Back in January, I wrote a piece about Matt Farley who has released over 14,000 songs on iTunes and Spotify, earning a substantial percentage of his living from the intentional, unintentional, and sort-of-intentional downloads and streams of his hilariously specific songs. In that piece I argued that Farley’s songs straddled a fine line between funny pieces of pop-culture and audio-spam designed to turn a profit.
With the popularity of that article came a lot of emails and notes about other musical oddities that are direct products of the streaming age of music, with all of the exploitable irregularities that come along with it. Many of these led me down many serpentine paths into the Spotify hall of mirrors, where I now reside, asking myself a looping series of questions about how we experience and come to love or hate or be completely hosed by music in the Streamable Era.
The first to reach out to me was The Echo Nest, the “industry’s leading music intelligence company” which, I quickly learned, develops the algorithms that many music services use to power their site’s music recommendations as well as identifying musical spam (which they then ban from ever being recommended in one of their algorithms). Located in Somerville, MA, they’re like a combination between the cool record store employee who knows what album you need to hear next, and the hardened sheriff that rolls into town to clean up the streets. A representative from The Echo Nest emailed me to let me know that my suspicion expressed in the article about the emergence of musical-spam as the next big spam trend could be confirmed.
“Music spamming is becoming a pretty huge problem for music services,” The Echo Nest representative told me. They went on to share a summary of their research, which introduced me to the kingpins of the musical-spam game who go by such harmless monikers such as The Birthday Bunch, The Teddybears, and The Hit Crew (I guess that last one could be a little sinister). The Echo Nest breaks these different types of musical-spam into the following categories (which they didn’t quite assign catchy names to, so I’ve gone ahead and done that here):
1) Cloners – Those who record their own versions of current, popular hit songs in an attempt to piggy back upon the popularity of the song, with wildly varying results in quality and accuracy. These guys are like the off-brand soda of music.
2) Personalizationers – The Echo Nest call these dastardly folks as “the worst culprits,” as they upload albums and songs that claim to be personalized recordings (the big money is in birthday songs) which are barely actually personalized, if at all, and definitely not something one of your loved ones would be touched by if you were to purchase the song for them.
3) Name Changers – Spammers that upload hundreds or thousands of copies of the same few songs (or even just ONE song) and assign it a different name each time (usually a woman’s name, in the hopes of romantic purchases or streams by an interested party).
4) White Noisers – These fucks probably don’t even know who John Cage is, and thereby their strategy is all the more offensive. Guess what they do? That’s right. Blank tracks, no music at all! (The recent Sleepify project by Los Angeles band Vulfpeck is a brilliant public, transparent attempt to hijack Spotify’s pay model, and I’m very curious to see how that turns out, indeed. Again, it’s my contention that this kind of thing will eventually be not only banned from the recommendation algorithms, but from the streaming platforms all together. We shall see.)
5) Head-Scratchers – Relatively unknown artists who release an overwhelming amount of material, a lot of it apparently reappearing on many different collections, in a manner that makes it unclear what its intent actually is. As The Echo Nest explains, “it’s not always possible to distinguish objectively between a band like Why Not (a Head-Scratcher act on their radar) and, say, Rick Springfield or Fleetwood Mac, both of which have (re)released the same songs on a staggering number of anthologies and reissues.”
The most alarming example that The Echo Nest brought to my attention was a woman, or artist, or spam-pseudonym named Deborah Weissbuch who uploaded Beatles songs for sale as if they were her own recordings. This ballsy move (or complete accident, they’re not sure what Deborah’s motives were exactly) called to mind a hoax I perpetrated in 2008 in which I convinced people that a rogue organization had been adding additions to popular recordings that were then traded on illegal download platforms, en mass, for years. The idea behind the Overdub Tampering Committee was to force people to ask the question, “If digital music is the norm now, how confident can you be that what you’re listening to is actually the piece of music you’re intending to listen to?” During the elaboration of the hoax, my intent was to make illegal downloaders second guess if their source was pure. What’s interesting to note, now, is that some of the official sources, including Spotify, are just as polluted with incorrect song files and improperly labeled tracks as the world my hoax tried to imply– the database is simply too gigantic to keep error and spam completely away from its gates.
Here’s a little video I took of something I encountered while revisiting Tori Amos “Boys for Pele” album on Spotify.
I hit play on the “Boys for Pele” album. The third song, “Father Lucifer,” plays correctly, then a track labeled “Professional Widow” comes on, but it’s definitely not Tori Amos, but rather some techno outfit. As if that wasn’t disruptive enough, the next track is labeled as another version of “Professional Widow” – this time it’s the “Armand’s Star Trunk Funk Mix” (oh…great) but this also doesn’t seem to be a Tori Amos song either. Besides the file goofs, this kind of desecration of track order with bonus tracks and remixes being thrown into the middle, end, or even beginning (!) of the playlist for classic (and not so classic) albums is widespread on Spotify.
This seems like such a piss-poor reason to accept a whole ocean of possibly fucked up music, and Spotify is not unaware of the problem. They have a system in place for reporting these kinds of errors and users have reported both success and failures getting these errors weeded out (the Tori Amos error was resolved when I checked back a few weeks later, FYI). If the error resides in Spotify’s database, they aim to correct it. But if the error arises from how the label uploaded or labeled the track, the onus is on the record label to make the correction. Apparently, in either scenario, change arrives slowly. One user on the Spotify community board exclaimed, “I’ve reported stuff since at least two years ago and not a single one has been fixed” while another remarked, “I think that main problem is that Spotify does not care.”
That seems extreme, and outside the realm of proving by any party, but I do believe the truth resides somewhere in the zone between a) “the database is too large to effectively, accurately manage” and b) all available company energy being currently invested in growing the service and its profits, rather than cleaning up what’s already there.
Profit is a hot button word for Spotify, especially when it comes to the artist payout for the usage of their music. There has been much dispute (more accurately described as a shit storm of protest, I’d argue) about the fairness of the payout model to artists for streaming services like Spotify. Radiohead pulled their content, David Byrne wrote an incendiary op-ed, Zoe Keating shared her exact accounting, and everyone from the Black Keys to Aimee Mann have expressed doubt in the sustainability of their job as a music creator/performer if streaming services are the future of music consumption (spoiler alert: it is).
Camper Van Beethoven’s David Lowery has been the most vocal, writing open letters to NPR interns, revealing an embarrassing Pandora payout for a million streams, and even testifying to congress. But recently, Lowery released what I consider to be the most incendiary of his protests yet, a soft accusation of outright fraud when it comes to streaming services reporting the true play counts for artists on their platform. In a post entitled “Have Streaming Services Become an Illegal ClusterF***? Why Does My Statement Show Statistically Unlikely Plays?” Lowery detailed that his first statement from new music streaming service Beats/MOG seemed curious, and he went on to make the case for how very unlikely the songs listed as Camper Van Beethoven’s only plays on the service were based simply on the historical precedent for the popular tracks in Camper’s output.
It left Lowery wondering if these play counts were completely fabricated, an accusation that would definitely be easy to defend if it were untrue, leaving one to wonder why Beats doesn’t just do so (and why Lowery’s most inflammatory accusation yet has garnered the least amount of press). In a stunning footnote to the whole affair, Lowery ended the piece by mentioning, “As a songwriter the US Government bars me from auditing these streaming companies.” I have many questions about this last bombshell for both Lowery (who didn’t respond to my interview request) and an entertainment lawyer, so we’ll have to save exploring that topic for another article.
Another recent trend, as an alternative to directly rebelling against streaming services’ payout models, is transforming the physical-object format of music into a rare, limited edition, fetish item, with an extremely high sticker price. Last week, Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan announced that he was releasing a set of experimental recordings called “AEGEA” with a price tag of $59.95. The fact that there will be no digital release of this music (or at least none that has been announced, but I suspect that could change once all 250 of these sell), directly suggests that Corgan is more interested in selling a fetish item than he is sharing new music with his legions of fans. On the one hand, this solves the artist’s problem of the low streaming-services payouts, and of musical piracy interrupting your sales (all of these will sell long before anyone uploads the work to The Pirate Bay).
But this solution also leaves your biggest fans holding a sixty dollar price tag just to hear it, which you don’t need to be a member of Fugazi to believe that this is kind of a shitty way to deliver new music to your people (and if this video is any indication, it’s also kind of shitty music to deliver to anyone, period). If the solution to proper artist payouts involves soaking your fan base at every turn, this isn’t going to end well. Recall, the mildly cold behavior with which the recording industry treated their consumers over the past decades (“It cost me $18.99 for the new Pearl Jam CD at Straaaaaaaaaawberries, kid!”) was cited again and again as a defense of illegal downloading throughout the late nineties and oughts. So, imagine what kind of over-the-top response a decade of artist-approved extreme price-gouging would elicit from music fans? (I picture beheadings, but that’s just me.)
Meanwhile, Wu-Tang Clan doesn’t give a fuck. They recently announced that they’d be selling exactly one copy of their unheard album “The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin” only, at auction, to the highest bidder. While this can be seen as a hilarious publicity stunt, Forbes went ahead and wrote this creepy screed about how this could be the future of music sales. “The more scarce the item, the more you can charge,” excitedly declares author Bobby Owsinksi. While we wish all of these money-hungry vampires the best, it should be noted that the idea that this is a new sustainable model for music sales ignores so many essential facts about music fandom that the entire piece instantly reads like something from The Onion.
One of the only reasons music fans are willing to go to such great lengths to hear the music they love (whether that means paying $100 for a concert ticket, or driving 50 miles to see them perform, or shelling out whatever the asking price is for the new material) is that music is seen, heard, and felt by fans as a rebellion or an antithesis to the gray, cold world of business. Pop, rock and hip-hop music is what we blast the moment we escape the office, it’s what we put on when we want to go wild. Wanna treat your new single like it’s a NASDAQ stock? Go ahead, but you might run out of gas much earlier than you think. As the line between label and artist shrinks with each passing year, it will be increasingly difficult for a music creator to throw up their hands and cry, “I’m sorry! It’s not my decision, it was the label’s!” with a straight face. Corgan and Wu-Tang Clan’s recent acts are great examples. It’s blazingly clear that they thought of this idea themselves. Isn’t that…kind of…pathetic?
Here’s the major take-away. We don’t want our rock stars making creepy, transparent financial maneuvers. We don’t even want them to spend their time rebelling against the fairness of emerging platforms’ payout rates (though, for the time being, that’s entirely more understandable than spending time cooking up ways to hose your followers). What we want from our musical heroes is to create and perform music. This was possible in the past, will it ever be possible again? Or will that just be a side-project as everyone screams about the rules of distribution leaving the fans standing by in the pouring rain? What happens when there’s a fundamental problem facing an art form, and it absolutely needs to be resolved, but continually working on the problem starts to lessen the power of the art form itself?
Welcome to the Clusterfuck.