@BBCtrending: The mystery tracks being ‘forced’ on Spotify users–another explanation

Jonathan Griffin has another “fake artist” story about Spotify on BBC Trending (see also Laura Kobylecky prescient post from 2017, Making Fake Art: “1984”, The New Rembrandt, and The “Fake Artist”).

Mr. Griffin frames the story:

Mysterious musicians have cropped up on Spotify, racking up thousands of listens and (perhaps) hundreds of pounds. It’s a phenomenon that experts say could indicate a security flaw.

But while Spotify denies that accounts have been hacked, the music streaming site has not explained in detail how the playlists of some users indicate they’ve “listened to” musicians that nobody’s ever heard of.

They have names like Bergenulo Five, Bratte Night, DJ Bruej and Doublin Night. Apart from being musically unremarkable, they generally have a few things in common: short songs with few or no lyrics, illustrated with generic cover art, and short, non-descriptive song titles.

Interestingly, the bands also have little to no presence on the rest of the internet. At a time when social media plays a crucial role in connecting musicians and audiences, these artists have no fan pages, no concert listings, social media accounts or even photos of the actual musicians.

But somehow these mystery artists and a host of similar acts have snuck into people’s Spotify listening playlists, in some cases racking up thousands of listens and prompting a number of users to speculate that their accounts had been hacked.

“Hacked” like “glitch” is a word that hides a multitude of liabilities–particularly when the basic phenomenon of mystery tracks is one that has been around for years.  Mr. Griffin offers what I’m sure is an honest technical assessment involving a security breach of the particular incidents of mystery tracks appearing on Spotify playlists.  The complex explanation accepts a basic premise–hacked accounts–and overlooks a simpler explanation.

“Hacked” is one of those flexible Gumby words that can be molded to fit a particular situation, but it definitely implies that an intruder engaged in what is sometimes called an intentional possessory taking and carrying away of property not their own, or as it’s known in the trade–larceny.  In this case, the common law would struggle to cover a playlist as property, but I don’t think it’s all that difficult.  I’m just a country lawyer from Texas and I’m not as smart as these city fellers, and even I can see the analogy.

The more obvious and much simpler explanation is that Spotify did it themselves.  They had access and moreover had a financial incentive as Laura pointed out in her 2017 post.  Here’s how it works…

Spotify makes it easy for the “artists” on these tracks to upload their recordings.  Spotify may buy a batch of these recordings from the “artists” for a flat fee.  Laura covered this issue and quoted a Music Business Worldwide op-ed by Vick Bain about Epidemic Sound.  As Laura said:

There is another problem with the, hypothetical, “fake artist.” In a second article, (4) Music Business Worldwide addresses the issue of how these “fake artists” could be driving down the “per-stream income for everyone, while lowering the negotiating power of the labels/publishers/collecting societies.” The following chart illustrates that issue:

Royalty Allocation Ratio

The problem depends on the “allocation ratio,” or how people are getting paid. The bigger the “total plays” the smaller the “per play rate”. If the total pool of monthly revenue available for royalty payments is divided equally over the total number of plays, that determines the “per play” rate for that month. Each artist or songwriter would get paid for each of their plays based on that rate. (There may be complexities like minimum payments and country variations depending on negotiation power, but the basic math is pretty consistent.)

In other words, artists who are paid a flat fee are included in the allocation ratio, but  even though their tracks are not royalty-bearing, they pull down the overall payout.  This is one of the oldest tricks in the book and may account–so to speak–for the stickiness of fake artists.  It’s also probably prohibited by at least the major label contracts by the insertion of the qualifier “royalty bearing” or similar words on what can be included in the “total plays” denominator in the equation above.

As long as the nominal per play rate for flat fee artists costs less than the per play rate, Spotify has an incentive to play this game.

Particularly if they can chalk it up to a “glitch” on the audit that may never come.

While Mr. Griffin’s explanation is appreciated, there may just be a simpler explanation, and you know what William of Ockham had to say about that.