As Spotify prepares to set up shop in the UAE, it has hit the headlines by banning the music of two American artists, R Kelly and rapper XXXTentacion, from its playlists.
On the face of it, you might conclude that the streaming service is correctly riding the righteous wave of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements – accusations of sexual impropriety with minors against R Kelly are skewering the R&B star's career, while XXXTentacion is awaiting trial for, among other charges, aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. These are serious allegations by any standards.
Yet Spotify's stance sets an interesting – and uncomfortable – precedent. Waiting until an artist has been convicted by a court of law, rather than forming a digital lynch mob, would make more sense. Innocent until proved guilty is, after all, the cornerstone of most civilised societies, and neither R Kelly or XXXTentacion have been convicted or imprisoned for their pending charges – although the latter has been whiling away his hours under house arrest.
In the context of music, though, there are more specific questions to be answered, and burning hypocrisies to address. Within an online sphere dominated by just a handful of streaming companies, should any of them be allowed to become judge and jury, dictating our listening based on their moral compasses? If this kind of censorship is the future, which offences warrant being struck off the artistic roll call and which don't? And most pertinently right now, why vilify just these two artists, when there is a long history of criminal behaviour from musicians and songwriters?
Then there is the whiff of racism, given that the two artists subject to the playlist ban are both black. Similarly, the two operate under the umbrella of urban music, which always seems an easy target for the moral majority. What about all the white rock, pop and country artists – even classical composers – who have fallen foul of the law and yet continue to inhabit Spotify's playlists?
The list is really lengthy, from killings and other assorted violence to all manner of sexual impropriety. For example, the Stone Roses' frontman Ian Brown was detained for a couple of months at Her Majesty's Pleasure in 1998 for threatening to chop off a flight attendant's hands. Lovely lad. Motley Crue singer Vince Neil could fill several paragraphs all on his own, with the lowlights including assaulting a sex worker and the 1984 manslaughter of the drummer of the band Hanoi Rocks in a car crash while way over the legal blood-alcohol level in California.
Pop music and its stars don't escape the rap sheet, either – such as that time in 2007 when Boy George was convicted of false imprisonment after chaining a man to a radiator in his home; or Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector, who is 10 years away from being eligible for parole after his 2009 murder conviction. Culture Club's songs and Spector's production work are still found in the playlists – although the latter point opens another debate about penalising innocent artists by association (Spector collaborated with a variety of big names during his decorated career, including the Beatles and the Righteous Brothers, before shooting a woman dead).
R Kelly got the playlist push because he stands accused of offences against minors, yet, for example, at the time of writing, British metal veterans Judas Priest have not been booted off. That is despite the fact that Dave Holland, drummer for the band during most of the 1980s, spent eight years behind bars for a sexual assault against a teenage boy with learning disabilities. Perhaps Priest's most famous song, Breaking the Law, from Holland's first album with the band, is an unfortunate playlist fixture to this day.
Skin colour and musical genres certainly can’t be the only factors at play here, however, if you consider that the likes of Chris Brown (who was convicted for felony assault of Rihanna) and Tupac Shakur (who was convicted of sexual abuse) continue to ply their musical wares on Spotify unabashed – from beyond the grave in Shakur’s case.
Further in the past, rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry, who died last year, did time in the US for transporting a 14-year-old waitress across state lines, after allegations that he also assaulted her. Johnny B Goode remains a playlist staple. Ike Turner – accused of domestic violence by his then wife, Tina – is among other legendary musicians who are still revered – and playlisted – despite troubling revelations about their private lives. A dozen or so of the couple's duets are, indeed, among those songs.
There is also the age-old discussion of whether it is possible to separate an artist from their art: R Kelly and XXXTentacion don't explicitly sing or rap about doing unspeakable things to young girls or beating women, so is their music acceptable listening even if the men on the mic turn out to be despicable human beings? In fact, the ban doesn't seem to be affecting R Kelly's success: yes he's now banned from Spotify's official playlists, but streaming of his music on the service has actually increased since the move.
It should be pointed out, though, that a handful of disgraced artists do not appear on Spotify's playlists. That includes the music of multimillion-selling Welsh rock band Lostprophets, whose frontman Ian Watkins is serving 29 years in jail after pleading guilty to 13 charges that include offences against young children. Paedophile Paul Gadd, alias glam-rocker Gary Glitter, is also notable by his absence. As is American singer-songwriter Rick James, who, in 1991, was found guilty of drug-fuelled, sexually motivated torture.
So what exactly is Spotify’s plan here? Instead of any victimisation or high-concept scheme, it seems more likely that no doubt well-intentioned employees jumped in with both feet without considering exactly how deep this particularly murky pool might end up being. But if real change is to happen, some consistency is undoubtedly required. Where Spotify goes next will be interesting, because if it takes this policy to its logical conclusion, half of its catalogue might have its playlists rights locked up.