More blues than rhythm for R. Kelly

MAKING it on to an official playlist on Spotify, a streaming service, can help turn a singer into a superstar in the way that major radio stations once could. Until recently the main criterion for inclusion was a curator’s taste. Artists who have been accused of domestic violence and other serious crimes are on playlists with millions of followers, as are songs that critics find violently misogynist.

That is starting to change. On May 10th Spotify announced a new policy on “hate content and hateful conduct”, and removed two artists, XXXTentacion, a rapper, and R. Kelly, an R&B singer, from their official playlists due to allegations of abuse and mistreatment of women. Both artists deny any wrongdoing. Their music will still be available on the service, but it will not be pushed to listeners. It then quickly emerged that Apple Music and Pandora, two other streaming services, had quietly taken similar action.  

Spotify’s public declaration sent ripples through the music industry, sparking questions about whether, and how, streaming companies should police their catalogues of some 30m songs. Few executives wish to speak publicly, but a veteran of both the music and streaming industries wonders whether Spotify and its peers should have the power to be “judge and jury” on which artists should be blessed or banished. One digital-media boss called the move “absolutely dumb”, asking, “How do you start drawing lines?” 

Most executives at music-streaming firms had not seemed to contemplate any need to do so until recently (apart from taking down songs that might violate specific rules, such as hate-speech laws in Germany). Their counterparts at the record labels have for decades looked the other way as artists accused of various crimes rocketed to the top of sales charts. Yet in the #MeToo era advocacy groups have been putting more pressure on industry executives.

Time’s Up, an organisation that emerged from the #MeToo movement, had joined a recent lobbying campaign for music industry players to cut ties with R. Kelly, who has been accused of keeping underage women against their will in a sex cult. XXXTentacion is awaiting trial on charges that in 2016 he violently attacked a pregnant woman; earlier this year a video surfaced that appears to show him beating another woman in 2013 (the rapper says the video is misleading).

Spotify, which went public in April, was a particularly obvious target for activists. It is the global leader in paid music streaming with 75m subscribers and nearly $5bn in revenue in 2017. Its choice of playlist promotion is a big deal for music acts. Billboard magazine reports that 20-30% of Spotify’s music streams come from playlists. The firm’s RapCaviar playlist, which used to feature XXXTentacion, has 9.5m followers. In addition to the direct value to artists (roughly $1,000 per million streams), the extra visibility bestowed by playlists helps them with touring, record sales and label deals.

The de-listed singers and their defenders say they are being unfairly singled out. A representative for XXXTentacion issued a list of 19 other artists accused or convicted of violent or disturbing behaviour who are featured on Spotify playlists, including Michael Jackson and James Brown. This week RapCaviar still featured Famous Dex, another artist who has been allegedly caught on video beating a woman.   

It is unclear how far firms will go in de-listing artists. Many of those accused of domestic violence are in hip-hop, the most popular genre in America. Increased notoriety has drawn fans as well as deterring them. XXXTentacion hit Billboard charts for the first time months after his 2016 arrest. Dr Dre, who along with others sold Beats to Apple for $3bn and became a consultant at Apple Music, has been accused many times in the past of violence against women, though he has also shown remorse. But with the precedent now set, the pressure on streaming services to demote artists can be expected to increase.