Spotify’s Fake Artists & A Brief History of Music Production Libraries

For the uninitiated here, a little background on music production libraries. There once was a time where a tv show would hire a composer to write custom music (score) for the show. It was good pay and kept the composer in business. They’d also develop a creative relationship. (This is how the top people work.) But eventually, as budgets dropped, and more and more finished music became readily available, the trend shifted towards using music libraries – one-stop shops where hundreds if not thousands of pre-recorded (“canned”) music pieces were ready to paste directly into the tv show. These libraries would offer their entire libraries to the tv producers at a fraction of what a composer would cost, with the downside being none of the music was custom created specifically for the show. (Although I even know music houses where they will custom write cues under the table just to get the placement rather than lose out to a competitor.)

For the composer, this meant the opportunities to write for tv, commercials, etc. were dwindling quickly, replaced by working for one of these production libraries instead. Usually the business model for these would involve writing many tracks of various generic “moods” and styles for little or no money up front, submitting them to the library, and then crossing your fingers that the library would get a placement for your cues, and then, if lucky to get a placement, the composer would then get a royalty check 9-12 months after the show airs. The composer usually forfeits the publishing income to the music library, so it is less than if the composer was working directly with the tv show. I know quite a few composers that make a decent amount of income this way, although it’s a numbers game, as any individual cue would likely only pay a few dollars per broadcast, so they have to compensate by writing hundreds of cues for various outlets, each bringing in pennies.

So, it’s a win for the tv show producers – they get entire libraries of music at their disposal for a fraction of the cost of hiring a composer. It’s a win for the music library – they get a percentage of every cue used from their library, and a one-time sync fee, which they may or may not share with the writers. It’s a lose for the composer, though, because of this middle man, the music library. The composer makes less than if they had just been hired directly, like they used to, and often the small remaining royalty amounts received from licensing through music libraries is not a living wage. Also, they become a faceless cog in the machine of the music library. They usually don’t even get to meet the people using their music. Those relationships now go to the music libraries. The music libraries would argue that they provide opportunities for licensing to composers that they would otherwise not have. This is the nature of this slice of the music business as it has come to be.


Now, what does this have to do with Spotify? Because last month there was a big dust-up about the discovery that Spotify uses production companies with “fake” artist names to create music that they buy outright and don’t have to pay royalties for. The main points I agree with from the article.

1-These production companies are using composers as “work for hire” (not letting them claim ownership of their own compositions or collect royalties.)

2- Spotify gives preference to these fake artist tracks, placing them in popular playlists.

3- Spotify paying less than what they would have to pay for non-production library tracks, probably with the promise of x number of streams, higher visibility, etc.

4-Spotify also doesn’t have to pay royalties at all when using these “royalty-free” tracks.

5-Why are they creating fake artists in the first place? Who benefits from that? It is dishonest and intentionally misleading, and robs the true creators of their due recognition. Also super uncool in my book. (But some music libraries sort of do the same thing in that composers usually don’t get credited or have any personal interaction with the shows.)

6- Since Spotify divides all royalties to all streams, by larding these “highly curated” playlists with fake artists that don’t pay royalties, which then get millions of plays, they are intentionally diluting the amount they have to pay to other, “real” artists. Also not cool.

But that’s not all – the article continues to connect the dots between Spotfy and at least one production house that have had the same VC investors. Coincidental? Maybe. Maybe not. Be that as it may, it seems apparent that what’s rotten this time is not in Denmark, but in Sweden. I guess $600 million in losses might make me a little desperate, too.


So, yeah, news flash, the music business is a “cruel and shallow money trench“. Go figure.

But there’s something even more demoralizing about realizing that the artists people think they’re listening to, they aren’t really listening to. It’s like a grocery store emptying all the name brand containers and filling them with their own branded product, misleading the public, so they can make more profit.

But does it really matter? If you like what you hear, do you care if it’s a kid in his bedroom or a factory stamped faceless robot churning out generic catchy tracks? Tell me what you think.

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