Last week, as I was compiling a set of songs about Bitcoin to review, I stumbled across a song called “Bitcoin, Dogecoin, or Juggalocoin” in Spotify search. It’s basically unlistenable—just a collection of synthesizer noises and a voice asking the central question implied by the title: “Which kind of Bitcoin should I get?”
Confronted with something with seemingly so little reason to exist, I had to know more. The artist was listed as The Hit Metres, which I imagined—and still imagine, based on the scant information I’ve been offered—to be a jaunty male-female synthpop duo. The Hit Metres oeuvre consists of hundreds of songs with titles about public figures and current events, many of which could be the headlines of tepidly opinionated blog posts: “Does Hugh Jackman Have a Contractual Obligation to Continue To Play Wolverine?”; “Nepotism Isn't Dead As Long As We Have Emma Roberts, Jaden Smith, and Zosia Mamet”; “Jenny Mccarthy Needs Give Up Her Anti-Science Crusade”; “Zoe Saldana Gets the Last Word”; “Boko Haram Are the Biggest Losers in The World.” One entire album, Something Brewing, is all about hurricanes (“Hurricane Kyle Keeps Coming” isn’t just a bad sex joke I might make about myself anymore!), while another, Made In America, just lists a bunch of different politicians and their titles.
By creating such a large body of work with such eminently searchable terms in the titles, The Hit Metres stand out, intentionally or not, as an experiment exploring the nature of art and information in the era of nearly unlimited data storage. Their song titles are, as far as song titles go, pretty SEO-friendly, which is to say they cover a broad range of terms and phrases that people might search for. They’re funny, but they also work as a form of commentary on the expression of opinions. How many dead corners of the internet does some sentiment along the lines of “What Weird Thing Will Bill Murray Do Next?” exist in? A lot, it seems.
That these songs exist in this form is interesting, but the way these songs exist is particularly compelling art as well: They are, on average, less than a minute long, and they are not available as free downloads but rather as paid, 89 cent downloads on Amazon, paid 99 cent downloads on iTunes, or, if you must, streams on Spotify. The Hit Metres seem to be, like, say, Jeff Koons, art that is as much about itself as commerce as anything else. At least, this is how I interpreted what seemed like a grand commercial experiment in the powers of long tail search optimization.
The idea of the long tail, which has been explored in many contexts as an online business model, is that the limitless size of the Internet makes it possible to succeed commercially by having lots of content that only a few people consume rather than a few pieces of content that lots of people consume. It’s the concept that’s led to things like books made up of Wikipedia articles and printed on demand or Yahoo Answers. Theoretically, by having enough weird search terms covered in their song titles, a band like The Hit Metres could cash in on the traffic they get from being the group that comes up when people look for those terms on Spotify or Google. Whether or not there are many people searching for celebrities like Andy Serkis (“Andy Serkis Is the King of Motion Capture Acting”), Johnny Manziel (“Johnny Manziel Is Not Very Humble”), or Neil deGrasse Tyson (“Neil deGrasse Tyson Is the New Albert Einstein”) on Spotify isn’t totally clear, but The Hit Metres, it seems, have the market cornered.
Although the band, which exists online not as band so much as a depository of digital content, was hard to track down, I finally connected with them through the company that distributes their music on Amazon and iTunes and got a few very enthusiastic but not entirely satisfying answers to my questions. The Hit Metres are a band based in New York—“Not Brooklyn. It’s all about Manhattan! Manhattan is the new Brooklyn.”—who refuse to share their identities. True to my expectations, they list Ke$ha, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, Wesley Willis, They Might Be Giants, Andy Warhol, and Banksy as their inspirations.
The project started as part of a creative marathon called the RPM Challenge. While the requirement for the challenge is ten songs or 35 minutes of original music, The Hit Metres set a bolder goal of making 100 original songs in a month. Reaching this goal obviously required a fast, methodical approach, and The Hit Metres turned to IMDB for inspiration, looking up the top 100 celebrities listed.
“The idea for The Hit Metres came from that thought process of speedy songwriting,” the group explained over email. “How can songs be created quicker, faster? Think of it like churning out art at Warhol's Factory. Lots and lots of art that is cheap and accessible to the masses (Spotify can be listened to for free, as can Rdio).”
As suggested, the process is pretty much endlessly repeatable, relying on little more than a list of terms and a rapid-fire approach to cranking out some piece of recorded sound that has something or, more likely, nothing to do with those terms. The short songs aren’t just easier to make, they’re also sort of an experiment in the business of having a s fan base on Spotify. Songs on Spotify have to be listened to for at least 30 seconds to count toward royalties. Many of The Hit Metres songs just barely crack this threshold, but they seem to have little incentive to go for much longer. And it’s not only because listeners might not be interested in paying attention to the group’s abrasive, noisy material.
“Longer songs means fewer songs are played,” the band wrote. “Fewer songs being played means fewer acts get exposure. (There are only so many minutes in an hour.) On the other hand, Spotify has a slight encouragement toward shorter songs. You get paid the same, it seems, for a minute long song or a five minute one. This means if you have a fan who listens to five of your songs, the artist who makes a minute long song gets paid five times as much as a person making five minute songs. This encourages shorter songwriting, and can (theoretically) lead to greater exposure.”
In terms of exposure, The Hit Metres have been slightly stalled out by the fact that their distributor, DistroKid, forbids the use of other musicians’ names in song titles, which limits them to using celebrity names that people are less likely to search for in Spotify (musicians, obviously, being the main search focus). The Hit Metres have made some money, “but not a lot.” They have proven, however, that people are curious about Jared Leto, who is the subject of their most-streamed song, “Jared Leto Should Just Give Up on the Music Thing” (number two is “My Detective Work Is True Detective Work”). And they have challenged audiences with some pressing questions: “Do You Think Christian Bale Will Approve of Ben Affleck’s Portrayal of Batman?”; “Why Is Angelina Jolie Still Famous?”; “What If the Two Kendricks Got Together?” (I’m assuming this one is about Anna Kendrick and Kendrick Lamar?); “Which One Is Elle Fanning and Which One Is Dakota?”. They have written “A Strange Song for Johnny Depp.”
Nonetheless, The Hit Metres contend they could make more SEO-friendly music, citing the lack of metadata like lyrics for songs on Spotify as opposed to something like Bandcamp (basically, if they could include lyrics, it would make them more likely to appear on Google). They perkily and possibly coyly deny that there’s any element of subterfuge or cleverness to the whole project. They assume that since they can’t name their songs after musicians that most of the people searching the terms they use in Spotify are actually looking for songs about, say, Bob Saget (“How Did Bob Saget Ever Get a TV Show?”).
“Do people want to hear songs about these random topics?” the band wondered. “Sure, why not? The Hit Metres is happy to fill that void to write quickly penned songs about topics no one would have ever thought that people would actually care about.”
It’s a bold mission, and beyond having a trace of the Spotify gamesmanship of projects like Vulfpeck’s silent album or the endless covers series that clog the search results for popular songs, it offers a kind of take on the nature of online content. Music, like any other form of digital content, is just data, even if it’s a type of data we’re more likely to elevate to the status of art. If a pointless pop culture blog post is worthy of 30 seconds of your attention, what’s to say a banal song expressing a similar opinion isn’t as well? If someone can sell ads against the likelihood that you’ll click on a headline about Jennifer Lawrence, is profiting off the song equivalent of that headline any different?
Who knows if that’s what it’s actually about—since my interactions with The Hit Metres were ultimately all text-based and anonymous, I’m even less sure than when I started out about the level of cynicism involved with this project—but I don’t think it really matters. The music is pretty boring, and it’s amazing that it exists, that it will continue to exist (earlier this week, The Hit Metres put out their latest project, Cleveland). In the torrent of information that is the Internet, everything fascinating and funny and shareable becomes banal. This is the banal soundtrack to match, with a song for every topic.
Kyle Kramer loves digital content. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
Want more weird Internet shit? Check these out: