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Catfishing on Spotify

How Scammers Are Making a Killing By Faking Songs on Spotify

On November 17, 2016

Deep in the bowels of Spotify’s digital architecture you’ll find the anonymous, Google-proof artist profile of one “Tanya Swing.” She (or it) has exactly one song to their name: a chintzy karaoke version of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” In 2014 Taylor Swift publicly denounced the presence Spotify and Apple Music in commercial recording, and subsequently purged her discography from those services. In her absence, Tanya Swing has gathered a modest 10,000 plays, presumably driven by people misclicking for the real thing.

Tanya isn’t the only one. If you investigate Spotify you’ll find dozens of knockoffs - mostly vulturing whatever is occupying the Hot 100. A profile belonging to “Tara Adele” has 467,337 plays off a cover of “When We Were Young,” which comes from an album named (seriously) Hello From The Other Side. Most cover artists aren’t trying to fool people, but it’s become clear that streaming services have empowered a brand new cottage industry on cheap accidental clicks.

“The licensing process hasn’t changed with the emergence of streaming, but the responsibility for securing the license has. For permanent downloads, the covering artist - or their label - is typically on the hook for securing the necessary licenses to sell the song in the US,” says Phil Bauer, who oversees the business development of CD Baby, a company that licenses cover songs. “When a cover song is streamed in the US by a digital retailer (such as Spotify, Apple Music, etc), the retailer is typically the one responsible for securing the necessary license and remitting payment to the publisher. This makes the process easier for the artist by shifting responsibility to the retailer that is streaming the music.”

Streaming has completely reinvented the way music licensing works. There’s no definitive customer/vendor transaction when someone plays a song on Spotify, and that’s forced some new rules. Traditionally, if you were to sell an album of covers, you’d owe 9.1 cents “per recreation” to the original artist. So, if you sell 100 MP3s of your version of “Come Pick Me Up,” you’ll owe $9.01 to Ryan Adams. But if someone streams your cover (which is the business model of whoever is behind dummy profiles like Tara Adele and Tanya Swing) the royalties are taken care of by the infrastructure itself. When major institutions are getting the bill, you don’t have much to worry about.

By and large, this is a positive thing. Without this system, the covering artist would be more on the hook financially every time their song was played on Spotify or Apple Music. Streaming services are letting content breathe with the intended democracy of the internet. People have carved out real careers by reinterpreting other people’s work, which wasn’t realistic in the pre-internet era. Peter Hollens is known for his overdubbed a capella versions of pop songs, which has earned him a startling 389,000 monthly listeners on Spotify - with some of his tracks reaching the lofty seven million mark. The unfortunately-named New York synthpop duo Ninja Sex Party recently cracked the Billboard Top 20 with their full-length Under The Covers record, which was directly empowered by strong streaming numbers.

“You can’t argue with sheer number of fans,” says Ari Herstand, a musician and reporter whose book on the economics of the new music industry comes out in December. “Peter Hollens is making $9,000 per music video on Patreon and has two million YouTube subscribers. Before you needed a smash top-10 hit to make it and succeed, but now all you need is to find your niche. Who’s to say what’s legitimate or not? Why is Peter less legitimate than Alabama Shakes? That’s just difference in taste. I highly respect what any of these artists are doing if they’re creating their own thing.”

"Plenty of cover artists are trying to do the right thing, but there’s still thousands (literally thousands) of soundalike, ethically bankrupt cover songs crowding Spotify metadata."

Unfortunately that laissez-faire model is easily abused. Plenty of cover artists are trying to do the right thing, but there’s still thousands (literally thousands) of soundalike, ethically bankrupt cover songs crowding Spotify metadata. It’s easy to call that a symptom of the streamlined licensing process of most streaming services. Spotify and Apple Music aim to host all the music in the world in one place, it’s not surprising people are taking advantage of the crowd to score a few bucks. Last year Apple made efforts to block knockoff covers from showing up in their library, but Spotify is a little slower on the uptake.

“It’s basically a scam that they’re running, like ‘let’s see how much money we can make until somebody notices,’” says Herstrand. “[The streaming companies] are basically playing whack-a-mole with this stuff. I was talking to Philip Kaplan [CEO of DistroKid, a music distribution company,] and he deals with this stuff everyday. They’re constantly having to block accounts and rip down people’s music, because they’re getting messages from Spotify saying ‘you violated our terms of service.’ It’s not DistroKid that’s breaking the rules, it’s people that are using their product. All of these companies pretty much take anyone, there’s no vetting that goes on, so a lot of this stuff slips through.”

That lack of vetting isn’t restricted to streaming. Kris Petersen has cleared a lot of samples and released a lot of commercial music at DFA Records, and says nobody ever took a second look throughout the process.

“In my time at DFA, I’ve never had a cover version/sample declined, providing we went through the proper channels. I don’t even think we were even required to submit the final track,” he says. “I guess certain musicians may have more or less restrictive policies in place, we were probably just lucky or chose obscure enough material that it didn’t matter. I can’t find the service we used before, but honestly, it was as simple as filling in a form and making a payment, and that’s it.”

Simply put, Tanya Swing isn’t built to last. You aren’t allowed to deliberately mislead people, it’s against the terms of service of Spotify and Apple Music, and eventually someone will notice and purge it from the program. The 10,000+ plays the dummy version of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” gathered is pretty insignificant, but it’s strange that we’ve turned music into something that can be harvested. In 2016, songs have traffic goals.

"Simply put, Tanya Swing isn’t built to last. You aren’t allowed to deliberately mislead people, it’s against the terms of service of Spotify and Apple Music, and eventually someone will notice and purge it from the program."

But at the end of the day, the scam isn’t winning. A handful of illicitly scrobbled streams isn’t going to tip the scales. It’s a lot easier to build sustainable income with genuine, long term popularity than a cheap string of frauds.

“There’s still the ability to make money, even in the streaming world. An artist will of course earn a higher share if they’re writing and releasing original music, but there are still opportunities to do it with cover songs,” says Bauer. “Trying to trick people into listening to your music is never a good strategy. It won’t go well and creates a negative association with you as an artist. The artists we see gaining success from covers are doing it in a way where they are balancing between covers and original songs and they tend to make the cover version their own.”

Is it a problem that demands to be fixed? Maybe, but Spotify doesn’t seem be treating the influx of knockoffs like anything more than a minor annoyance. Nobody is really getting paid here, and it’s difficult to imagine a fake track taking too much money out of the original creator’s pocket. If artists started taking streaming services to court for their sluggishness, maybe they’d be stricter about the content that shows up on their platforms. But you’ve been able to pirate albums and purchase bootleg CDs out of car trunks long before you mistakenly double-clicked on Tanya Swing. In an era where all music is free, it’s hard to imagine anything changing soon.

“I definitely remember seeing and scoffing at a few janky Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations that were entirely cover versions so they probably still sell those at Walmart or gas stations or wherever for a few bucks,” says Petersen. “If they’ve created the music for another purpose, it only takes a few minutes to pop it up on Apple Music or Spotify, and any cash is just pure profit. Surely the session musicians have no right to the work, so the company is likely taking 100% of the profit. These cover/karaoke versions have always existed for digital sale as long as iTunes has existed. They’re just a bit more apparent now that streaming services have become their own little walled gardens - unless you’re a savvy consumer, you probably won’t have memorized where to hear The Life of Pablo or 1989, so maybe you’ll accidentally give someone a few cents for the bootleg before you realize your error.”

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Luke Winkie

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from California currently living in (sigh) Brooklyn. He writes about music, politics, video games, pro wrestling, and whatever else interests him.

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