Is ‘fake’ music a real thing now?
Spotify has been accused of stuffing its playlists with fake artists to keep its royalty payments down
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.