Go ahead, Spotify, stab yourself repeatedly and make it count

Frank Portman
May 15, 2018 · 5 min read

I started typing this in a twitter thread and it got long so I’m doing it here instead. While I was away doing some rock and roll shows, I saw the news that Spotify has decided to ban R. Kelly and other artists from its service for “problematic” content in their music and possibly also for just being bad people out and about in the world. And this article popped up today: activists push for banning more artists. (Because of course they are: that’s how we live now.) I’m still in post-show zombie mode, so it may be a little shaky, but for what it’s worth here’s what I started typing, plus more typing.

[added: as many have pointed out “ban” isn’t quite the proper word to use specifically with regard to R Kelly in this situation. It’s more like blacklisting, or, as I touch on later, the usual sort of algorithmic de-prioritization, “shadow banning”, search results manipulation skullduggery, etc. that all the “platforms” do these days. That skullduggery etc. is what I’m complaining about, not the specific fate or fortunes of R Kelly the man, so screenshots of the presence of (some) R Kelly material (for now), while sort of relevant, still miss my point. Moreover, the new policy does say that removal is a possible consequence, along with the more vague one of refraining “from promoting or manually programming it”, when an artist or his material been judged questionable or “problematic.” They reserve the right to delete material in response to the demands of activists. They are gearing up to delete material. That ain’t good. As I hope I’ve made clear, I welcome yet another reason to shy away from this service. In any case, it doesn’t make me like or trust it, or any of the services organizing themselves on this model, any more. — ed.]

As I and others have said, consistent application of the “no platform for bad people” rule would mean auto-deletion of much if not indeed most of the material that justifies the existence of the app in the first place. And if this means that Spotify eats itself, or sets itself on fire and expires in a grand puff of virtue that would be just fine by me. I dislike it and its ilk and I think it’s far better to hang on to and curate your collection yourself rather than trusting a third party to decide what is and is not “okay” for you to listen to. I’ve got no use for any of that, and if they want to jump off a cliff, great.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. As an archive of recorded music such an application could be very invaluable indeed. The value of an archive is in its comprehensiveness, and presence in that archive needn’t (and shouldn’t) imply endorsement by the host. This is not so hard to understand when we think of libraries and such. People do want books removed from libraries from time to time and when that happens these efforts are properly scorned by right thinking people; but for some reason that sensible liberal attitude tends to disappear as soon as computers come into it. Which is pretty weird.

But in case it needs stating: if nothing else, you need access to the disputed materials so that your criticism has a basis, and also so that you can judge for yourself when some busybody tries to stick his nose into your potential appreciation of it. A library with missing books is less useful as a library, particularly if the gaps are there on the basis of someone’s moral agenda.

Recorded music, like books, is part of history, and history is irredeemably complicated. Bad things happen and pretending they didn’t happen is just adding another bad thing to this enormous list. No corporate terms of service are going to change that.

And yet, the role of censor has been taken on, in various ways but with great consistency by all the tech platforms.

It’s hard to see why. In the case of YouTube, Twitter, and the like, the editorial role seems to place their “safe harbor” status in a great deal of jeopardy, and losing that could be just as devastating as the music-player-with-no-music-in-it policy towards which Spotify appears to be edging. Why don’t they just say: “this is all the (legal) stuff there is, organized as well as we can organize it, and we neither endorse nor condemn any of it because that’s not our role — we leave the endorsin’ and condemnin’ up to you as is appropriate with regard to adults in a free society”?

I don’t know, but they don’t. Instead they edit, censor, and manipulate, making themselves less useful, less necessary, less reliable. And less trustworthy: you can’t trust censors, even if they do their job well. Especially if.

As I said I don’t have a dog in this fight. I sit home and listen to records recorded before 1974, mostly. The touted convenience of Spotify doesn’t appeal to me. I like the inconvenience, as well as the freedom from editorial control, that I get from curating my own collection.

But, I’m told, there’s a virtual music library on my phone. That could be handy. Maybe I want to check out R Kelly (or the Beatles or Chuck Berry) or whomever even if just to see what all the fuss is about. If I find that it’s not there because someone has decided it’s not good for me, well that’s the last time I visit that archive. They offered me a comprehensive virtual music library and they failed. On purpose. In other words, they got one chance to be useful and they blew it. They’re free to do it of course, private company yadda yadda yadda. But it invalidates their remit. A library that does that is a bad library. It’s not doing its job.

As an artist, I care even less. Were Spotify to ban my stuff it would affect me not at all. The artist gets paid effectively nothing. My checking the little Spotify box on my digital distribution company’s submit form for a given release is more like a gift I’m giving the tiny proportion of Spotify users who know my stuff and may find it convenient to listen to my songs on that platform now and again. It’s also a gift I give Spotify, in a way, a gift that they don’t seem particularly grateful to receive, but a gift nonetheless as I get nothing in return for it. Censoring its own archive hurts no one but itself, and to that I say: go ahead, stab yourself repeatedly and make it count.

Buy records, is my advice. No terms of service can take them away from you.

added: further thoughts on this in light of an archival gap in my own band’s discography on Amazon here.

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