Music not politically correct? Spotify will protect you

September 2017

Recorded music, streaming


Bands like Rage Against the Machine, Dead Kennedys and Public Enemy exemplify the fact that music is political and vice versa. 

But how political is too political? In 2014 The Sothern Poverty Law Centre published a list of ‘white power’ artists, in which 37 artists including ‘Skull Head’ and ‘Tattooed Mother Fuckers’ were featured. The list was originally intended to target the iTunes store, and at the time Apple did remove many of the artists from download sales.

The list has recently resurfaced, in the aftermath of the race related protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Spotify has now taken action to remove artists that are identified as white supremacist hate bands. 

Spotify has over 140 million users, but the question should be asked: do these users need to be told what they can and cannot listen to? Well, a spokesperson for the service, which claims to be a champion of free speech, stated that “Illegal content or material that favors hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality, or the like is not tolerated by us.” 

Spotify’s competitor Deezer has also joined in, and has also taken moves to decide what users can and cannot listen to. A spokes person for the streaming platform stated “We are in the process of swiftly and actively reviewing the content on our platform and have begun and will continue to remove any material that is in any way connected to any white supremacist movement or belief system.”

Not long ago Spotify introduced the ‘I’m With the Banned’ project, the project aims to support and promote artists from counties that are affected from the US’s travel ban. Spotify has gone on to compound the ban of ‘white power’ artists with the introduction of the ‘Patriotic Passion’ playlist. The playlist has been described as “a sound track to and America worth fighting for”: But what exactly that? Is that political? Or is that too political? Well with the likes of N.W.A and 2 Live Crew featured alongside Lady Gaga and Funkadelic with ‘One Nation Under A Groove’, it is very hard to tell. 

Whilst Spotify has set out its criteria for offensive music that will be removed, it is hard to see how it will be fairly implemented. Will ‘One In A Million’ by Guns N’ Roses be removed for talking about “Radicals and racists”; will the Sex Pistols be removed for inciting ‘anarchy in the UK’? 

Let’s not forget the Pistols first main ‘Anarchy’ tour was mostly banned when punk was in its infancy and their ‘God Save The Queen’ single was banned from BBC and local radio and controversially never made it to number one in the charts. All but three dates on the band’s tour were cancelled. The first show, which was due to be held at the University of East Anglia, was banned by vice-chancellor Dr Frank Thistlethwaite “on the grounds of protecting the safety and security of persons and property”. After the Pistlos TV appearance with Bill Grundy when they swore, subsequent national newspaper headlines and the ensuing ‘moral panic’ led venues (usually under pressure from enraged local councillors) to cancel dates; the surviving Caerphilly gig was picketed by carol-singing Christian protesters. One local councillor Ray Davies who was a vocal opponent of the concert in 1976 now has a very different view saying “I’ve got some great regrets when I look back at it because [of] who am I, a fuddy-duddy councillor, to tell young people what they should listen to, what they should enjoy and how they should conduct themselves and their lives?”

Bernard Brook-Partridge, a Conservative member of the Greater London Council and chairman of the Arts committee from 1977, declared, “Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death. The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it.”

In the UK in the 1970s, Mary Whitehouse initiated a successful private prosecution against Gay News on the grounds of blasphemous libel, the first such case for more than 50 years. Another private prosecution against the director of the play The Romans in Britain, which had been performed at the National Theatre and included a scene of male rape, was withdrawn, but Whitehouse continued to campaign to reform the BBC and what see saw wass the organisations “propaganda of disbelief, doubt and dirt … promiscuity, infidelity and drinking”.

But back to Spotify and the current removal of tracks: How far will this go? And who decides?  What about older historical records? There is a playlist for Nazi marching band songs – how would that be treated? It’s not a ‘hate band’ is it? Should the tracks be removed or ‘banned’ because of their association with the far right –  or should they be treated as being part of a historical collection with a relevance in describing the Nazi regime? 

Music distributor CD Baby has encouraged members of its community to get in touch if they find there is music on its platform that constitutes hate speech.

One thing is for certain, for now Spotify will be in charge of determining where the line should be drawn, but in the longer term it may become increasingly difficult to determine exactly where that line will be. 

By Sam O’Toole

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