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The Implications of Spotify Artist Blocking

A forthcoming feature will allow Spotify users to block certain artists from playing in their libraries. This is a great solution for empowering subscribers to limit who monitizes from the music they stream, but what are the broader implications to others who benifit from the royalties of abusive artists?

The other day, The Verge reported that Spotify is getting ready to roll out a new feature that will allow you to block artists you don’t want to hear. Spurred on by #MuteRKelly protesters, they have already pulled his music from their curated playlists, but this feature would allow subscribers to prevent the app from playing a given artist in any portion of their apps: playlists, radio, charts, search, and even your personal library.

I personally think this could be a great feature. Besides not wanting to monetarily support abusers (convicted or otherwise) like R. Kelly and Chris Brown, everyone has artists they just don’t care for, and this is a great way to make the Spotify music experience more enjoyable. It’s the implications of the former I find the most interesting, though.

Covering up and even forgiving the behavior of abusive celebrities has been a thing since celebrities have been a thing. You may or may not know who Spade Cooley is, or that he was sentenced to life in prison in 1961 for brutally mutilating and torturing his wife to death in front of their 14 year old daughter. Ronald Regan granted him a full pardon because of his celebrity.

Everyone draws their own line in the sand when it comes to what they will tolerate with the artists they listen to. Tyler Mahan Coe goes into this on the aforelinked Spade Cooley episode of his (tragically short-lived!) Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon ever since I heard this episode. I believe that line is variable from artist to artists rather than person to person, and like Coe, I also pass no judgment on where others choose to draw their lines.

Artist blocking is a new solution for a new age. Ensuring you weren’t monetarily supporting an abusive, pedophile was easier when you could purchase their music second-hand on physical media. Now that we stream most of our music, artists get a cut every time play one of their songs. This new feature puts control into the individual consumer’s hands, which is likely a much safer place for it to be than with the retailer.

In the 1990s, I worked for a large music (and later, video) distributor. During this time, there was a resonance of PMRC-era censorship, but this time it was backed by big-box retailers like Walmart and Blockbuster. Walmart was the largest music retailer in the US at the time, and they refused to sell albums with the infamous parental advisory warnings on them. This prompted labels and artists to release “clean versions” of their records, which ultimately influenced what many artists would write about. The threat of silencing artistic expression in the United States was real.

Neil Strauss in a 1996 New York Times article writes:

Wal-Mart is the single largest seller of pop music in the country, accounting last year for sales of an estimated 52 million of the 615 million compact disks sold in the United States. Its refusal to stock albums with lyrics or cover art that it finds objectionable has long been a frustration for some customers, musicians and record-industry executives.

What is harder to spot, many in the music business say, is the way the discount chain’s distribution decisions are affecting the production of music. Because of Wal-Mart’s clout, record labels and bands will design different covers and booklets, omit songs from their albums, electronically mask objectionable words and even change lyrics in order to gain a place on Wal-Mart’s shelves.

The disruption of the music industry brought on by Napster and other file-sharing services in the adolescents of the internet likely helped us dodge that bullet.

For a long time, Apple Music and iTunes have allowed you to filter out and prevent explicit music, or movies and TV shows beyond a certain rating from playing on your devices. There is an established history of this working out well for everyone, and I believe artist blocking is the next logical step.

If you dive into that New York Times article (which you should), you will see this also effected the movie industry. Blockbuster—the largest movie rental chain at the time—wouldn’t carry NC-17 rated movies. Movie studios actually re-cut films, often times without the director’s (or consumer’s) knowledge, so that they wouldn’t miss out on the revenue from these stores.

What does this mean for Netflix, Hulu, and other video streaming services? Couldn’t they also benefit from cast and crew blocking? There is arguably a less pressing need to block Keven Spacey films from your ROCO playlist (do they even have movie playlists?), but because movie productions usually involve quite a few more people than albums do, it’s harder to know when someone you don’t want to support is monetizing from a particular work.

To further complicate things, what about all of those other people? Boycotting a film based on one of the players punishes a lot of innocent people as well. This is actually no less true for the music side of things.

Consider our friend Spade Cooley again: he thankfully died of a heart attack just before receiving the news that Governor Ronald Regan had granted him a full pardon. He stopped profiting from record sales at exactly that moment, but his daughter Melody—who likely needed quite a bit of expensive counseling after enduring such a horrifically traumatic experience—probably didn’t. Is it even ethical, then, to boycott Spade Cooley’s music?

That, simply, isn’t for me to judge.

Comparing the censorship of artistic expression with boycotting the work of dangerous people is an interesting thought experiment. They are obviously two very different things, even if they do share some similarities. What I find most interesting is how one issue tends to be favored primarily by conservatives (the censorship of artistic expression), and the other side by progressives (protecting vulnerable people from abuse)1. As a progressive, does this mean I should reconsider my support of consumer-level artist blocking?

What if retailers refused to carry works by artists who exhibit abusive behavior? As we saw with the censorship issue, it began to limit the subject matter artists were willing to deal with. Imagine a world where actors, directors, producers, and musicians would be held financially accountable for their behavior. Would that limit the people artists, producers and directors were willing to collaborate with? Unlike censorship, which limits artistic expression, limiting abusive artists empowers those who would otherwise be discouraged to continue in their fields by abusive players. Could this have the opposite effect?

Ultimately, this is a dangerous game to play. As much as you might think we agree on what constitutes abusive behavior, we probably don’t. At the very least, we seem to have a hard time agreeing on who deserves abuse (hint: no one).

I think individual consumer choice is the right choice here.


  1. Obviously this isn’t a given (see Tipper Gore’s PMRC), but it is the general tendency.