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Can Spotify Solve the Art-vs.-Artist Problem?

On Thursday, the streaming service announced a decision to remove R. Kelly and XXXTentacion from its curated playlists—and stumbled into a debate that has stumped the industry for decades

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Thanks to Spotify, we’re about to find out how much conceptual weight the word especially can bear. On Thursday, the monolithic streaming service announced that it had removed two enormously troubled and troubling stars — legacy R&B giant R. Kelly and young rapper XXXTentacion — from its playlists. This is far from a symbolic protest, particularly in XXX’s case: Industry sources told Billboard that Spotify’s popular and industry-transformational playlists account for 20 to 30 percent of the company’s streams overall, and closer to 50 percent for newer music. In making this decision, the single most dominant delivery system in the music business is voluntarily assuming a huge amount of moral authority. And it hinges on one word. Here’s the statement Spotify gave Billboard:

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. 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.

That especially is visibly sweating. Spotify is betting that it’s chosen two singularly heinous targets, ones that won’t trigger a slippery-slope avalanche. The sexually explicit accusations against R. Kelly — all of which he denies, and which have been legally confined to his 2008 acquittal on child-pornography charges — stretch back for decades. That he’s a flash point this week is less about new information coming to light (though fearsome reporter and tireless Kelly foe Jim DeRogatis wrote yet another disturbing report about the singer’s relationships with young women for BuzzFeed in 2017) than it is a reflection of our national climate. The theory is that the #MeToo movement, with backing from the Time’s Up organization and a pointed #MuteRKelly campaign, can finally bring him down, and that if his devout fans can’t be shamed into abandoning him, perhaps his longtime industry enablers can.

As for XXX, a budding superstar accused of genuinely appalling crimes, including false imprisonment and aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, the stakes are higher for him and Spotify both. R. Kelly is a legacy artist with no recent hits but little reliance on music-discovery engines. Meanwhile, Spotify promotions have been instrumental to XXX’s rise, including his prominence on the enormously influential RapCaviar playlist, and he’s far from the only young rapper with legal troubles. But you could find similar examples in almost any musical genre, at any time in history. And that’s where Spotify’s trouble starts, and likely will never end.

Part of what makes this move so unprecedented is that the power of Spotify is unprecedented. The music industry has always had ungodly powerful gatekeepers, from radio to MTV to even retail giants like Walmart, back when physical CD sales still mattered. But this is far different. “The main reason that Spotify is so powerful is that it’s two things at once,” says Craig Marks, a longtime journalist, editorial director of Townsquare Media, and coauthor with Rob Tannenbaum of the 2011 book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. “It’s a distribution system, and it’s a promotional system. And essentially that’s never happened in the history of the recorded-music business, where something was both definitely the most powerful distribution outlet and one of, if not the, most powerful promotional outlets as well.”

Streaming services like Spotify — and Apple Music, the company’s closest competitor, which has reportedly removed R. Kelly from many of its own playlists, but has not commented publicly — are both the way most consumers play new music and the way they find new music. Marks himself wrote a widely cited 2017 New York magazine story about the rise of RapCaviar, hailing it as “the most influential playlist in music” in an era when playlists are the single most important vehicle for music overall. “It’s their signature promotional accomplishment,” Marks tells me now. “And if they really have to start policing that, my 13-year-old son’s gonna be pissed, I’ll tell you that.”

Historically, there is no artist-vs.-gatekeeper battle that comes close to this intensity level. (Spotify did ban a number of white-supremacist bands from the service in 2017.) “I can’t think of anything in history that compares to this,” says author and longtime Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield. “For an artist to get banned to the point where their music is classified as hate content, if it’s filed with Skrewdriver or something, I can’t think of any precedent for that.”

On the other hand, streaming services rely heavily on veteran artists who’ve encountered serious legal troubles. “Whenever I listen to Spotify, I hear Snoop Dogg doing ads for erectile-dysfunction medication,” Sheffield says. “And Snoop Dogg’s someone who was accused of a felony, and went on trial, and was acquitted — ‘Murder Was the Case,’ he’s had records about that. The question with R. Kelly is where the line gets drawn.”

In terms of major outlets banning a specific artist for specific behaviors, the nearest analogue is country music’s near banishment of the Dixie Chicks after singer Natalie Maines’s 2003 onstage comments about then-president George W. Bush, but that was an entirely political fight. British glam-pop star Gary Glitter was jailed in Vietnam in 2006 for sexual molestation, then sentenced to 16 years by a London judge in 2015 on sex-abuse charges, but his career was long over by then, or had at least been reduced to one maddeningly ubiquitous song. (“If you go to a sporting event or a wedding or something now,” Sheffield notes, “you’re still gonna hear ‘Rock & Roll Pt. 2.’”) More recently, the queer-punk duo PWR BTTM had their critically acclaimed 2017 album, Pageant, scrubbed from streaming services and disowned by their label almost immediately after release, following accusations of sexual abuse and anti-Semitism leveled against singer Ben Hopkins. Overnight, the band all but ceased to exist.

Two case studies from the MTV era are Michael Jackson and Guns N’ Roses. Alongside endless controversies over both GNR’s explicit album art and occasionally racist and anti-gay lyrical content, domestic-abuse allegations against frontman Axl Rose made the cover of People in 1994. But the band enjoyed radio and MTV ubiquity regardless. “If any artist created almost any kind of headlines, good or bad, that would usually prompt MTV to play them more, not less,” Marks notes. And Guns N’ Roses was a special case overall: “There was controversy,” Sheffield says, “but both the media and the band itself cultivated that controversy as part of the mystique.”

In 1993, Michael Jackson was accused of sexual molestation by a 13-year-old boy. “He was on a roll at that point,” Sheffield recalls of MJ. “Early ’93, late ’92, he was more visible than he’d been in a decade. He had that amazing Oprah interview special. He appeared at the Grammys with Janet. He sang at the Super Bowl. Then these accusations happened, and it went from this renaissance to this sort of interzone where nothing like this had happened before.”

What happened after that was, from an industry perspective, close to nothing. “He continued like it was business as usual, and the radio and MTV just sort of went along with that,” Sheffield says. “Taking advantage of the plausible deniability. It seemed like there was this sort of double-thinking: ‘Well, whatever he’s done in his personal life, it doesn’t affect the music.’ The radio kept playing those songs, and he was still on MTV.”

Even Kurt Cobain weighed in, cautiously, on Jackson’s side. “In retrospect it’s really weird,” Sheffield says. “But it was such a new situation. There was a palpable mass confusion about how to respond to it.”

That mass confusion still reigns supreme: The music industry has struggled mightily with how to handle Chris Brown, and Dr. Dre, and Brand New, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and R. Kelly and XXXTentacion since. Spotify is stumbling into “separating the art from the artist” quandaries that have stumped us for decades, and passing judgments with unprecedentedly major consequences for major artists with loyal fan bases. Per The New York Times, Spotify has deputized Jonathan Prince, the service’s vice president of content and marketplace policy, to lead the committee making these calls, with input from Glaad, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Perhaps R. Kelly and XXX are the only two artists who will ever be punished; perhaps, by this time next week, Spotify will have de-playlisted half its catalog. Neither outcome will please everyone, or, for that matter, anyone. If only there were an algorithm.