A Lot of Noise on Spotify

When Napster appeared in 1999, it was a bit of a perfect storm situation for fans to rationalize music piracy.  Granted, people would have used the file-sharing app no matter what, but the music industry had indeed become demonstrably bloated; and one chronic complaint among consumers was that we were required to buy a $15 CD just to get two good tracks with eight filler songs.  Whether this criticism was valid or not is hard for me to say, since I mostly abandoned contemporary music in the 90s. But I have certainly encountered this allegation, even during the last five years, as part of a recurring narrative that piracy “taught the industry a lesson” about what consumers want, which is how we ended up with iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify.

But as a Spotify user, you might have had the experience of dealing with a new variation on this “filler tracks” theme.  Perhaps, you’ve searched for a song, got a result, hit play without paying much attention, and then asked, What the hell am I listening to?  I had no idea there was a pan-flute version of “Holiday in Cambodia”?

Okay, maybe you won’t find anything quite that absurd, but a recent flurry of music news reporting says that not only is Spotify full to bustin’ with mediocre covers of popular songs, but the streaming company itself has been accused of commissioning volumes of filler music in an effort to drive down the licensing fees it has to pay to major and independent artists.  In particular, it is alleged that those genre playlists with names like “Focus” or “Ambient Chill” are not only filled with tracks by artists you never heard of, but possibly by artists who don’t exist other than as fronts for music that is owned by Spotify.

Music Business Worldwide reported in August 2016 that Spotify was commissioning producers to create tracks with “specific guidelines” and then crediting these works to non-existent artists.  This accusation remains an allegation, which Spotify has flatly denied, but to which MBW responded just a few days ago, essentially asking, Okay, then who are all these “artists.”  Reporting, Tim Ingham poses the following reasonable questions:

“Put it this way: if an act on Spotify has millions of streams from just a couple of tracks, but no other internet presence whatsoever, wouldn’t that strike you as odd? No Facebook, no Twitter, no ReverbNation page, no homepage, no SoundCloud? What about if they had no manager/lawyer and no industry relationships? And seemingly, according to their Spotify credits, personally owned all of their own rights? What if their music then only appeared on Spotify – and was nowhere to be seen on YouTube, Apple Music etc.? That would be weird, right? That would make no sense. In total, tracks by the 50 ‘fake’ artists we’ve [identified] amount to over 520m Spotify streams. By traditional rights-holder payout metrics, that’s worth more than $3m in royalty payouts.”

Whether or not Spotify itself has been commissioning content that is misleading customers, one concern with stuffing these playlists with covers is what happens when we get to other genres?  How soon before users click on the “Jazz” playlist to hear the sound stylings of John CoalTrain? What does that say about “music discovery” in the digital age?

Songs are covered by compulsory licenses. Anyone who pays the license fee to the songwriters/publishers may cover any of these songs without permission, and this provides opportunity for both good and not-so-good music makers to capitalize on the fact that listeners will naturally use a service like Spotify to search for titles or keywords.  As Adam K. Raymond explains in his in-depth discussion on Vulture, “Bob Seger, the bearded grandfather of mainstream radio rock, was not on Spotify until this month. But Bob Segar has been there for years, and the misspelled version of the Detroit rocker racked up 1.2 million streams on a cover of “Turn the Page” in the real Seger’s absence.”

Indeed. I found a Bob Segar Playlist with a number of Bob Seger hits covered by an artist called Sam Morrison and Turn the Page.  These are not cover songs in the tradition of a distinctive artist performing his/her own version (e.g. Whitney Houston does Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”) but are instead in the style of a “tribute” band.  Sam Morrison’s impersonation of the real Seger is just good enough that any number of listeners might not notice right away—or ever—that they’re not listening to Bob Seger. And the misspelling of artist’s name is clearly meant to deceive.

Raymond goes into considerable detail on the various ways different parties game Spotify to earn revenue with the musical equivalent of clickbait—like releasing duplicate tracks with different titles, or producing “songs about everything” so that a search for one’s hometown, for instance, might turn up a song about it. Is it a song you want to listen to?  Well, to each his own.  Raymond observes …

“The big loser here is the listener. He’s increasingly having to dodge spammers and imposters to find his favorite artists, and then slogging through endless albums once he does. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Listeners have long been the primary beneficiaries of free or dirt-cheap streaming services. Now, after years of artists alone coping with the devaluation of music, fans are feeling its effects too. It may not be ideal for anyone, but at least everyone is suffering together.”

One of the promises made by the internet industry to artists and consumers was the aforementioned opportunity for discovery; but I don’t think anyone meant the discovery of dreck that fans would have sift through to find the work of artists we already know or might want to know.  Nobody appears to be doing anything illegal in gaming the system (unless Spotify is engaged in any type of fraud), but that doesn’t mean the new models don’t enable some far more complex forms of chicanery than those 90s-era complaints about overpriced CDs.

Referring back to the Canadian Supreme Court decision in the Equustek case, the significance of that decision (despite the wailing and teeth-gnashing at EFF et al) is that it recognizes the ways in which the tools we use to derive benefit from the web—search, SEO, keywords, etc.—are very easily wielded by hucksters, spammers, and outright thieves.  No, listening to a Bob Seger impersonator on Spotify isn’t going to hurt anyone, except perhaps Bob Seger, but reading fake news does, and so does buying counterfeit products or accidentally giving information to a scam service.

I doubt we’ve heard the last on the question of whether or not Spotify is actually commissioning works under pseudonymous artist names, or where that investigation might lead.  To me, these latest revelations are just part of the same narrative that keeps unfolding this year—that the “new models” of the digital age have some serious flaws for which the fixes might be that these companies have to behave a little bit like “legacy” industry.  And that may not be a bad thing.

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