After years of urging, Spotify is stepping up efforts to remove racist bands from its platform

After years of urging, Spotify is stepping up efforts to remove racist bands from its platform
Spotify’s artist page for Legion of St George, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “racist band”
Source: Spotify
Spotify’s artist page for Legion of St George, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “racist band”
Source: Spotify

In November 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center put together a list of 54 racist bands that had made a home for themselves on iTunes. The organization’s article described the ways Apple’s billion-dollar platform was incidentally propping up an ailing racist music industry (which had been driven underground years before in Europe) and encouraged Apple to purge its library of the hateful groups. By December 2014, they’d removed 30. For years, Spotify has been slow to do the same — until now.

Following the violence that took place Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the “Unite the Right” protest organized by self-described “pro-white” activist Jason Kessler, individuals across the web began calling out Spotify for playing host to racist bands. On Monday, the Digital Music News catalogued 37 “white supremacist hate bands” whose music could still be found on the Stockholm-based streaming service.

Their list includes 29 artists from SPLC’s original 2014 list. Among the bands mentioned by the Digital Music News are Ad Hominem — whose song “Impaled Muhammad” makes some pretty clear calls for violence against Muslims (“Let’s burn the Quran / And its Mullahs”) — and Broadsword, whose “Loyal to the Cause” denounces race mixing and looks ahead to a “new dawn” that “brings a whiter, brighter day.”

Mic reached out to Spotify to ask the company if it had seen these calls to remove the bands’ music and planned to take any action. Spotify responded via email and said it has begun to purge some of the bands from its service and are glad to have been “alerted to this content.”

“The music in our catalog comes from hundreds of thousands of record companies and aggregators all over the world, and those are ... responsible for the content they deliver,” a Spotify spokesperson wrote. “Illegal content or material that favors hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality or the like is not tolerated by us. Spotify takes immediate action to remove any such material as soon as it has been brought to our attention. We are glad to have been alerted to this content and have already removed many of the bands identified today, whilst urgently reviewing the remainder.”

At the time of publication, both Ad Hominem and Broadsword were still playable on the service, along with 27 other acts featured on the Digital Music News’ list.

This is hardly the first time Spotify has been alerted to the existence of this kind of content. In December 2014, the company sent a statement to the Daily Beast describing its process for flagging and removing such music.

We take this very seriously. Content (artists and music) listed by the BPjM in Germany (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien/Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons) is proactively removed from our service. We’re a global company, so we use the BPjM index as a global standard for these issues. Other potentially hateful or objectionable content that is flagged by uses or others but not on the BPjM list is handled on a case-by-case basis.

On its site, the BPjM states that it specifically objects to media that engages in the “violation of human dignity, discrimination against groups of people, glorification/trivialization of national socialism,” among other things. Spotify’s artist terms of use similarly objects to content that is “offensive, abusive, defamatory, pornographic, threatening or obscene” or that which “advocates or incites violence.”

A screenshot of one of the groups Spotify has removed from its catalog
Source: Spotify

Music has proved to be a particularly effective recruiting and revenue-driving tool for white supremacists over the years. In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League, called white power music “one of the pillars of the white supremacist subculture” and a clear way to “motivate people to action” and “rouse resentment.”

Keegan Hankes, an analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, agrees.

“For one thing, hate music has long been one of the most effective recruiting tools on the racist right,” he said in a phone conversation. “Any platform that’s allowing them to make money off this is obviously problematic. A little bit of money goes a really long way in this movement.”

Hankes, who said he’s worked with Spotify in the past to remove blatantly hateful music, praised the streaming for beginning to take steps to scrub more racist groups from their library.

“It’s great that they’re taking initiative; it’s something that they should be taking seriously,” he said. “Honestly, other companies such as Apple have taken really decisive action about hate music on their platforms. After we released that [2014] story, Apple just unilaterally made the decision before any of these other companies did, to not put up with it. It’s encouraging to see Spotify doing something similar.”

The world’s largest streaming service isn’t the only company taking a careful look at its content and user base. Earlier in the week, tech giants Go Daddy and Google banned the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer from hosting its domain on their platforms, while the gaming chat service Discord shuttered its “alt-right” server.

Spotify’s task in rooting out pockets of white supremacy in its streaming library is significantly more difficult, but not impossible. Many of the bands are connected via the “related artists” section: Broadsword’s related artists page leads to other acts who were highlighted by both the SPLC and the Digital Music News, including Blood Red Eagle and the Legion of St. George; the most-played song by the latter is the aptly titled “Racist.”

Hankes said for the most part, Spotify tends to rely on the expertise of groups like the SPLC for flagging these kinds of bands for them.

“We’ll provide samples of their lyrics, or their artwork, or if they’re ‘Sieg Heil’-ing at shows,” he said, “and they’ll make a decision about whether that’s allowed on their platform.”

Mic will be monitoring Spotify’s progress removing the acts in question. We will update this story as needed.

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Correction: Aug. 18, 2017
An earlier version of this story misidentified a source name. The website is called Digital Music News.

August 16, 2017, 2:56 p.m.: This story has been updated.