Updated 5:30 p.m. ET, May 10 with a statement from R. Kelly's management team.
The music streaming giant Spotify, with 75 million subscribers and 170 million monthly users, announced a new policy this morning regarding music that it believes to contain "hate content." Alongside the announcement, Spotify also confirmed that one of the first artists to be affected by the policy would be R. Kelly, the R&B singer who has been accused of extensive sexual misconduct dating back nearly two decades, but whose actions have been the subject of renewed focus in the last year. In April, Kelly was condemned by a group of women of color within the Time's Up movement, who called for labels and streaming services — including Spotify — to cut ties with the singer.
"We are removing R. Kelly's music from all Spotify owned and operated playlists and algorithmic recommendations such as Discover Weekly. His music will still be available on the service, but Spotify will not actively promote it," a further statement from Spotify provided to NPR reads. "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. 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."
Spotify says it will take a three-tiered approach to policing hate on its platform. First, it is partnering with several advocacy groups — its announcement lists 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. (The groups will serve as "advisors," according to a company spokesperson.) Second, it is introducing an algorithmic internal monitor called AudioWatch. And third, a hear-something-say-something approach, giving people the option of reporting content as well.
"We believe in openness, diversity, tolerance and respect, and we want to promote those values through music and the creative arts," its policy begins. It goes on to define hate speech on the platform as any that promotes or incites violence towards people or groups because of "race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability." The company also states that 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."
Spotify has also removed the rapper XXXTentacion — who is facing charges of domestic abuse in Florida — from its popular Rap Caviar playlist, which, according to a report by The New York Times, included a song by the rapper as recently as Wednesday.
"Spotify has the right to promote whatever music it chooses," a statement from R. Kelly's management reads, "and in this case its actions are without merit. It is acting based on false and unproven allegations. It is bowing to social-media fads and picking sides in a fame-seeking dispute over matters that have nothing to do with serving customers."
The punishment is a potentially impactful one on artists' (and labels', and managers') bottom lines. The artist-anointing and sustaining powers of Spotify's playlists and algorithmic recommendations are well-known — in a service with some 35 million songs, there's little option for stumbling into things without them. High visibility on the platform can easily translate into success elsewhere.
"It is important that those who market the work of problematic entertainers stand, in the end, with their company's collective values," writes Kenyette Tisha Barnes, a co-founder of the #MuteRKelly campaign, in an email to NPR. "Although Spotify did state that the decision was not solely due to public pressure from #MuteRKelly, one can infer that the public outrage and support from #MeToo and #TimesUp, was in part, influential in the decision to select R. Kelly as the first artist to be removed under this new policy. We find this decision by Spotify a victory, and is just another step in our mission."
With the announcement, Spotify has potentially increased the pressure on other companies in the music industry to better define their own approach to similar situations. Kelly's label, RCA, which has not responded to multiple requests for comment by NPR on the allegations against Kelly and the response from Time's Up and other industry groups. RCA's parent company, Sony, has declined to comment on Kelly as well, referring reporters back to RCA. Live Nation — the concert giant reportedly under investigation by the Department of Justice — has also declined multiple requests for comment on Kelly. Last year, when Fulton County, Georgia's board of commissioners requested a concert by Kelly at the Wolf Creek Amphitheater — a venue owned by Fulton County and administered by Live Nation — be canceled, Live Nation's chief communications officer Carrie Davis declined to comment except to say the concert would go on as scheduled.
While R. Kelly is the first artist directly addressed by Spotify, others have been affected by internal content policies at the company, too. Last summer, in response to the violence in Charlottesville, bands espousing white supremacy were removed entirely from the service's catalog.
The track record of tech companies policing the content on their platforms, whether through crowdsourcing or internal monitoring, is spotty. Recall Facebook's removal of the Associated Press' historic 1972 photo of a nine-year-old girl fleeing in terror during the Vietnam War. The controversial cartoonist Joan Cornella, whose work often depicts sunny scenes of violence in surrealistic social satire, has had his work removed by Facebook on its subsidiary — and standalone social media giant — Instagram. Policing not only the content but the conduct of artists will likely present further complications to their enforcement.
"There will always be content that is acceptable in some circumstances, but is offensive in others, and we will always look at the entire context," Spotify writes in a blog post.
At press time, the Spotify-branded playlist "This Is R. Kelly" remained viewable and streamable.