When we de-value music, everybody loses
In case you’ve missed the recent hullabaloo surrounding Spotify, here’s a quick rundown:
A year ago, the Music Business Worldwide website ran a story claiming that some of the artists appearing on a fair number of Spotify’s most popular self-curated playlists weren’t actually real. In fact, the artists didn’t appear on any other platform apart from Spotify. MBW concluded, understandably, that this was a bit, well, fishy.
This issue was reignited this week by an article on the Vulture website. Following up on this with an article of their own, Billboard magazine received the following statement from Spotify: ‘We do not and have never created "fake" artists and put them on Spotify playlists. Categorically untrue, full stop. We pay royalties – sound and publishing – for all tracks on Spotify, and for everything we playlist. 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.’
Unfortunately for Spotify this statement had precisely the opposite effect to the one (presumably) intended, and it instead provoked further enquries by numerous publications into what was really going on. MBW discovered that much of the music by these ‘fake artists’ is actually the work of Stockholm-based production music company Epidemic Sound, the music released under some fairly ridiculous pseudonyms. For their part, in a statement to MBW, Epidemic Sound rejected the notion of ‘fake artists’ and said that some of their composers simply preferred to use pseudonyms; it was they (Epidemic Sounds) who had decided to distribute their music through Spotify, and their playlist success is simply a reflection of the music’s quality.
But if there is no specific relationship between Spotify and Epidemic Sound, why is the music by Epidemic Sound's composers so prominently positioned in so many of Spotify's most popular 'mood' playlists? And why doesn't this music appear on other similar streaming services?
The Guardian has suggested that by effectively buying generic instrumental music to go on its hugely popular playlists, Spotify would potentially save millions in royalty payments. And in so doing Spotify sideline real composers and record labels.
Quite what lies behind all this will, I’m sure, be the subject of much discussion. And it should be stressed that any allegations that Spotify are doing anything underhand here are just that, allegations.
But what it does do, however, is raise a wider point which is: how did we get here? How did we get to a situation in which music has become so de-valued that it is packaged into chunks of anonymous sound, written by who-cares-who, to accompany – as the title of some of the most listened to playlists suggest – another, presumably more important, activity? Currently on Spotify, there are Spotify-curated playlists called ‘Classical Intimate Dinner’ (10,464 followers), ‘Walk Like a Badass’ (404,843 followers) and ‘Instrumental Study’ (296,765 followers). Treating music as though it can only ever be the accompaniment to something else is at the root of all this. You wouldn’t put a tennis court in the middle of a cinema so that you can subconsciously absorb the film in the background as you play a few sets. You wouldn’t erect a circus in the centre circle at Wembley Stadium so that the football fans can be entertained by watching the clowns pratting around if there hasn’t been a goal in the last five minutes. Good music commands our attention, all of our attention. Listening to music is an activity that is complete, overwhelmingly complete, in itself.
Of course it doesn’t matter who wrote the music if the only role that music plays in your life is as ear filler, elaborately constructed earwax. But it does matter deeply if you love music, if you give yourself over entirely to the listening experience. And I know that you do that because you are here, reading this.
You can’t ignore good music, even if it has been expressly written to be part of a larger work, as is the case with film music. You will often hear people (who should know better) say, ‘well, of course, if film music is any good you won’t notice it at all!’ Nonsense. If I think about the film scores that I most admire, I am constantly aware of the music throughout the entire film. Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, the recent soundtrack to There Will Be Blood, and, yes, Star Wars - this music plays a crucial role in every scene. It simply cannot, because of its sheer quality, become aural wallpaper. To allow music a prominent role in a film takes faith in the composer and an acute understanding of the power of music on the part of the director and producers that is all too rare today.
But how can good music be appreciated if the listener doesn’t know how to give music their attention in the first place. How often are school pupils encouraged simply to sit down and listen to a piece of music? Come to think of it, how often are adults?
I should say that I’m not specifically criticising composers who write music for production music libraries. Some of the music written for these libraries is exceptionally beautiful, succinct and original. Indeed, it has to be in order to stand out from the crowd.
The real problem at the root of all this mess is the massive de-valuation of music that we have witnessed over the last two decades.
Listen. Take music seriously. Care who wrote the music you enjoy. Value the music that you love. Show that you value the music you love by paying money to listen to it. That’s the only way we can escape the dismal future of ‘fake artists’.