Spotify Is Officially Policing the Music It Hosts

Streaming service announces policy that "does not tolerate" hate content, but it's more complicated when it comes to artists

Spotify said it will no longer tolerate content that "expressly and principally promotes, advocates or incites hatred or violence" in a new policy. Credit: SASCHA STEINBACH/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Amid a period of racial unrest in the U.S. last year, Spotify removed several white nationalist “hate bands” from its catalog. On Thursday, it codified that action into official rules: Under a new public policy, Spotify will not tolerate content that “expressly and principally promotes, advocates or incites hatred or violence” based on personal characteristics like race, religion, sexual orientation and disability.

In a blog post, Spotify says that to detect hate music, it is partnering with rights advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which originally identified the bands that Spotify removed last year, and the Anti-Defamation League. It has also built an internal monitoring tool to find tracks that have been flagged on specific international registers. When alerted to potentially policy-violating content, Spotify may remove the music (after consulting with rights holders) or refrain from programming it onto the service. It’s not the only digital music service to take action against hate content – in 2014, for instance, Apple’s iTunes also removed white power groups from its platform – but it’s one of the first to craft official rules around it.

What’s much thornier, however, is the second part of Spotify’s policy, which deals with “hateful conduct.” The service says:

"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."

What does that actually mean? We’re getting a glimpse already. Immediately after announcing the policy, Spotify removed R. Kelly from promotion and playlists – but not its entire platform. Users can still listen to the music of the R&B singer, who has come under growing scrutiny in the last months after several women accused him of sexual violence, but his songs will not appear on playlists like RapCaviar or Discover Weekly. A rep for Kelly did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

“When we look at promotion, we look at issues around hateful conduct, where you have an artist or another creator who has done something off-platform that is so particularly out of line with our values, egregious, in a way that it becomes something that we don't want to associate ourselves with,” Spotify’s head of content and marketplace policy told Billboard.

It’s a fine line to walk: White nationalist bands overtly singing about violence toward minorities are one thing, but a high-profile artist who brings in a sizable audience is another. By wiping R. Kelly from playlists only, Spotify is acknowledging public pressure and social consciousness while also staying in artists’ and labels’ good graces. Still, the presence of a policy against “hateful conduct” raises even further questions: What happens to artists like XXXTentacion, the controversial rapper charged with multiple felonies for domestic abuse? 

A source close to Spotify says XXXTentacion's song "SAD!" has been removed from Spotify's popular RapCaviar playlist today, where it previously held the number 8 spot. No other artists are being affected today, the source says, though future cases will being evaluated on an individual basis.

Spotify admits that it its policy involves “complicated issues” that will require revisions and further iterations down the line. “We’ll make some mistakes, we’ll learn from them, and we’ll always listen to you as we work to keep building the Spotify platform,” the company says in the blog post.