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Spotify’s new block feature is worse than useless

Daniel Ek, CEO and Co-founder of Spotify in 2011 Courtesy of Stuart Isett/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Spotify’s recently announced “Don’t Play this Artist” feature, which would allow individual listeners to choose certain artists to effectively block from their streaming libraries, is beginning to be offered to select users as part of a roll out of the feature to the general public. While the company’s marketing for this feature showcases mundane usages like blocking the omnipresent-but-divisive Ariana Grande, it is clear that the streaming giant’s choice to announce this feature in mid-January was inspired by the recent rekindling of the “#muteRKelly” campaign after the release of filmmaker and activist dream hampton’s 6-part documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” in early January.

That series documented in unflinching detail not only R. Kelly’s long history of sexual abuse, manipulation and predation but also how the music industry has enabled him for more than two decades. It also brought to renewed prominence an ongoing debate over what to do about the music, and art more generally, of artists accused of serious misdeeds.

The “#muteRKelly” campaign, founded in the summer of 2017 by Atlanta Arts Administrator Oronike Odeleye and social justice organizer Kenyette Barnes, has focused on deplatforming the R&B singer and accused serial sexual abuser through lobbying for the cancellation of his shows and radio appearances and encouraging a general boycott of his music. In May 2018, the campaign achieved a victory that quickly turned to defeat, as Spotify went back on a decision to remove the music of R. Kelly and artists like XXXTentacion (who was accused before his death in 2018 of aggravated battery against a pregnant woman) from its curated playlists after outcry from prominent music industry figures like Kendrick Lamar.

Six months later, the streaming company’s announcement of the “Don’t Play This Artist” feature may look like a victory for “#muteRKelly” and other activists fighting against the normalization of sexual violence and predation in the music industry. Yet the feature is a hollow victory at best, addressing the complaints of listeners as petty personal grievances rather than critiques of a music industry that aids, abets and continues to fund sexual predators. The problem that it actually addresses— having to listen to artists you don’t want to listen to— is a trivial one. Unless you’re truly inept at using Spotify, avoiding even the most omnipresent artists is simple. It’s easy to identify which artists are in a given playlist, even if you did not make the playlist yourself, and even if you get thrown a song by an artist you despise randomly through Spotify’s algorithm, you can just give it a thumbs down (a note to the algorithm that you’d rather not have it come up) and skip it. Even an artist like Post Malone, who (in my case) is a unique combination of awful-sounding, hyper-popular, and adjacent to enough artists that I enjoy sincerely, is easy to excise from my streaming universe.

But “#muteRKelly” was never just about personal consumption. Most people who already had a strong personal stance on R. Kelly’s misdeeds were probably not listening to him very much, if at all, even before the most recent round of horrific allegations. Instead, the drive to deplatform artists like R. Kelly or rapper Kodak Black (accused of rape in 2016) is more about a power analysis of the music industry.

It’s simple: By allowing his music to be streamed, Spotify is providing a key source of both fiscal revenue and cultural cachet to R. Kelly (or any other sexual predator). We can watch this happen in real time— after the release of “Surviving R. Kelly” in January, his streams on the platform went up by 16 percent. When Spotify walked back their May 2018 decision to remove Kelly’s music from curated playlists, they claimed that they didn’t want to “regulate artists,” to become the arbiters of what was acceptable conduct from figures in the music industry. Yet by allowing access to music by figures like Kelly— especially in Spotify-sanctioned playlists that are heavily promoted on the platform— Spotify is de facto arbitrating that R. Kelly’s conduct is acceptable within the music industry. And by virtue of Spotify’s overwhelming role in the profits of the music industry, where it makes up approximately 36% percent of the overall streaming user base worldwide in an industry where streaming makes up about 75 percent of revenue, what Spotify decides is acceptable is acceptable.

So where does Spotify draw the line? Despite their claims that they don’t want to “regulate artists” in a negative sense, the company clearly has some standards for what they think is appropriate for their platform. Beyond the obvious legalistic concerns about copyright infringement and the like, the platform has also decided in recent months to remove podcasts by Alex Jones’ conspiracy-theory-peddling Infowars for violating the company’s “hate content” policy. Spotify’s line, it seems, lies somewhere between R. Kelly singing about being the “Pied Piper” of R&B and Alex Jones calling for Robert Mueller’s head.

The company’s defenders would claim that the difference is merely one of actual content— Kelly’s misdeeds are outside of the sphere of the material (songs, podcasts, whatever) actually offered on Spotify, and so the company has no responsibility, or even purview, over them. But such a view ignores the reality of the music industry. For any star as big as R. Kelly, commercial appeal and personal identity are inextricably linked. Pop stars and rappers weave their life stories into their work, and our perception of even their more innocuous songs is shaped by what we know about their personal lives— Chris Brown’s loverman persona became a lot less compelling once the world knew he was a domestic abuser. It’s not that we as listeners are making a choice to unify the art and the artist— the 21st century capitalist logic of monetized identity has crossed that river for us.

You can even see this in how R. Kelly has reacted to being accused of a laundry list of sexual predation. In July 2018, the singer finally responded at length to the 2017 report that he operated what has been described as a “sex cult” that included underage women. He didn’t do it through a press release, or an unfiltered statement on social media— instead he released a 19-minute quasi-diss track, entitled “I Admit.” The content of the track isn’t the point— he’s unrepentant, as you could probably expect. But its medium is the interesting part. In practice, artists use their songs as facets of themselves, as symbols or diaries that we must take as such.

Which takes us back to Spotify, and the perplexing matter of the “Don’t Play this Artist” button. In choosing to give individual users the ability to mute artists as a way out of the complex ethical knots of regulating content, the streaming company is trying to elude its role in the creation of musical prestige and identity in the modern age. Spotify is not a just a platform for individual users to make ethically neutral, personal and limited choices on what they want to listen to— it’s a determiner of music taste, and therefore music listening patterns, and therefore musical and professional success for a certain elect of performers. And so the company has a certain responsibility— not just for the content it puts on its platform, but for the creators that cannot be extricated from that content.

Spotify seems to think it can get around that responsibility by shifting the burden of ethical consumption to its userbase. But it’s clear that the solution it has offered is a stop gap at best, and useless and counterproductive at worst. That’s not just my take, or the opinion of the activists with the “#muteRKelly” campaign— it can be seen in the actions of artists, from Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga to Phoenix, who have removed their own collaborations with R. Kelly from Spotify since the start of January. The makers of the material that Spotify runs on are coming alive to the ethical implications of their choice. The only question is, when will the company itself come to the same realization?

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