By taking action on R Kelly, Spotify is showing a tech giant can take responsibility

By excluding the rapper and others from its playlists, the music streaming service is doing what other tech firms wont.

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Spotify has released a new remix of the “Remix to Ignition”: it has remixed the endlessly catchy song by alleged abuser R Kelly right off its human-curated and algorithmically-generated playlists. Rapper XXXTentacion – who is less well-known than Kelly but is accused of brutally beating his pregnant ex-girlfriend – has also been dealt the same fate as the streaming service moves fast to implement a new hate content and hateful conduct policy. Both men deny the claims. 

Inevitably, Twitter and Facebook are twanging away with people weeping for the multimillionaire Kelly, and asking why Spotify has taken the move while the musician remains innocent until proven guilty. But the pile of accusations stacked up on Kelly’s doorstep over the past two decades is hard to ignore. 

In recent years alone, Kelly has been accused by multiple women of sexual violence, coercion and even of running a sex cult. In the context of the #metoo movement in Hollywood, he has become the focus of a #MuteRKelly campaign. Spotify has clearly taken notice of the climate. 

For his part, through spokespeople, at least, Kelly has vociferously denied the accusations saying they are “[an] attempt to distort my character and to destroy my legacy.” He remains signed to RCA Records and his tracks are still on Spotify. However, curated and algorithmic playlists play a huge role in determining which songs listeners keep on repeat. This move will hit Kelly in the pocket (though his existing millions, made in the CD age, will significantly soften the blow). 

This is not an act of censorship on Spotify’s part. Listeners can – and will – keep listening to R Kelly. His music is not being removed from the streaming service’s catalogue. Nor will other “problematic” artists be kicked out of the Spotify system either. 

The question centres on what Spotify believes its editorial voice should endorse – both through choices made by humans and those made by algorithms. Unlike other tech giants – notably Facebook and Twitter – Spotify is taking responsibility as a publisher and realising it is not just a dumb platform where everything must be given equal weight. 

That position is evident in the statement Spotify issued to Billboard: “[R Kelly’s] music will still be available on the service but Spotify will not actively promote it. We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behaviour, but we want our editorial decisions — what we choose to program — to reflect our values. 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 practical terms, Spotify’s decisions on whether to no longer promote an artist will be made by an internal committee, headed by Jonathan Price, Spotify's vice president or Content & Marketplace Policy. It is also working with advocacy groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Glaad, and the Anti-Defamation League in the US to help it identify what it considers to be hateful content. 

The obvious retort to Spotify’s stance is to point to artists like Michael Jackson and John Lennon, and the band Led Zeppelin. All of these have are associated with alleged or documented conduct that would see a modern artist kicked out of the playlist. But there’s a clear difference between artists of the past who behaved abhorrently or even in allegedly illegal ways, and supporting musicians or artists with active careers.

Things get a little muddier when you consider that other acts that have been around as long as R Kelly, are still active, and who have either been accused or convicted of serious crimes, including sexual violence, are included on playlists. Chris Brown, who was convicted for felony assault after a violent attack on his then-girlfriend Rihanna, and is now being sued over an alleged sexual assault at his home, is still featured on a number of official Spotify playlists. 

This apparent double standard has been seized upon by XXXTentacion in his response to Spotify’s move. In a statement sent to the New York Times’ pop music reporter Joe Coscarelli, the rapper’s spokesperson listed a number of other artists, both active and inactive, who remain on playlists despite having been accused of similar crimes: 

R Kelly’s management team issued a statement attacking what they call “an ongoing smear campaign... waged by enemies seeking a payoff.” They went on to brand Spotify’s decision as “unfortunate and shortsighted”, continuing that “Spotify has the right to promote whatever music it chooses [but] it is acting based on false and unproven allegations. It is bowing to social-media fads and picking sides in a fame-seeking dispute...” 

In Coscarelli’s report on the debate, Spotify responds to the question of other artists not being bumped from playlists by admitting that the situation is complex. A spokesperson said: 

“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. In general we work with our partners and try to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”

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. 

That said, Spotify’s management and press teams are smart people. They will have realised at least the immediate consequences of this move and decided to take it anyway. It should be applauded because, while there will accusations of hypocrisy and battles over other controversial artists, it has accepted that moral neutrality and inaction are not acceptable. By choosing not to simply hide behind its algorithms and a shield labelled “customer choice”, Spotify has struck out as an outlier among technology firms. 

Facebook, Twitter and even Apple, whose own streaming service still features both R Kelly and XXXTentacion on its curated playlists, have taken at best muddy and at worst amoral positions on many of the issues that dominate public debate today. It is the fear of admitting that they are, in part, media companies with an editorial line that has stopped them. Spotify has confronted that fear and pushed past it. 

And if you are a ride or die R Kelly fan, enraged by Spotify’s choice, you too have choices. Switch to another streaming service, make your own R Kelly playlists or simply go retro and buy some CDs to help the poor blighted multi-award winning, millionaire R&B reprobate. This is not people at Spotify denying anyone free speech, it is free speech in action. 

Mic Wright is a freelance journalist and CEO and partner at The Means Agency.