Art, especially music, reflects the whole of humanity; the beautiful and the ugly, the happy and sad, and the loving and hateful. Some beautiful music has been produced out of dark places, and some really bad music has been produced from places of positivity. But the beauty of music is that it is accessible to anyone; anyone can pick up a guitar, produce a beat, or write lyrics and express themselves. But what about is there a line? And if not, should we make one? That is the question that has been at the center of the music world with the news that Spotify has removed several white supremacist bands from its catalogues.
The news comes just days after racial tensions not just flared, but all out ruptured in Charlottesville this past weekend. In case you’ve been completely avoiding the news (can’t completely blame you), this past weekend Charlottesville was set to tear down a famous statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee amid growing national pressure to tear down national monuments honoring Confederate soldiers and leaders. In response, several loosely-affiliated groups of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the good ol’ fashioned KKK banded together to protest the statue removal in a scene that was unfortunately not out of a movie. Counter-protests met the protestors, and violence inevitably erupted with one woman dead after being run over by a car.
Now, several corporations have distanced themselves from Donald Trump (who has been pretty iffy on condemning the white supremacists wholly) and anything within radius of white supremacy. Among them, is Spotify, who removed several bands that were openly sympathetic to white supremacy/neo-Nazi groups/ideologies following an article titled “I Just Found 37 White Supremacist Hate Bands on Spotify.”
The move instantly raises the question of censorship, and free speech at large. Art has always pushed boundaries, but many feel that the line should be drawn at bands that openly support racist groups and organizations. While the answer is pretty common sense, how we got to the point that Spotify had seemingly dozens of openly and disturbingly racist groups in its catalogue is much more complicated.
Punknews.org first touched on this issue nearly 11 years ago, when white power group Skrewdriver made an appearance on iTunes, the biggest music retailer in the country. The article found out that independent retailer CD Baby was the source of the album. The independent retailer sells music directly from the artists, and makes it clear that music comes directly from musicians themselves. When asked why CD Baby stocked openly racist and hateful music, owner Derek Sivers had a measured and somewhat reasonable response.
“The day I started CD Baby I made the firm decision to never censor anything,” said Sivers.
“So – the day the first racist CD showed up here, we had to make a tough decision on whether to start censoring now, or not. Two things let to our decision not to censor: This album came to our attention because of the album cover. If it weren’t for the album cover, we never would have noticed. (We can’t sit and listen to every lyric of every song.) Does that mean, then, that everyone with an offense piece of artwork on their cover gets banned, but everyone with pretty rainbows on the cover does not, no matter what the lyrics inside may say?”
Sivers elaborated on the “too slippery of a slope,” that is music censorship.
“Plus I don’t want to let complainers rule our actions. What if we started getting complaints about Pagan albums? Complaints about Liberal politics albums? Do we remove anything that lots of people complain about?”
Sivers made fair points, and it seems most of the music world agreed with him as Noisey also discovered racist bands (including infamous Skrewdriver) being sold on nearly every major retailer (even Rhapsody!!) as late as 2014, as protests were erupting over Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown.
Unfortunately, it often takes a national tragedy or major political/social crisis for a company to take a political stance, although it’s doubtful that many are upset with Spotify’s decision. With Spotify taking quick and strong action, two important questions remain open: How dedicated is Spotify to continued censorship of white supremacist groups, and will the rest of the music industry follow suit?