After more than twenty years of horrifying and damning accusations, as of today R. Kelly is officially a convicted felon, having been found guilty by a New York jury of multiple counts of racketeering and sex-trafficking, with more trials to come in other jurisdictions.
Almost immediately after the verdict was read, observers began asking: Now that he’s been found guilty, will his music be removed from major streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music? While reps for both companies did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment, that question brings in a host of moral, legal and logistical questions that were raised three years ago, when Spotify attempted to sanction Kelly’s music by banning it from the platform’s official playlists (while still continuing to host his music catalog on the services).
To recap, in May of 2018, as the sexual-misconduct accusations that led to Kelly’s arrest amplified, Spotify attempted to institute a playlist-ban policy against music containing “hate speech” (such as songs with racist lyrics) and the much more loosely defined “hateful conduct,” directed at an artist or creator’s behavior in their personal lives, and clearly aimed at Kelly. Yet almost immediately after the policy was awkwardly announced, many pointed out that Kelly had not been proven guilty of anything, so why would his music be penalized? Rapper XXXTentacion (who would be murdered in a robbery just weeks later) was accused of strangling his pregnant girlfriend, shouldn’t his music be sanctioned too? Spotify quickly added XXXTentacion to the list.
But what about the music of Phil Spector, a convicted murderer who produced and co-wrote some of the greatest hits of the early 1960s, ranging from “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Spanish Harlem” to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him”? What about Jim Gordon, co-writer with Eric Clapton of the 1970 classic “Layla,” who was convicted of murdering his mother during a psychotic episode in 1983 and remains incarcerated in California Medical Facility? All of their music remained and remains available and playlisted on major streaming services — as does the music of countless musicians, songwriters, producers and others accused or convicted of major, harmful crimes.
As the uproar grew, Spotify backed away from the policy (at least verbally, Kelly’s music has not been featured on most if not all Spotify playlists ever since). The company quickly learned what a slippery slope it was attempting to climb, and later that month Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek admitted that “We rolled this out wrong and could have done a much better job.”
Yet a year earlier, the indie-rock band Pwr Bttm, one of whose members was accused of sexual misconduct, found its music immediately removed from streaming services and made virtually unavailable. So what was the difference?
Therein lie the legal and logistical issues. While streaming services do maintain control over the music they host, the music is uploaded to the platforms by rights holders, usually the record company. In the wake of the allegations against Pwr Bttm, the band’s label almost immediately removed the band’s music and their management also dropped them, leaving the group with little recourse.
Likewise, in January of 2019 — shortly after the premiere of the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary, which galvanized public opinion against the singer — Lady Gaga had her ill-advised sexually themed 2013 duet with Kelly, “Do What U Want (With My Body),” removed from streaming services, stating ”What I am hearing about the allegations against R Kelly is absolutely horrifying and indefensible.” Her label, Interscope, evidently supported the move, and the streaming services complied (although it is easy to find the song posted illegally on the internet). Kelly’s longtime label, Sony Music subsidiary RCA Records, steadily declined to make any move against him until it finally parted ways with the singer, after months of criticism, later in January of 2019. However, nearly his entire catalog remains with the label, and except for the Gaga duet, it remains readily available on streaming services.
Should it remain there? That question brings in even more challenging moral — and legal — questions. Banning Kelly’s music would be a form of censorship, and whatever metric is used to justify that ban should by all rights be used against others. But where does one draw that line?
Kelly’s music continues to earn royalties, presumably millions each year, as does Spector’s, as does “Layla.” And stretching the question further, who exactly should be penalized? Should every songwriter, producer, or instrumentalist convicted of a certain felony category have each of their songs banned? (We haven’t even discussed Michael Jackson, who also was widely accused of sexual misconduct but was not found guilty.)
This is just a broad view of the wildly complex factors involved in “banning” music from streaming services. And while such bans are a strong statement — one that Spotify was apparently attempting to make with its playlist ban on Kelly — that is effectively all that they are. If Kelly’s music is removed from a streaming service, another will post it — and if it’s removed from every major one, his fans will upload their old CDs to the internet in an ever-evolving game of whack-a-mole that will cost thousands of dollars and take thousands of hours to continue.
To put the situation in its most extreme light: Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” is widely available for anyone to read. Even though proceeds from its sale are donated to Jewish charities and organizations (at least on Amazon), its message of hate remains, as do countless thousands of other hateful screeds. People easily can buy them, and guns and cigarettes and many things that are much more harmful than a song.
Which leads to the main point: Great art is sometimes made by horrible people, and whether or not a person is morally comfortable consuming that art, and earning money for that horrible person, is up to them.