Dave Chappelle has a sketch from 2004 that imagines the internet as a physical place – a shopping mall where you can get everything from penis enlargement pills to debt consolidation. One gag that feels more dated than the others is a shot of a quiet kiosk selling music for 99 cents, cut to a store offering “FREE DOWNLOADS” with streams of people pouring out of it.
Online music is more controlled and corporate than it was in 2004, when every remix known to man could easily be found in a zip file on a blogspot page. By making it more convenient to subscribe than to pirate songs, streaming platforms now dominate the industry. But the bigger they get, the harder it is to keep out the riff-raff: Spotify in particular has had trouble keeping leaks at bay, with unfinished and illegal songs by the likes of Beyonce and SZA popping up on the service in 2018.
The latest of these unwelcome guests has arrived via something supposedly non-musical. Spotify has been investing big money into podcasts lately and has reorganised its own virtual mall to suit: the mobile app now has a "Podcast" tab right next to the "Music" one. But if you tap on the "Music" category within their podcast database, and scroll past podcasts by Joe Budden, Jessie Ware and Rick Rubin, it’s like turning over a stone and finding weird and wonderful creatures wriggling around underneath.
The bootlegs, live recordings and unofficial mash-up remixes that proliferate on YouTube and Soundcloud have made their way to Spotify as podcasts. A song is submitted as an episode, and the podcast channel functions as a playlist. Though there’s little way of knowing how many of these podcasts there are, at least a couple dozen will usually come up under the "Browse" tab. Searches in the app for generic terms like “chill” and “reverb” will also throw up a lot more.
Musically, the podcasts are daft and a little strange – with a lot of dizzying variety. Take, for example, idk im high, a collection of anonymous lo-fi hip-hop beats with a psychedelic Homer Simpson on the cover; the less i know the circles better, a Post Malone and Tame Impala mashup that’s as bad as its title; or a boyband nostalgia podcast full of One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer B-sides.
One uploader, a Dutchman called Luc who was “born in the 2000s”, has a playlist called Ettental. It’s full of spacey, slightly mournful remixes, including an 80s-style re-work of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, complete with a cover of a car driving through a nocturnal cityscape. Luc started his podcast in February, after searching for a song on the platform: “The only result that came up was a podcast. I thought it was a very clever way of uploading songs that are not available on Spotify. So I decided to try [it] out myself.”
Spotify doesn’t host podcasts itself, but aggregates them via an RSS feed – a computer file format that automatically updates when new content is added to a website. After a bit of Googling, Luc found a hosting platform from which to then put the podcast on Spotify (he didn’t want to share which one it was, but other podcasters use services like Buzzsprout and Sounder). The Ettental podcast gets taken down a lot – it was taken down again the day after we first spoke – but he’s had over 250,000 streams and 63,000 listeners across all the versions he’s uploaded, and all in less than a month.
As there’s no messaging feature on Spotify itself, and no way to see how popular a podcast is beyond what the company puts on your homepage, each podcast can seem pretty isolated. But Ettental is one of the few to have an Instagram or Twitter handle attached to it, and Luc says he gets a lot of feedback and upload requests from listeners.
Another podcaster keen to foster a community around the practice is a 14-year-old from Maryland in the US, who says she’s had over 50,000 streams since creating her podcast at the end of February. She “wanted anyone else who wanted their favourite song edits to be on Spotify to be able to message me, so I could help them out and upload it without them having to create their own podcast”. She has “four to seven people a day”, mostly between the ages of 13 and 20, requesting songs for her to upload. The requests are very similar to what she’s already posted: introspective pop from The Weeknd, Lana Del Rey, Mac Miller and Harry Styles, with many of the songs having the ubiquitous “slowed + reverb” treatment.
The dream pop, vapourwave, and YouTube-esque "lo-fi hip-hop beats" that dominate these podcasts seem to confirm that the phenomenon has been started by teenagers in their bedrooms for teenagers in their bedrooms. According to the listener data that Luc gets from Spotify as a podcast creator, 20 percent of his audience are 17 or under, and 60 percent are 22 or under. As he points out, that’s even without factoring in people using family or parental accounts to listen.
Many of the podcasts are earnest stan accounts, like toulousestan, who uploads Ariana Grande tracks from touring and studio sessions, and Unreleased & Lives, a compendium of Harry Styles live cuts. Others are bizarre memes that combine audio detritus – slowed down pop hits; obscure anime soundtracks – with surreal cover artwork. What they all have in common though, no matter how weird they get, is the sense of a real person behind them. The streaming infrastructure has created a super-slick, frictionless way for us to "consume" music. But by being homebrew and strange, these podcasts unsettle that.
When asked for comment, PRS for Music and BPI, which represent UK music rights holders and the UK music industry respectively, both stressed the importance of proper licensing and respecting copyright.
The copyright factor leads to a high churn rate of podcasts being taken down and (re)uploaded – most of the ones I first found have disappeared, replaced by a new, equally zany batch. Luc’s backup podcast is up and running as well: he says that the “personal feedback from people in my DMs” that he gets, some of which he shares with me, is a big motivating factor, as is the “big audience” that his streaming data proves. Now he’s well-practiced at it, he can reupload his podcast in under an hour when it goes down. This ephemerality simply adds to the charm; a reminder that there are other human beings in the smooth, glossy complex that the online world has become.