On the Ethical and Moral Consumption of Music

Whether it’s R. Kelly, Melanie Martinez, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Chris Brown, or some other musician, there’s a very real possibility that an artist whose music you enjoy is problematic. You, like me, may be grappling with the question of whether or not you should continue to listen to these artists, with the knowledge of their harmful past actions or words. I don’t have all of the answers, and I don’t think anyone does.

Let me just start out by saying, however, that the mere fact that I can grapple with this decision is a privilege. I get to decide whether or not I listen to these artists, knowing full well what they’ve done or said in the past is harmful to others, and some of these artists don’t necessarily attack me personally as a White cisgender individual. Katy Perry adopting an Egyptian “costume” for a music video isn’t appropriating my culture, nor is Eminem using the word “gay” (or the alternative word) as an insult attacking my identity (although the sexism in his lyrics is another issue altogether). I get to decide whether or not I deem those things offensive to me (spoiler alert: I have) since they don’t directly apply to my people or my background or identity. Other people don’t necessarily get to make that decision. That makes this entire discussion a privilege.

With that being said, people are starting to struggle with the moral consumption of music in a way that I don’t think they ever did before. What some people deem “cancel culture” is seeping very slowly into the music industry, to an extent, and there are people who oppose that. Artists are very often seen as separate from the work they create, such that a consumer of an abuser’s music could say that the music itself isn’t abusive, and although the consumer doesn’t condone abuse, they like that music. Can we really claim that art and the artist who created it are two separate entities? Art can, without a doubt, take on a life of its own beyond that which was intended by the artist, and people attribute their own meaning to art. It’s what makes art beautiful and unique; we can project onto it and read from it various different meanings that are separate and unique from those of others. But can we ever fully separate the art from the person who created it? Some argue that we can, that once it is shared, it belongs to everyone who consumes it, rather than just the artist. This can take the form of claiming that art comes from a different plane of existence, and the artist was merely the conduit through which the art was shared and channeled into this existence, so it doesn’t especially matter what the artist did, since after creating and sharing the art, they cease to matter to the artwork itself.

Regardless of whether or not you believe this, though, it’s clear that consuming music benefits the person who created it (and here I’m focusing on legal consumption rather than pirating music- downloading it illegally without compensation for the person or people who created it). Artists get paid via platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, etc. when their music is streamed and, in the case of iTunes and other platforms like it, purchased. In this way, consuming their music directly benefits them and they profit off of our consumption of their music. I cannot and do not claim to speak for anyone else, but I will say that I do not intend to help problematic people earn money and power, both of which give them the platform and the means to continue harming others. I have decided that the cost of listening to them is far too high, especially when they don’t make amends, and I refuse to continue paying that price.