippery slope for a business.
Asked whether he could recall any other media distribution company — which Spotify is, but with a scope of power well beyond that of companies similarly situated a generation ago (or even half a generation, really) — announcing a similar policy shift, Deshpande couldn't recall one. "If you think about the demographics of the Spotify audience, you're talking about a largely millennial audience and my intuition is that this would be a very important signal to that audience."
Important and imperfect and destined to fail, even if it succeeds.
"The question of a slippery slope," says Rashid Shabazz, chief marketing and storytelling officer of Color of Change, another organization that Spotify asked for its advice, isn't whether Spotify will end up silencing a large chunk of the popular music canon, but "whether or not the industry as a whole begins to have conversation about how people conduct themselves. It's not a policy that's abnormal in say, a corporation. What the slippery slope there is, and what people are misconstruing, is that it's somehow their muting expression, that it's censorship. If someone wants information about R. Kelly, they can still find it ... on Spotify."
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