Is ‘fake’ mu­sic a real thing now?

Spo­tify has been ac­cused of stuff­ing its playlists with fake artists to keep its roy­alty pay­ments down

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - Dean Van Nguyen

Is ev­ery­thing “fake” now? All news is, ap­par­ently. Es­pe­cially re­ports that makes the US Pres­i­dent look bad. And it’s pos­si­ble that the mu­sic we’ve been lis­ten­ing to is as sus­pi­cious as a ¤15 note.

Spo­tify playlists have been placed un­der sus­pi­cion. Last Au­gust, in­dus­try news web­site Mu­sic Busi­ness World­wide (MBW) ran an ar­ti­cle al­leg­ing that the stream­ing ser­vice was pay­ing pro­duc­ers to cre­ate orig­i­nal songs be­fore re­leas­ing the mu­sic un­der made-up artist names.

Ac­cord­ing to MBW’s al­le­ga­tions, Spo­tify re­tained own­er­ship of the mas­ter rights to these record­ings, mean­ing it doesn’t have to pay roy­al­ties when they are played. When slid on to some of the ser­vice’s own pop­u­lar playlists (a proven source of ex­po­sure) in place of le­git­i­mate artist’s work, the songs can rack up enough streams to have a pos­i­tive im­pact on its bot­tom line – and make it cheaper than pay­ing reg­u­lar artis­tic roy­al­ties.

For al­most a year these ac­cu­sa­tions hung in the air, un­til last week, when a spokesper­son for Spo­tify re­sponded to a Vul­ture piece on il­le­git­i­mate artists and those who try to scam the sys­tem with schemes such as re­leas­ing mu­sic un­der names that sound sim­i­lar to pop­u­lar stars.

“Cat­e­gor­i­cally un­true, full stop,” the Swedish com­pany told Bill­board when asked whether it was cre­at­ing “fake” artists. “We pay roy­al­ties – sound and pub­lish­ing – for all tracks on Spo­tify, and for ev­ery­thing we playlist. We do not own rights, we’re not a la­bel, all our mu­sic is li­censed from right­sh­old­ers and we pay them – we don’t pay our­selves.”

MBW re­sponded by pub­lish­ing a list of 50 artists is says are fake. The names sound le­git­i­mate – Char­lie Key, Novo Ta­los, May­hem – but on the face of it, the artists seem sus­pect.

In­ter­ven­tion by Gabriel Parker, for ex­am­ple, is a lit­tle two-track piano num­ber that any­one with a key­board and ba­sic grip of record­ing soft­ware could put to­gether. The song cur­rently sits on al­most eight mil­lion streams. Amy Yea­gar’s Mu­sicbox fea­tures just a hand­ful of am­bi­ent echoes and chim­ing keys, and has raked in more than 5.5 mil­lion plays.

Most of the mu­sic doesn’t have vo­cals, and can com­fort­ably fit cer­tain gen­res and themes – “peace­ful piano play­ing”, for ex­am­ple. It’s worth not­ing that none of MBW’s sus­pi­cious 50 fea­tures Spo­tify’s blue tick of ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Nor do any ap­pear to have a so­cial me­dia or gen­eral on­line pres­ence.

The is­sue reignites the de­bate about the ethics of mu­sic stream­ing. Spo­tify has fought flame wars with artists for al­most its en­tire ex­is­tence, with most crit­ics tar­get­ing roy­alty pay­ments. Pho­to­graphs of mi­nus­cule cheques ar­riv­ing at mu­si­cians’ doors are all over Twit­ter.

Spo­tify’s model, though, re­lies on scale. As of Septem­ber 2016, the com­pany had paid out $5 bil­lion to right­sh­old­ers. By June of this year, it boasted 140 mil­lion ac­tive users. The more users, the more streams, the more pay­ments.

It’s not per­fect, but stream­ing has been an ef­fec­tive an­ti­dote to the golden era of dig­i­tal-mu­sic piracy that rav­aged sales post-Nap­ster. What­ever hap­pens, CD sales are not com­ing back.

In this brave new world, com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple and Tidal are set­ting the rules. If the al­le­ga­tions are true, Spo­tify could be fire­bomb­ing its own rep­u­ta­tion.

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