Really F**king Simple Solutions to Spotify’s Explicit Tagging Problem

Spotify button imageThe solution(s) for this are so simple that it’s [email protected]!#ing painful.

I blogged a few years ago about how Spotify’s tagging of explicit tracks is hit-and-miss – with some tracks that are explicit not tagged as such, and vice versa – and the situation hasn’t improved much since then. As a parent with young kids who wants to play music around the house but wants to avoid subjecting them to accidental swearing, my options are a) only playing music/playlists/albums that I know from memory are 100% swearing-free, or b) simply don’t use Spotify. I don’t think Spotify would like the latter option much, especially if a lot of people followed suit.

Spotify obviously cares about catering to families – they have a Premium option aimed at families specifically (h/t to Pritesh Patel for this discovery – who’s had similar frustrations to me). So it seems counter-intuitive to me that they consider families a target audience but won’t do all that they can to make it a family-friendly offering.

There’s definitely something already in place, as some tracks are tagged as explicit. A look at The National’s Trouble Will Find Me shows that all the explicit tracks are tagged correctly (3 out of 13), which is great. But look at The National’s more recent offering – Sleep Well Beast – and nothing’s tagged, however track 3 (“Walk It Back”) contains the word “f*ck” at least 4 times. You could argue that it’s not a popular song, but it’s had nearly 4 million plays on Spotify (as I type this), so that’s not really true.

Example on Spotify of The National screenshot
Example of how it looks on Spotify – notice how “I Need My Girl” is (correctly) tagged while “Walk It Back” isn’t tagged at all

The problem with a half-hearted approach is that you assume it’s right (especially when implemented by a company of Spotify’s size and scale) so you think if something’s marked as explicit then it is, and if it isn’t then it isn’t. If there was no explicit tagging in the first place then you know you’d have to be careful – but with incorrect tagging, you risk assuming everything is tagged correctly (and getting caught out when it isn’t).

Of course that’s just one example of one track from one album by one band… so I asked some Twitter friends for more. Here’s what I got back, plus a few more I’ve found of my own accord in the past:

I appreciate that it’s unfair of me to suggest that Spotify doesn’t care. On the one hand, it could be something that they’ve completely overlooked. On the other hand, it could be the one thing keeping Spotify’s developers up all night. Who knows.

So what can be done? Here’s a few suggestions that I can think of for starters…

Leverage Spotify’s partnership with Genius further…

Spotify is already partnered with Genius (and SoundHound, I’ve just found out while researching and typing this) to be able to show lyrics while listening to a song. Presumably there is an API in place that Spotify is using, which feeds Genius’ lyrics for a song into Spotify.

So here’s an idea: why not also utilise that and apply it to explicit tagging, too? If a song contains a swearword from a select list (sh*t, f*ck, etc.) then tag it as explicit.

If the Genius/SoundHound partners don’t allow that (e.g. say if the terms state that they can only use it in the way that they currently do) then…

…Or failing that, just outright partner with (or even buy) another lyrics site

Now that Google shows lyrics for songs directly in its search results, lyrics sites are likely getting less and less clicks, as it negates the need to click on a website beyond Google at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those sites are looking to get bought or partner up with a big player, as their advertising revenues dwindle. So why doesn’t Spotify – which is no stranger to acquisitions (here’s a full list) – just go ahead and partner with (or even buy) one? They get access to all the lyrics on that site and feed it into their platform.

Ok, so that’s fine for the majority of the really popular artists out there – but what about really obscure and/or unsigned acts, who may not even appear on a lyrics site? Well…

Allow users to flag incorrectly tagged tracks

Why doesn’t Spotify add a button that allows users to manually report a track that’s tagged incorrectly and/or should be tagged but isn’t? Heck, if I listened to a song with a swearword in and noticed that it wasn’t tagged as explicit then it’d take the five seconds / three taps it’d take to hit the ‘Report’ button. Then someone at Spotify’s end can double-check it (although they can probably automate most of the process, I’d imagine). They can even review them using some ratio that takes into account a) the track’s popularity and b) the number of users who have reported said track, so that they know they can prioritise those that are a real concern.

Add a feature that automatically skips explicit tracks

Another feature Spotify could consider is to allow users the option to opt-in to automatically skip tracks that are marked as explicit (again, h/t to Pritesh for this idea). So going back to my example above with the album by The National, it would only play 10 of the album’s 13 tracks, automatically skipping the 3 tagged explicit. That would be perfect for me (and presumably other parents) who want to put an album on and not worry about skipping a track because it may or may not contain a swearword.

As a non-developer, I appreciate how easy it is for me to say “it’s easy to fix!” when the actuality may be that it’s really not that simple… but I really hope Spotify start to take this a bit more seriously and that something gets done about it in the future. Here’s to hoping.

[Spotify button image credit – Philip Wilson]


  • John Moore

    May 8, 2018 at 9:18 am Reply

    This is a great article. I was pretty upset the other day while driving my niece and her friend around. I was listening to Money for Nothing by Dire straits, and I hadn’t heard it in years so I had forgotten about their six letter homophobic faux pas in the second verse. I pay for premium and for $10 monthly I think they could definitely do much better

  • Cvnk

    June 5, 2018 at 3:46 pm Reply

    Spotify says they don’t tag the songs. The content providers are responsible for that. When people complain about mis-tagged songs they simply pass the complaint back to the content provider.

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