The words above weren’t supposed to be the headline of this column. The headline was supposed to be: “Kanye West just did an album release all wrong. Brilliantly.” I planned to delve into how Kanye, with the new Donda, has clearly learned lessons from heritage acts in how to print money from super-fans using scarcity. With his album preview concerts and associated merch grossing millions before Joe Public has even heard a note of the record, West expertly monetized the anticipation of a record release — knowing that the monetization of an actual record release is becoming an increasing challenge, even for global icons. He also borrowed tricks from other frontline artists: By squeezing 27 tracks onto Donda, for example, West is gaming the same streaming metrics that led Drake’s 25-track “Scorpion” to smash streaming records in 2018.
I was going to explore all that — but then, during his final Donda preview show in Chicago on August 26th, West brought out Marilyn Manson.
And then today (September 3rd), Drake has released his album Certified Lover Boy.
Guess what musician it samples? None other than R. Kelly.
With the Manson appearance, West might have been making some sort of deliberate point about religious redemption or the relish with which his audience can cast judgement on social media. West also brought out DaBaby, who’s been in hot water for homophobic comments. Yet the allegations currently being leveled against Manson in particular, real name Brian Warner, are beyond egregious. They don’t require scrutiny in the kangaroo court of so-called “cancel culture”: They require the criminal justice system.
The shock of Manson’s appearance at West’s show triggers two thoughts: First, at what point of the lifecycle of credible accusations should an artist’s music be throttled or muted on streaming services — if ever? And secondly, if their alleged conduct is deemed awful enough to deserve any kind of ban, who will actually do the banning?
We could all rage at each other all day on the first here, with the answer largely dependent on your faith in the US legal system, and your personal definition of freedom of expression. Personally, I’m instinctually against the idea of taking down Manson’s music from listening catalogs because I typically see the music and the music-maker existing as separate entities. At the same time, there’s something undeniably icky about the fact men accused of sickening crimes continue to rake in big streaming dollars each day — alongside their record labels and music publishers.
R. Kelly’s recorded music catalog, for example, remains on all streaming services even as he stands trial. Despite being dropped by Sony/RCA for records and Universal Music Publishing Group for publishing for future releases, both entities continue to see good money flowing in from his catalog. Like Manson, Kelly has just over 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. If his listeners are pressing play on an average of three tracks a month, that’s over $700,000 generated each year just on one service, not including publishing. And now there’s his composing credit on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy track “TSU” — surely swelling his revenue stream by a not-unsignificant amount.
Largely because of the continued availability — and proven popularity — of R.Kelly’s catalog on streaming services, he may, buyer-dependent, be able to command a rich price for the piece of his share of his publishing catalog. Kelly is currently trying to sell these rights, for a price that Billboard estimates could be worth between $8 million and $21 million, but the industry has largely considered him too toxic a figure to rope into a deal, at least presently.
What are the cultural gatekeepers, like Spotify, or Universal Music Group (UMG), meant to do? How are they to decide whether the earnings of an accused transgressor should ever be dampened?
Like it or lump it, the moral cherrypicking of music does happen regularly in another part of the music industry: synchronization licenses, or sync, which is the sector of the business that handles music placement in other mediums like films, television, and advertisements. It would take a brave cosmetics brand, for example, to plop Manson’s “Beautiful People” at the center of an ad campaign, and American Airlines won’t likely be touching “I Believe I Can Fly” with a barge pole anytime soon. The value of Bob Dylan’s song catalog — bought by UMG for around $400 million in 2020 — is, to a large degree, dependent on its “sync-ability,” and that brand-friendliness has likely been affected, at least for the moment, by the recent accusations against Dylan of historical sexual abuse.
This brings onto talking point two: Let’s say for argument’s sake that enough of the world agrees that the catalog of an individual artist like R.Kelly or Marilyn Manson 100% deserves to have its value gutted via the medium of a streaming takedown. Who’ll actually do the deed?
This question is all-the-more pertinent following recent events in Germany where, in mid-June, Universal Music Group responded to fierce public outcry when its distributed rapper, Samra, was accused of rape. Initially, following the allegation, Universal Music Germany posted a public message on Instagram noting that it “condemns all forms of violence in the strongest possible way.” But evidently, this wasn’t strong enough. Less than 24 hours later, a new post appeared, with Universal confessing that its prior words did not do sufficient “justice to this important topic.” UMG added: “Due to the seriousness of the allegations [against Samra], we have decided to suspend our cooperation with the artist in question until the allegations have been clarified.” That suspension doesn’t appear to have affected Samra’s catalog, which continues to be distributed by Universal Germany’s Urban subsidiary. However, the artist’s newest release “Paradies” is being distributed by another company (iGrooves), suggesting Universal came good on its pledge to cut ties.
That in itself doesn’t amount to an actual content takedown by Universal — but it foreshadows another piece of action taken by the company that is particularly relevant here. On June 19th, just two days after Universal Germany’s initial “condemning all forms of violence” notice, the firm’s Urban subsidiary announced that it had removed a track by the popular rapper Nimo from all digital services.
Why would a major record company censor its own artist? Because the offending track contained the lyric: “I fuck her till she’s almost dead; she is in a vegetative state.”
This time, the outcry was caused by a track’s content, rather than an artist’s conduct. But it was also clear that — having just made its Samra-related proclamations RE: “all forms of violence” — Universal found itself with little other choice than to rip down its own client’s work from Spotify et al.
If a label or distributor isn’t going to step up, will the streaming giants? Not likely. Recall the awkwardness of Spotify’s 2018 foray into this subject, when it attempted to play moral police by removing the music of the rapper and alleged abuser XXXTentacion from popular playlists, but had to immediately roll the idea back after public outcry. The streamer got its fingers burned, and it won’t be trying that again anytime soon. (Spotify still has a “hateful content” policy in place, but it publicly torched the “hateful conduct” element.)
“We created concern that an allegation might affect artists’ chances of landing on a Spotify playlist and negatively impact their future,” read Spotify’s statement confirming its walk-back. “Some artists even worried that mistakes made in their youth would be used against them. “That’s not what Spotify is about. We don’t aim to play judge and jury.”
Thing is, there is no obvious party in the music industry who will play judge and jury when it comes to the catalogs of individuals accused of — or even convicted of — heinous and harmful personal misconduct.
There is a robust argument that removing an artist’s music following an allegation condemns them as guilty before they’re able to prove otherwise. But that’s a separate discussion, perhaps one for lawyers or ethicists to settle. When it comes to the question of how much streaming money artists like Manson or Kelly should be receiving every day during the heightened stage of scandal — well, that’s a question the music industry sometimes seems to pretend doesn’t exist at all.
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a regular column for Rolling Stone.