Is Spotify’s mute button a sound idea?

22 : 02 : 2019 Media : Music : Society

Alex Brammer, a UK music lawyer, considers whether hiding content is a reasonable compromise or a risk to musical discovery and serendipity.

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If Netflix had an option to mute films produced by Harvey Weinstein, would users take this up and block films like Pulp Fiction?

Alex Brammer, UK music lawyer

Sometimes we all want to hit mute on the world around us. Often, it’s for peace and quiet from notifications and noise. But increasingly the option to mute is being used to block out the people, viewpoints and even creatives that we disagree with.

In its latest update, music streaming service Spotify introduced a function allowing iOS users to mute specific artists. Once muted, the artist is removed from the user’s playlists, libraries and radios, with the exception of featured performances on other artists’ tracks. All a user needs to do is open the dropdown menu on the artist’s profile page and select Don’t Play This Artist.

The new feature was quietly introduced following growing pressure on Spotify to take a stance on moral issues affecting the personal conduct of its musicians. In particular, the 2019 release of the documentary Surviving R Kelly and the associated #MuteRKelly movement have re-opened the discussion about the role of content aggregators and brands when it comes to the ethical, moral and social matters relating to their content.

This app update is not Spotify’s first foray into this debate. In 2018, it introduced a Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Policy and removed R Kelly and XXXTentacion from its promoted playlists following similar public pressure. However, this move was criticised by the public and those in the music industry, who argued that it was not Spotify’s place to morally censor musicians and limit what its users could listen to. Artists including Kendrick Lamar even threatened to pull their music from the platform in protest. Spotify later reversed its decision with CEO Daniel Ek stating that the policy was too vague and that it had never aimed to play judge and jury.

Media platforms are designed to promote discovery. If people are given the power to mute content, could their media experience become an insular echo chamber?

In the case of Spotify’s mute button, the ability to hide an artist still exists – it’s just that the responsibility is placed solely in the hands of users. This seems like a reasonable idea – Spotify now has 96m paying subscribers and achieving consensus on where to draw the line between an artist’s actions and their art is clearly a challenge for the company. For instance, while many people would readily block R Kelly based on these allegations, would they do the same for John Lennon? According to various sources, Lennon admitted to domestic abuse. Do Azealia Banks’s racist and homophobic Twitter outbursts warrant a blanket muting? Ultimately, the option to mute will vary from individual to individual, but it does allow users the chance to forge their own morality-driven musical platform.

But what of the potential negatives surrounding this update? There is nothing stopping users from simply blocking artists whose music they don’t like, or – worryingly – because of cultural hostilities. Spotify and platforms such as YouTube and Instagram are designed to promote discovery, so if people are given the power to mute content, their media experience could become an insular, hyper-personalised echo chamber. The dangers of such hyper-personalisation on Netflix, for example, was something we explored on LS:N Global last year.

It will be fascinating to see if other content aggregators follow in the coming months. If Netflix had an option to mute films produced by Harvey Weinstein, would users take this up and block films like Pulp Fiction? Would that be fair on Uma Thurman and the rest of the cast and crew? Is a mute button even necessary at all? Could users simply skip content that they find offensive?

Interestingly, Netflix recently added a category solely dedicated to films directed by women, suggesting that the solution for aggregators and brands may lie as much in highlighting progressive content as it does in shutting out the negative.