Spotify wield a lot of power in the music industry. Labels fight to get their artists featured prominently on popular playlists, the charts change their rules to accommodate new trends in streaming, and musicians have to settle for whatever royalty payments the tech giant decide to hand down. The company is generally seen to be the one dictating the future of the music industry – and this week, they got caught up in a weird scandal that reveals more about the future than it might initially seem.
Last week, Vulture published an article outlining the many ways that Spotify’s algorithms and royalty systems were being gamed by everyone from spammers to superstars. One particular tidbit that stood out was a reference to an obscure, nearly year-old article on the industry insider blog Music Business Worldwide that outlined how a number of Spotify’s ambient, chillout, and piano playlists were filled with artists that don’t actually exist.
These artists – who have nondescript names like Novo Talos, Piotr Miteska, and Mbo Mentho – have racked up tens of millions of plays between them, yet they have no online presence outside of Spotify, and they don’t appear on any other streaming services. MBW alleged that the tracks were being commissioned by Spotify, with the tech company paying a flat fee to the producers and placing the songs favourably on their popular playlists as a way to avoid dishing out royalty payments on those tracks. Spotify have denied this, but the idea that they could be giving space to fake artists in place of real ones, whose career could actually benefit from the exposure, was seen as a real problem.
The whole thing is quite dizzying and hard to wrap your head around, especially if you don’t understand royalties, rights, or the dark art of getting a track featured on a Spotify curator’s playlist. (We’d recommend reading these articles on The Verge, MBW, and Watt to get some background on what’s going on and why it matters.) But what was clear was that the tracks were all made by real musicians operating under different pseudonyms. They came from a variety of sources, whether that’s production duo Quiz & Larossi (who have worked with the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Diana Ross) or composers from agencies like Swedish company Epidemic Sound.
Beyond the ethical questions that all this raises, there’s one elephant in the room with this story: is the music actually good?
IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME
Sitting down to listen to the ten most popular fake artists on Spotify, the first thing I’m struck by is just how similar it all sounds. The artists all make gentle solo piano music, the sort that fills up playlists called Soft Piano Vol. 2 or Complete Concentration Vol. 1 or Piano & Chill. These aren’t club bangers or perfect pop songs: they’re all instrumental, they’re all classical, and they’re all non-threatening. Gabriel Parker’s compositions are pensive and lonesome, while Charlie Key’s are a bit more emotive – they seem like they could soundtrack a subpar ITV drama, one of those weirdly melancholic adverts for bread, or even the American Express adverts that pop up for non-subscribers on Spotify itself.
I’m reminded of Yann Tiersen, the French composer whose score to 2001 twee cinema staple Amelie rose to inexplicable levels of popularity in the mid-2000s. I always found Tiersen’s score to be totally insipid, yet it was always high up there on people’s Top Artists on last.fm (back when last.fm was still a thing). The appetite for offensively inoffensive music lives on today.
IT ALL LOOKS THE SAME, TOO
The artwork for all these artists is similarly nondescript, basically doing a lazy own spin on a range of popular blog-friendly cover art trends from recent years. Benny Treskow’s art uses bland stock photos of cloudy skies. Lo Mimieux uses bland stock photos of cloudy skies in black-and-white. Relajar uses bland stock photos of cloudy skies, but with an Instagram filter. Ana Olgica, to his or her credit, is a little more hip: one of their releases has a mockup of a vinyl sticker, while another uses that vaporwave-friendly neoclassical art style that everyone was using four years ago.
Like the music, the artwork is designed to draw as little attention to itself as possible, simply fitting in alongside what’s already there rather than trying to find new ground to break.
IT’S PERFECTLY FINE, YET REALLY BIZARRE
There’s no denying that these artists are all very talented – you’ve got to be virtuosic if you’re able to compose a bewildering number of tracks, presumably at speed, and have them actually end up being loved by Spotify users. And the music is loved by people – there are even cover versions on YouTube. But it all has a slightly rote and workmanlike quality to it, which would make sense if it has indeed been made on commission.
Taken individually, it’s hard to say the tracks are bad as such. It’s background music, and you needn’t listen to it too attentively. But taken together, things get a little weird. At first the tracks just form a pleasant but characterless mulch, but after a while the similarities start to feel uncanny. You start hearing things that you were never supposed to: Why are they all recorded and mixed in the same way? Why is it all so flat? It begins to feel like music made by robots, or generated by artificial intelligence – perfectly functional, yet totally sterile. It’s clean, polished, and horrifyingly neat. You feel like it could go on forever, automatically generating infinite variations on the same theme.
IT SIGNALS THE FUTURE OF MUSIC, FOR BETTER OR WORSE
Whether you like it or not, AI and algorithms are going to factor heavily into the future of music. Tech companies are investing millions to endlessly fine-tune their product, envisioning a future where music fans no longer have to worry about the ‘discovery’ aspect of music discovery and instead have their ideal sound delivered context-free directly to their ears. Last year saw the release of the first AI pop song, and combined with the fact that the internet is mostly bots, is it such a stretch to imagine fake playlists stuffed with fake songs generated by fake artists listened to by fake users? Fake is the new real. Welcome to the future, welcome to hell.
Follow Selim Bulut on Twitter here @selbulut