The slime had yet to congeal on the 2016 election before many of us took a stab at a consoling hypothetical. Welp, at least under Trump, the art and music is going to get good again, we told ourselves, probably not really believing it, but needing anything to grasp onto at the time. I don’t know if that came true or not. Eminem certainly gave it a shot with whatever that whole thing was, while others like Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, and Fiona Apple made emotionally stirring and pissed-off music, but much of what they were protesting were problems that would’ve been with us with or without Trump’s wet hand on the rudder of the country.
By and large, the era of protest music that everyone from Amanda Palmer to the most earnest #Resistance auntie in your timeline promised us has yet to arrive. Which is not to say there hasn’t been all manner of brilliant punk and punk-influenced music made this year—Camp Cope, Pianos Become the Teeth, Sorority Noise, and American Nightmare, to name a few, have seen to that—it just hasn’t felt anything like the culture-wide artistic watershed we might’ve hoped for. Alec Baldwin did some funny faces on the TV though, you have to admit that.
Nonetheless, one still wants to give it a shot. As Noisey’s Kim Kelly wrote at the time, “Write the songs. Buy the albums. Then hit the streets.” That’s a message I took to heart personally, spending more time in the first year of the Trump administration at protests and rallies than I had since the Iraq War, which didn’t seem to dissuade the Bush administration in retrospect.
Something making protesting more compelling of late was the emergence of the wriggling hive of MAGA chuds, white nationalists, and alt-right nerds. At one rally in Boston, right around the time Richard Spencer got his grill tuned up, I was particularly inspired. It had been some time since I’d had the pleasure of being there for the bouncing of a piece of shit Nazi out of a show, and so it was something else to see one of life’s greatest pleasures, familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the punk or hardcore scene, going mainstream. After the rally, I wrote a song for my indie-emo divorce-core band no hope / no harm’s new EP, Swimming in the Charles, about bonding and falling in love with someone at a protest when you both realized how much fun it would be to punch a Nazi. So far, pretty self-explanatory. But then I hit a roadblock.
Say what you will about Arlo Guthrie or Bad Brains or whoever it is you hold up as an icon of protest music, but one obstacle they never had standing in their way was the brutally indifferent machine of the algorithm. I soon found out that sharing a protest song with the world wasn’t as easy as putting it to tape when my otherwise inoffensive country-emo song, “Punch a Nazi in the Face,” got censored by the internet music distribution apparatus. How are we supposed to take part in the promised post-Trump musical revolution if we can’t even get the tunes out?
Anyone can post almost anything of their own creation to the internet now, with a few caveats. If you’re the Nazi site The Daily Stormer, you might get chased off of a few domain hosts when enough people finally make a stink after years of operating with impunity. After tens of thousands of complaints, a platform like Twitter might eventually ban a certain percentage of their own homegrown Nazi personalities, too. But despite what craven techno-goblin billionaires like Peter Thiel or the centrist pearl-clutchers at the New York Times opinion page might tell you, for the most part, you can still say whatever you want, even if there’s a racially motivated element involved. It certainly doesn’t seem to have hindered our President at all.
On the other hand, private businesses are under no obligation to help distribute your bullshit, something, in fairness, I’ve argued countless times when the alt-right has cried about being shadow-banned or whatever other conspiracy theories they’re wetting their diapers over lately. Nonetheless, I was really surprised when I tried to distribute my band’s song on RouteNote, one of the major services that help bands get their music online, and they told me they wouldn’t do it. No, not because the song sucks, thank you, but, essentially, because it was threatening violence to Nazis.
Here’s what they said:
“Your track ‘Punch a Nazi in the Face' contains offensive/inappropriate material which Routenote deems to be unacceptable. Stores [meaning Spotify etc] state that they ‘may remove content that, in their opinion, is likely to incite hatred or discrimination of any kind, whether related to race, religion, sexuality or otherwise, or content that is deemed offensive, abusive, defamatory, illegal, pornographic or obscene in anyway’. Please remove this track from your release. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.”
What the fuck?
To be clear, that’s hardly the only potentially offensive lyric of mine. You should hear some of the cry-baby shit I sing about. In another song I say, “you loved me like a jihadist” and I don’t even know what that means.
When you’re in an indie band, there are a number of paths you can take to get your music online. You might post it directly on a service like Bandcamp, SoundCloud, or YouTube. But naturally, bands want to get their music heard on as many platforms as possible, which is where services like RouteNote, or other popular ones like TuneCore, CD Baby, Awal, Distrokid, and others come in. RouteNote, unlike many of the other ones, has the advantage, particularly for a poor indie band, of being free. Others may charge anywhere from $50 to hundreds of dollars for the service, with renewal fees every year.
My first reaction was that this must be a mistake of whatever algorithm RouteNote uses to scan the song’s content, like when Facebook’s censors mistake a nipple from a classic work of art for pornography. At the same time, services like Spotify and Deezer have begun to remove music that carries overt white power or neo-Nazi messages in the wake of Charlottesville, as Variety reported last summer. When I protested their denial of my protest song, they said there was nothing they could do.
“Unfortunately our partner stores are likely to deny the content in certain regions whether it be about punching a Nazi or being punched by a Nazi,” they said, citing the German criminal code relating to anti-fascism. Austria, Switzerland, and Poland have similar restrictions.
A surprising number of the services are located in Europe, so perhaps they are more attuned to European laws. A second distributor, FreshTunes, based in the UK like RouteNote, also directed me to the Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, and tried to explain their stance, but only ended up making me more confused.
“We are working with any content but if during the moderation we found that it breaches rules of the stores we making notes for artists about that,” FreshTunes’ Alexandra Aleksandrova wrote in an email. “It means artist will understand what is wrong with the content anyway.”
A third, Horus Music, said they would be unlikely to place the song either.
Not even if it’s obviously anti-nazis?
“This is an interesting point that you raise,” Horus’ Nina Condron said. “We would definitely not release any material that is considered offensive and we are bound by the rules of platforms such as iTunes for example whose contracts explicitly state they quite rightly won't accept it either. It sounds like you are referring to the restrictions of Strafgesetzbuch section 86a. Which is why I expect they wouldn't release the material and we probably couldn't either.”
CD Baby sent me the link to their Hate Speech Policy, which states that they do not distribute content that “intentionally promotes violence against persons of a specific race, color, religion, nationality, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”
Do any of those groups apply to… Nazis? I asked.
“That's correct. We do not distribute pro-Nazi content,” they replied.
I’m used to tech companies refusing to respond to the simplest and most direct of questions, but this seems like a pretty easy one to sort out. Think of all the iconic punk music that wouldn’t have seen the light of day under these type of restrictions. “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”? Sorry, Mr. Biafra, please remove this track from your album and resubmit. Ditto for “Fuck Nazi Sympathy” by Aus-Rotten, “Nazi Scum” by Oi Polloi, “Nazi White Trash” by Leftöver Crack. The list goes on. If I’m being fair, the difference could be that songs like those are a bit more vague in their targeting of Nazis, whereas mine is a specific call-to-action. Tech companies, like Facebook, for example, tend to have extremely granular rules about the type of violent language that can be used.
“We are at the hands of the different music services to a large extent,” Diego Farias, CEO of Amuse, an Italian-based distributor told me. “As a result of that we try to comply with any content guidelines as defined by primarily Apple and Spotify.”
They don’t have specific provisions regarding the type of problems surrounding my case, so he couldn’t answer definitively what they would do, but rather referred me to Apple Music.
Apple Music did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but their guidelines read as such:
1.12. Cultural Sensitivities. It is the content provider’s responsibility to be knowledgeable about local regulations and cultural sensitivities. Content sold must be legal and appropriate for the countries the content is cleared. This content may be hidden using the reason: Refusal.
1.13. Nazi Propaganda. Content must not depict Nazi symbolism as restricted by the Strafgesetzbuch section 86a if the content is cleared for sale in Germany (DE), Austria (AT), Switzerland (CH), or any other country that restricts Nazi propaganda.
If content violating this rule is submitted three times, your entire catalogue will be suspended in DE, AT, CH, and any other applicable country for up to six months.
A spokesperson from Spotify, however, told me that they did not block the track, and likely would not have, noting that they have refused songs for racially offensive content, agreeing that this seemed weird because it was the exact opposite of that.
You might say: Why not just try another service? But, like I said, many of them cost a decent amount of money, and the wait times for processing before songs actually make it to Spotify and other stores can be weeks. Our album came out a month ago, and since we timed our modest press push so it would be ready to go for people to actually hear it anywhere besides BandCamp, I don’t want to lose too much more time.
“The word Nazi in the title shouldn’t be an issue, as far as I’m aware, and does appear in other titles live in stores,” a rep from DistroKid told me. ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ by Dead Kennedys, for example.”
Others, like DittoMusic, AWAL, and Believe Digital chose not to respond.
As a last resort, I got in touch with an expert in German law to try to clarify things.
“In my view, these anti-Nazi laws do not apply to the case you refer to,” said Dr. Alexander Peukert, who specializes in international intellectual property law at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. “Either RouteNote misinterprets these statutes or their decision is due to violence incited by the title.”
This certainly isn’t the worst trouble the Germans have caused, historically speaking, but it’s enough to drive one mad all the same. Forget Nazis, I’m going to punch myself in the face at this point.
And then, finally, a breakthrough. A week after asking whether or not they censor anti-Nazi content, and after submitting my music through them and paying the fee to enroll, TuneCore’s team of publicists sent me a response from their CEO.
"As a part of our core mission, TuneCore aims to help independent artists get their music heard by more people around the world, while also helping them navigate the ever-changing landscape of digital music distribution,” CEO Scott Ackerman wrote. “As the intermediary between the stores and TuneCore’s artists, labels and music managers, we take special care to adhere to content guidelines implemented by each digital store and will review all potentially challenging content on a case by case basis. Our team is happy to discuss directly with artists and digital music stores should any questions arise."
Yes, yes, fine. But WOULD THEY ACCEPT A SONG ABOUT PUNCHING NAZIS? I responded. A day later they replied, basically saying, oh, weird, looks like the song made it up onto Spotify after all.
So let that be a lesson to us all. If you want to share protest music about punching Nazis, you’ve got to do it the old fashioned way: Back channel your way in by leveraging your position at a major media outlet to get anyone to take you seriously. I don’t know if you’re looking down on me out there somewhere, Joe Strummer, but I did it.
Luke O'Neil is the singer of the Boston band no hope / no harm, who have a song called "Punch a Nazi in the Face." Follow him on Twitter.