Why Spotify's R. Kelly decision on hateful conduct matters

R. Kelly's actions take on a new tenor in the #MeToo era, and Spotify is planting a flag.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
4 min read
R. Kelly sings into a microphone in a studded leather jacket

R&B star R. Kelly has come under heightened scrutiny lately for decades-long claims of abusive sexual misconduct. He's rejected the allegations.  

Getty Images

Spotify isn't shying away from making artists face the music. 

Spotify on Thursday initiated a new policy around hate. It lets the music-streaming service ban or bury music or artists it judges to be "hateful," whether it be songs that incite violence or artists whose conduct it won't tolerate. On Friday, Pandora followed suit. 

R. Kelly is the first. While the R&B star's catalog will remain to stream on Spotify, and you can listen to or playlist any songs of his you like, Spotify itself won't promote Kelly's material. Spotify later said it is also pulling music by rapper XXXTentacion, who faces 2016 charges including aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, from playlists and promotion too. That means you won't see them popping up in your Discovery Weekly playlist or in any of the company's own curated mixes, like RapCaviar

It's a measure sure to trigger whataboutism and muddy the water about the kinds of content Spotify may suppress, but one message is clear: As its elder tech giants like Apple, YouTube and Facebook sidestep or struggle to find their place as arbiters of values, Spotify isn't going to shy away from playing cop -- and not solely based on the content of the music. The conduct of the artist, even allegations, are fair game. 

We join the call to #MuteRKelly and insist on the safety + dignity of all women. We demand investigations into R. Kelly's abuse allegations made by women of color + their families for two decades. We call on those who profit from his music to cut ties. #MuteRKelly #TIMESUP #WOC pic.twitter.com/TYmDRVIH00

— Ava DuVernay (@ava) April 30, 2018

Look at any tech-media company's terms of service and you'll find boilerplate pretty similar to what Spotify released Thursday. Generally, Spotify's published policy states the streaming-music service may completely remove or abstain from promoting or playlisting any music that "expressly and principally promotes, advocates or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual." 

But Spotify's hateful conduct element is atypical in light of the Kelly decision.  


Spotify CEO Daniel Ek grown Spotify into the biggest subscription music service in the world.

Joan Solsman/CNET

"We don't censor content because of an artist's or creator's behavior, but we want our editorial decisions -- what we choose to program -- to reflect our values," Spotify says in the guidelines. "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." 

On face value, even that language isn't much different than what many tech companies espouse. But it's the application of those principles where giants like Facebook and YouTube are drowning. 

YouTube and Facebook, which unlike Spotify allow anyone to post material, grew to massive scale thanks to the free flow of creativity their platforms fostered. But examples of outrageous content existing -- and sometimes thriving -- on their platforms has exposed their failure to equip themselves for the responsibilities of their scale.  For years, both loathed the implications of becoming more of a content cop. (Neither Facebook nor YouTube responded to messages seeking comment.)

Spotify doesn't have the same scale challenges as YouTube or Facebook. Spotify has 170 million people using its service at least once a month; YouTube has more than 1.8 billion, and Facebook has 2.2 billion. Independent creators have avenues for putting their material on Spotify, but it's not nearly as simple as uploading a clip to YouTube or posting a Facebook status. 

But today Spotify is arguably the most powerful single force in getting an artist's music heard and getting that artist paid. It's the biggest subscription music service by users at a time when music listening is rapidly shifting to streaming. Decisions to promote -- or suppress -- certain artists can make or break emerging stars and meaningfully effect the flow of funds to established ones. 

Enter the Kelly conflict

Kelly has come under heightened criticism lately as decades-long claims of his sexual misconduct, sometimes with underage women, took on a new tenor in the #MeToo era. Though Kelly was acquitted in a child pornography case in 2008, he's settled numerous lawsuits, and the accumulation of testimonies about his behavior has mounted. A damaging, exhaustive Buzzfeed report last year renewed attention on Kelly's treatment of women, especially young black women. 

Kelly has repeatedly rejected allegations of abuse and misconduct. (Kelly's manager didn't respond to message seeking comment, but his management team issued a statement to the New York Times that said Spotify's decision was unfortunate and shortsighted.) 

This week, powerful women like director Ava DuVernay and actress Lupita_Nyong'o put their weight behind a #MuteRKelly campaign, part of an effort by advocacy group Time's Up to pressure Spotify and Apple Music to demonstrate dignity for women in their treatment of Kelly's work.  

Thank you @Spotify for your leadership. #TIMESUP #MuteRKelly https://t.co/uuw2XdEma3

— TIME'S UP (@TIMESUPNOW) May 10, 2018

Apple, Spotify's biggest competitor, hasn't weighed in. Apple Music was even pursuing a video project with R. Kelly last year, according to an interview, a sequel to Kelly's R&B opera "Trapped in the Closet," under the wing of former Apple Music head Jimmy Iovine. (Apple didn't respond to a message seeking comment.)

How Spotify adjudicates its new policy will necessarily exist in gray areas, and the company will try to make the best decisions on a case-by-case basis, "but it's hard," a person close to the decision-making said. 

Spotify may be opaque about how it'll apply its new conduct policy, but Kelly's penalty makes it clear the policy isn't lip service. 

That puts the spotlight on Apple. 

The story originally ran on May 10 at 4:50 pm PT. 

Updated on May 11 at 9:45 am PT: To include Pandora following Spotify. 

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