What Went Wrong With Spotify’s ‘Hateful Conduct’ Policy?

The company’s quickly abandoned stance against misbehavior is a sign that the record industry still doesn’t want to police the ethics of its stars.

R. Kelly and Lady Gaga performed together in 2013.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The #MeToo movement is often talked about as a cultural shift, but it is also—or at least seeks to be—a shift in business practices. That’s not only because workplaces, in a post-#MeToo world, should be safer for women. Corporations also have to weigh ethics, PR, and the bottom line as they decide whether to ditch  expensive talent and stop profiting off content made by abusers. For the #MeToo ideal of creeps not prospering to become a reality will, queasily, require corporate America to act as a major moral—and by proxy, yes, cultural—arbiter.

The thorniness of this entanglement between money and mores explains the recent flailing by Spotify around small anti-abuse reforms. In May, the streaming service announced a “hate content and hateful conduct policy” that would, among other things, exclude some alleged predators from promotion on playlists. Such exclusion, a modest penalty for misconduct, would have been among the very few examples of famous musicians facing #MeToo-related consequences. Yet the recording business fought back for the status quo, and Spotify is now “moving away from implementing a policy around artist conduct.”

What went wrong? Spotify’s explanation is unhelpful. “As some have pointed out, this language was vague and left too many elements open to interpretation,” the company’s statement rolling back the policy said. “We created concern that an allegation might affect artists’ chances of landing on a Spotify playlist and negatively impact their future.” Of course, that “concern” was originally a feature and not a bug: The policy implied that artists credibly said to act monstrously should have their future careers jeopardized.

On the other hand, the company’s mea culpa about “vague language” is itself vague enough to be true. Spotify never spelled out what, exactly, would get someone zapped from a playlist. The first three artists to be affected faced very different circumstances: the R&B stalwart R. Kelly has been said to prey on young women for decades (he has denied allegations of coercion and statutory rape), the young rapper XXXTentacion has been charged with a number of crimes that include beating his then-girlfriend while she was pregnant (he maintains his innocence as he awaits trial), and the yet-younger rapper Tay-K is in custody on murder and robbery charges (he also maintains his innocence). If anything united all three men, it was, glaringly, their race. No white artists were similarly singled out. “It seems to me that they’re constantly picking on hip-hop culture,” the label executive Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith told Billboard.

It’s a fair point. One way to address it would be to draw clearer guidelines that affect artists across genres and backgrounds. Tellingly, Spotify is not doing that, but rather giving up the effort altogether.

Which must be a relief for many in the industry. Whatever standard Spotify might have drawn against misconduct would necessarily have a precedent-setting effect: Other gatekeepers, from record labels to ticket-sellers to rival streaming services, would be asked why they weren’t taking action against the same artists. This could have, in turn, imperiled a lot of expensive assets. For icons like John Lennon and Dr. Dre to suddenly become unmarketable thanks to renewed attention to their offenses would come at no small cost. Ditto ending the careers of every rocker, rapper, and R&B star newly accused of doing something terrible.

After the “hateful conduct” policy was implemented, coming as a surprise to many in the industry, some labels and major artists threatened to remove their catalogues from the service. “I was willing to get the whole culture to back out,” Tiffith said to Billboard. “There were other people in the business, other powerful artists that were willing to back what I was saying, because nobody agrees with censorship like that.” Those “other people in the business” include Kendrick Lamar, who’s on Tiffith’s roster. They also include Sean “Diddy” Combs and the former Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, who with Tiffith aired their grievances directly to Spotify chief Daniel Ek.

The situation highlights how Spotify, for all its enormous reach, is fundamentally a middleman between consumers and the entities who own the songs. It relies on relationships with enormous record companies—some of whom hold financial stakes in Spotify—and it faces tough competition from monoliths like Apple and Amazon. If Spotify had stayed firm in its ethical position, it could have jeopardized its market position, which in turn would have lessened the potency of that ethical stance. A middleman can only do so much.

Who, instead, might be able to enact reforms in the music world? The few scattered cases of reprisal after allegations of misconduct are instructive. The indie rockers of PWR BTTM were dropped by their label after allegations made it seem as though the band’s loudly proclaimed progressive gender politics were hollow, betraying the very values that attracted fans to the band. The emo act Brand New cancelled its tour after several opening bands withdrew from their bookings in the wake of disturbing revelations about frontman Jesse Lacey. Just last week, the young and buzzy rap collective Brockhampton ejected one of its members when accusations of mistreatment surfaced. In all cases, the “cancellation” was implemented at a level closer to the grassroots—closer, in other words, to the fans and the scene and the other artistic stakeholders—than to the boardrooms.This might suggest there is something to the idea of a true cultural change after all.

But there’s little evidence that artists at the higher reaches of the industry—who have years of major-label investment behind them, and whose fanbases often include diehards who dismiss all bad news about their idols—are very vulnerable to outcry, nor that misconduct reliably sways public sentiment dramatically enough to end a career. Take for example Chris Brown, who pled guilty in one of the most high-profile domestic-abuse cases ever (and who has reliably continued to be at the center of scandal). He put out an album last fall, is featured on a song currently in the Hot 100, and is promoted on Spotify playlists like “I Love My ’00s R&B.”

It’s not as though Brown’s offenses are underpublicized, and so it seems that for his career to suffer in the era of #MeToo would require his business partners to take the initiative. To see what this might look like, look no further than Hollywood, where major networks and studios have quickly ditched stars like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose and signaled a desire to diversify hiring processes. It is, to be clear, halting work: A number of disgraced men are now mounting comebacks, and it’s to be seen whether the much-publicized push for “inclusion riders” is actually effecting change. Still, film and TV have seen a lot more #MeToo-related activity than the music industry, where there have been only a few scattered firings and resignations, a tellingly regressive comment from the head of the Recording Academy, and the overdue formation of a “diversity and inclusion task force.”

There is, at least, one musician continuing to be significantly targeted by sustained and mounting backlash: R. Kelly. The recent #MuteRKelly campaign, started by activists Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye and supported by famous names like Shonda Rhimes, asks that music-business institutions cut ties with him. A few concerts of his have been cancelled, and Spotify’s initial policy change may well have been made in consideration of the campaignwhich is a sign that public pressure can, in fact, accomplish some things. The successful pushback from within the industry against Spotify’s decision, though, suggests where the greater amount of power still lies, and where the culture has still, yet, to change.