Is Spotify buying AI-generated imitation songs to avoid paying royalties?

We came across the following claim across posts on the social media platforms X and Reddit, as well as across multiple websites:

According to the headline of a post on Reddit, Spotify was ‘paying for AI-generated knock-off songs so that they don’t have to pay artist royalties’. The post linked to an April 2023 article titled ‘Spotify Gives 49 Different Names to the Same Song’ on a Substack page called The Honest Broker as evidence for its claims.

In the Honest Broker article, the author details the experience of Adam Faze, the head of a media production studio named FazeWorld, who had encountered the same song on Spotify on multiple occasions under different song titles, artist names and cover art.

Faze was able to find 49 versions of the same 53-second track, which the Honest Broker describes as ‘banal’, under different names, attributed to different musicians, and all with different writing credits. Another Twitter user later found a further 10 versions of the same song.

The Honest Broker article mentioned that several others had come across similar instances of ‘fake artists’ who had created music that were often poor imitations of existing artists.

The article relayed Faze’s eventual conclusion that Spotify ‘might be trying to shift listening time from majors to generative music that costs them less to license or even make’.

Spotify’s Fake Artists

When we investigated the claims regarding the fake artists, we found that they had first appeared in a 2016 article titled ‘Spotify is making its own records… and putting them on playlists’ on the music industry website Music Business Worldwide (MBW).

In the article, MBW alleges that Spotify had been paying producers to create tracks for reduced fees under fake artist names that would often appear on its first-party playlists, which have millions of followers.

The article suggests that the presence of first-party tracks would be financially advantageous for Spotify by diluting the royalties required to be paid to third-party rightsholders under Spotify’s Streamshare revenue-sharing model, where rightsholders are paid according to the proportion their listeners make up of total streams on the platform in a given month.

Spotify denied the allegations a year later when contacted by Billboard, saying, ‘We do not and have never created ‘fake’ artists and put them on Spotify playlists. Categorically untrue, full stop’.

However, MBW responded to this denial by releasing the names of the 50 fake artists they had identified who had accumulated over 520 million Spotify streams and would therefore be owed $3 million in the usual third-party royalties, but who otherwise had no internet presence.

Two years later, in 2019, Rolling Stone revealed that the top 10 of these had together accumulated 1.22 billion Spotify streams, more than artists such as Beyonce, John Legend, One Direction and Lorde. They also revealed that other music rightsholders, such as Sony Music and Epidemic Sound, had begun creating their own ‘fake artists’.

Despite Spotify’s denials, the extensive reporting by MBW suggests that the allegations that Spotify has been paying for music created by fake artists to host on its platform is plausible. Even so, this does not substantiate the claim that Spotify was paying for AI-generated music.

Artificial Music

Spotify says that it finds some uses of AI in music acceptable. It says autotune is acceptable, while AI-generated music inspired by specific artists falls into a ‘middle ground’. However, it has said that software that impersonates artists is unacceptable.

Spotify continues to host AI-generated music on its platform, but there is no indication that it is itself paying for AI-generated music.

There is also no evidence that Spotify is responsible for imitation tracks, which do exist, but appear to be the creation of unscrupulous creators seeking to take advantage of uninformed listeners by gaming the platform’s search function.

While there are convincing reports that Spotify has paid for music made by ‘fake artists’ to appear on its platform, these reports suggest this music is created by songwriters in independent label companies, rather than AI.

As such, it is false that Spotify is paying for AI-generated imitation songs.

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