Spotify: Judge, Jury, and Gatekeeper
8 min read

Spotify: Judge, Jury, and Gatekeeper

Hello, I hope y’all are doing well this week. This week’s newsletter will focus on Spotify’s new policy around policing music on their platform, cause new headlines keep popping up. For thoughts about Tidal, check back next week. New subscribers, I hope you enjoy the newsletter. Old subscribers, thank you for staying on this roller coaster. My email is Always excited to answer any questions, concerns, or receive any tips you’d like to throw my way.

Spotify the Judge

Last Thursday Spotify announced they were removing the music of R. Kelly from their internally curated playlists and from their algorithmic playlist recommendations. Joe Coscarelli at the New York Times diligently reported on the story and revealed that XXXTentacion experienced the same level of expulsion due to the company’s newly revealed New Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Public Policy. Forgive the long quote ahead, but I’m going to reference a bit the rest of the newsletter. This is Spotify’s explanation for this new policy (my emphasis added):

We’ve also 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. We work with and support artists in different ways - we make their music available on Spotify and help connect them to new and existing fans, we program and promote their music, and we collaborate with them to create content. While we don’t believe in censoring content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, we want our editorial decisions - what we choose to program - to reflect our values. So, in some circumstances, when an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

Seven organizations—The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Anti-Defamation League, Color Of Change, Showing Up for Racial Justice, GLAAD, Muslim Advocates, and the International Network Against Cyber Hate—were cited as partners to help Spotify with this policy. The Anti-Defamation League and Showing Up For Racial Justice confirmed to me that they’ve been working with Spotify on this policy for the last three months, but didn’t elaborate on what, if any, role they’d offer on further actions around this particular policy.

Speculation among trade publications is that this policy comes from Jonathan Price, the global head of communications and public policy. Reporting the last week shows that beyond external concern, there’s also been internal issues with making such a public pronouncement of this policy. That’s what led to Variety's speculation that Troy Carter, the global head of creator services, might be on the way out though Spotify vehemently denies such rumors. That internal strife is striking when one considers the initial artists removed from playlists: R. Kelly and XXXTentacion. Neither artists many people would say deserve support by a $25 billion company. Yet as Music Ally wrote this morning: "the fact that Spotify staff are leaking to Variety and Hits on the internal unrest should be a concern to the streaming service."

Why argue about New Music Friday, when you can leak out inner office politics.

Spotify the Jury

Last year Spotify announced their Secret Genius program that was done to highlight and champion songwriters. The program came with all kinds of promotional material, songwriting programs, an awards show (Frank Ocean attended!), and a podcast series.

I reported for Gizmodo last week that one of the people interviewed for the podcast series was R. Kelly, the r&b singer who at this point is probably better known for his decades of accusations of sexual abuse. A Spotify spokesperson told me that the removal of Kelly’s interview wasn’t promoted by their new policy. Now, I wanna say this morning I saw that the interview is still online if you go through the web version of the service.

Billboard did some excellent reporting on this topic last week in a piece by Hannah Karp and Daniel Rys they mentioned that Spotify for months tried to work with XXXTentacion, who is still facing charges of battery of pregnant women among other charges. Billboard specifically wrote:

Last year, before XXXTentacion inked a distribution deal with Capitol Music Group for his Bad Vibes Forever label, Spotify reached out to the Florida artist about creating editorial content around his album 17 as he faced multiple felony charges, all of which he has denied.

Spotify staff then reached out again for his editorial participation surrounding his album ? that was released in March through CMG’s Caroline. So it came as a surprise to the 20-year-old artist and his team on Thursday (May 10) when Spotify removed his music from its top playlists without warning to him or his camp…

Apparently last August and again this March, Spotify were eager and willing to work with XXXTentacion despite accusations facing the rapper. I can understand why the rapper and his team, who weren’t given a heads up, were a bit confused by 180 flip. Suddenly a company who was eager to work with this artist and be in their good graces shut that door in their face.

Spotify the Gatekeeper

Two years ago, the rapper Famous Dex was caught on camera beating his girlfriend. Though not mentioned on his Wikipedia page, the incident appeared to be a potential career-ender. However the graphic incident only delayed his momentum and earlier this year he released his debut album, Dex Meets Dexter, which peaked at #12 on the Billboard charts. Right now Famous Dex can be found on RapCaviar (9.5 Million Followers), Today’s Top Hits (19.9 Million Followers), Get Turnt (3.7 Million Followers), and many other high profile playlists. Famous Dex was never charged or convicted of his crime, but the grisly footage speaks for itself.

Spotify sidestepped offering commentary on individual cases, but when XXXTentacion was suddenly pulled while Famous Dex continues to rise up their internal playlist system there’s a reasonable question of what is guiding force behind these choices. The public outcry against Famous Dex wasn’t quite as loud, while his profile wasn’t as big. Still the incident received coverage in Complex and the Fader so it wasn’t completely ignored.

Billboard reported a very good question in a piece specific focusing on what are the ramifications of this potentially vague policy. A question I thought was smart by an unnamed executive was: "What about artists on a label run by someone who has harassed interns? Feels like a slippery slope for them.” Let’s not make this so abstract.

Earlier this year Variety reported that Charlie Walk, the former president of Republic Records, and Universal Music Group agreed to part ways earlier this year after a number of sexual harassment allegations were put towards Walk. Let’s look at some artists on Republic Records: Post Malone, who just scored a debut streaming week of 431 million streams, Drake, whose More Life “playlist,” got more than 385 million streams its opening week in 2017, and Ariana Grande whose single “No Tears Left to Cry” currently has over 121 million streams on Spotify alone.

I doubt Spotify would say the accusations facing Walk reflect their values and now that this policy exists how far up the ladder will it go. Major label contracts are often structured in a way that it’s the label, not the artist, who is benefiting the most from streaming royalties. So then potentially wouldn’t it make sense to make sure this judgment isn’t only felt by single artists, but entire labels and systems that prop up these bad actors.

An outcome of Spotify’s policy could be a shift in how record label handles these kinds of accusations and figures within the industry. If artists are going to be potentially blocked from one of the primary ways of music promotion, then why not also aim at executives who are the real moneymakers from these systems. Now it starts to make sense why this policy opened up so many difficult to answer questions.

The broader question of the role that music plays in society is a thread that Sasha Geffen excellently pulled together towards the end of their Vulture essay on this matter:

Spotify’s new policy is heartening, but it obscures a deeper problem in contemporary media consumption. Streaming services, like the rest of the internet, relentlessly individuate. They pose music listening not as a communal activity but as a personal habit that can be algorithmically accommodated based on user input...No music is ever made just for you. A song is, at its core, a link between artist and listener, and a fan base is by nature a community of people. That fans of a given artist have a social responsibility toward each other is a point often eschewed in favor of promoting individual boycotts and championing ethical media consumption.

This is what is so interesting about Spotify’s choice in announcing this policy. A company that wants to serve micro-target to just specifically you just decided to make a unilateral choice that’d affect all users without even providing an individualistic option like an artist ban or mute function. The choice runs against the company’s prevailing ideology while opening an unsealable can of worms. Spotify now dons a moral cop badge over music, when the company might’ve wanted to remember every good deed doesn't need a press release.

Google’s AI sounds like a human on the phone — should we be worried? - The Verge

There is no #musicangle here. I just thought this little bit of speculation on future technology to be super interesting. The last 12-18 months just show an increased skepticism around technology that previously would’ve been thought of as pointing towards the future, instead just opening endless ethical concerns.

‘Big Data’ is About to Become a Very Big Problem For the Music Industry - Music Business Worldwide

Well the #musicangle of that last story is probably found here. This piece just raises a lot of ethical questions about listener and user data and asks if the music industry is ready if all of a sudden certain methods of targeting fans and groups are regulated away. Not a bad time to think about how the changing tide of the internet around user privacy and security might touch a music industry that is right now attempting to solve all problems with data.

YouTube Launches a Range of Music Charts in 44 Countries - Music Ally

I love this. I’m a giant charts nerd and YouTube in particular already features some of the most interesting public streaming information, because you can look at the most streaming songs in most major cities around the globe. But, this formalizes something they’ve always provided so that’s fun. I’ll certainly be talking about this in some form or another later.

Here’s Exactly How Many Shares the Major Labels and Merlin Bought in Spotify – and What Those Stakes are Worth Now - Music Business Worldwide

Music Business Worldwide continues to be knocking it out of the part in terms of coverage. This piece helped shed further light on just how much major labels invested in Spotify and certainly helps clarify why they were so eager to sell at this point. The article notes that the three major labels along with Merlin bought all their Spotify stock for less than €9,000 for their combined stock, which is now worth over $2.6 billion. Yeah, not quite sure why one wouldn’t sell with that percentage increase.

Norwegian PRO Files Complaint Against Tidal Over Fake Streaming Allegations - Billboard

Tidal cannot escape the news this week. The Jay-Z backed music streaming service is now potentially being investigated by Norwegian songwriting firms over their potentially inflated streaming numbers. My plan is write a bit more about this entire mess next week, so I’ll just hold my pen till then.

Why Is Post Malone Dominating the Charts? - The Ringer

Last thing, the Ringer, producer of many of my favorite podcasts, just started a music podcast hosted by Micah Peters. He kindly invited me to chat about Spotify, R. Kelly, and their new policy on “hateful content.” Obviously that’s what this entire newsletter was about this week, but just in case you wanted to hear my voice then click away.