Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
Over the last couple of weeks, reports from the New York Times, Vulture, and Music Business Worldwide have brought to light a strange practice at Spotify. Digging into a number of playlists themed more around mood than genre—with names like "Deep Sleep" and "Peaceful Piano"—reporters discovered them to include a number of artists who only had a track or two to their name, and maintained little-to-no presence on the internet outside of Spotify.
Some jumped at the occasion to call these artists—most of whom were quickly attributed to composers operating under pseudonyms—"fake," though others pointed out the absurdity of classifying musicians that way. Spotify, for its part, immediately denied the accusations. "We do not and have never created 'fake' artists and put them on Spotify playlists," the company said in a statement. "Categorically untrue, full stop. We do not own rights, we're not a label, all our music is licensed from rights holders and we pay them—we don't pay ourselves."
Via the Times' reporting, it became clear that Spotify licensed many of the songs appearing on its mood-based playlists from Epidemic Sound, a Swedish company that shares an investor with Spotify. Though details have yet to emerge about Spotify's exact arrangement with the company, Epidemic Sound maintains a library of royalty-free music and sells licenses for use of that music for "audio and visual use," such as on TV shows and podcasts—in addition to offering a service that provides playlists from their library as a soundtrack for commercial spaces.
The question of what Spotify stands to gain from filling their playlists with mostly unknown producers further anonymized by working pseudonymously is still a bit foggy. Speaking to the Times, Jonathan Prince—Spotify's head of global strategic initiatives—reportedly "did not deny that the songs may cost Spotify less to play," though he did suggest that playlist slots were based, per the paper, on "popularity among listeners."
Still, the pseudonymous artists raise questions about the future of online music distribution and its ability to support musical talent. If Spotify is filling playlists with this commissioned material, what does that mean for ordinary artists who are trying to make a living—especially when some musicians experience major career boosts on the back of prominent playlist placements? And since Spotify is constantly negotiating royalties with labels and other music rights holders, how might paying lower rates for certain tracks affect the deals for other music?
I too am troubled by online music culture's slow march to total corporate control. But viewed in the context of the wider history of commercial mood music, Spotify's use of audio commissioned by Epidemic Sound for mood-based playlists seems a lot less surprising; in fact, it would seem to represent a continuation of a practice that has gone on for nearly a century.
Since the 1930s, companies like Muzak—now owned by the appropriately named Mood Media—have provided similar sorts of services, drawing on libraries of largely anonymous music to compile soundtracks that businesses could use to control working environments. Part of the pitch of Muzak's early 70s "Stimulus Progression" compilations was that their structure—15 minutes of music that increased in tempo, followed by 15 minutes of silence—could theoretically make employees work faster. To this day, companies use commercially produced music in attempts to influence consumer responses—even something as simple as making a person more comfortable in a retail space, and more likely to spend money there.
From the start, the economics of these services were different from that of the traditional record label. Companies looking to play music at brick-and-mortar shops could do so without having to pay performance rights royalties in the same way that you would if you were just playing the radio in public.
Epidemic Sound—which lists McDonalds, Hugo Boss, and Porsche, among others, as clients on its website—would appear to offer businesses a similar arrangement. And judging from the copy on its website, its playlists would seem designed to be used towards similar ends: "Music creates emotions, experiences, engagement, and it makes it possible for your brand to acquire a unique position in the minds of your customers." Back in 2015, the CEO of Mood Media imagined a future in which consumers had "the ability to take the [in-store] playlists with them, or interact with the music on their smartphones outside of the store." Such playlists would hypothetically perform a similar function to Muzak, just in the context of a world where people spend the majority of their time online.
Of course, the mood playlists that people are listening to on Spotify aren't there to encourage people to shop (In fact, it's technically a violation of the services end-user agreement for companies to play them publicly). Millions of people are actually listening to these playlists on their own accord—though Spotify no longer makes the listener data for these playlists public, Peaceful Piano alone boasts around 2 million followers, per a piece in The Guardian. Maybe those ambient-inclined listeners aren't hearing as many songs by the acclaimed pianist Nils Frahm as a result, but they're still engaging, which is all the metrics that a tech corporation needs to see to gauge that any particular tactic is working.
Part of the playlists' success, you'd imagine, is due to to the more passive listenership that instrumental music enjoys. As playlist titles like "Music for Concentration" suggest, this kind of music, like music for shopping, has a functional purpose. It's stuff you throw on while you're trying to get work done, or a soundtrack for your yoga practice, or simple music to accompany your efforts toward mindfulness.
There's a precedent for this in the history of ambient and new age music. Tony Scott's 1964 album Music for Zen Meditation is widely considered to be the first new age recording, and even more academically minded composers like Stockhausen, John Cage, and Pauline Oliveros have made music inspired by meditation practices. Titles like Music for Yoga Meditation and Other Joys—another album by Scott, which I highly recommend—cause you to judge the music by a different standard, its ability to serve a particular function rather than as a standalone piece of music. By the same token, if a "Peaceful Piano" playlist is composed of peaceful piano music, it doesn't matter if some of the melodic phrases are a bit saccharine. It's still relaxing all the same.
But I'd like to go a step further and posit that, at least based on a user-made playlist that collects several dozen of these pseudonymous artists, the music actually kinda rules in its own way. When I put on this music while I'm working, it's wild how blissfully this stuff flies by, especially the piano pieces. "Intervention," a track credited to an artist by the name of Gabriel Parker on Spotify, winds around tense piano figures for its taut two and a half minutes. It's surprisingly lonely and anxious for a track intended as commercial music. At its peak, you can hear the distant sound of breathing, and what sounds like the closing of a door, reminders that this music is made by real people, despite their frequently anonymized presentation.
That's ultimately true of a lot of this music. As easy as it can be to tune out, there's character and personality to the playing. It isn't flawlessly played music; notes occasionally get flubbed, or played slightly out of time. It also doesn't it rely on clichéd melodies; pieces like "Norrsken" by Karin Borg, are carried by dense thickets of intersecting arpeggios and the low-lying fog of digital reverb—not a million miles away from the blunt piano pieces of the last Grouper record (Which I mean as basically the highest possible compliment). With most of this stuff, I guarantee you if I gave you a blind taste test, you'd at least think it was pleasant, if not actively engaging, which is more than several decades of Muzak could say.
There's something kind of beautiful when you think about the fact that millions of people are listening to this music to soundtrack mundane experiences. If it sounds right for whatever purposes you apply it to—soundtracking a decision between brands of detergent at your local pharmacy, twisting your body into advanced yoga poses, concentrating on spreadsheets, or emptying your mind entirely—it doesn't really matter where it comes from.
But also, go buy a Nils Frahm record, I'm sure he'd appreciate that more than you streaming his music in a Spotify playlist anyway.