Fake Music and Lazy Listeners

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I had to doublecheck, but I read it correctly: ‘Fake music’. How can music be fake? Unless some group or musician is pretending to be someone else. But that’s not it. ‘Fake music’ is real music. Apparently I’m listening to it every day. What makes it ‘fake’?

I love music. Since I was a kid I’ve collected music. LPs and cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes, CDs and now a multi-terabyte digital collection. All gone except the latter, which isn’t used that much – although every time I open Roon and ‘go local’, I wonder why. The user interface is great, the sound excellent, the collection is – well – outstanding…

The answer is laziness. Streaming is simpler – and simplicity wins. So streaming – specifically Spotify – is the modus operandi in our home (in case you wonder why Spotify and not one of the others, like Qobuz, head over to the post Why Spotify Wins).

And streaming is the context in which ‘fake music’ popped up a while back. At first encounter I had to look it up – and was surprised to find it a common term in music circles. Apparently, even in chamber and symphony orchestras musicians some times fake things – pretending to play what’s in the notes but not actually doing it. Quoting Wikipedia – “… gives the impression of playing every note as written while not doing it”. It’s not even considered a bad thing – “but faking ‘just because you haven’t practised’ the music is not acceptable.”

In jazz, faking means something else – still according to Wikipedia. But there is no mention of the type of fake music I recently ran into on a news channel– which is a streaming service phenomenon: ‘Low quality’ artists appearing in curated playlists, most of the time alongside some big names.

What? Although immediately recognizing what it was, I really had to sit back and think for a minute. Fake? Low quality artists? What’s fake about this? 

I read on (try this link for more details) and finally got the point. Some labels are teaming up with the streaming services (Spotify in particular but probably others too) to put unknown musicians and (allegedly) low quality music into curated ‘mood’ and ‘chillout’ playlists. Lists many people use the same way we used to use radio – background, masking other noise or just creating a mood. The playlists are often but not always a mix of unknown and well known artists, the goal being to collect streaming fees that these labels and artists could not otherwise attract. Allegedly a conspiracy between the streaming services and the labels to ‘control money flow’, to the great dismay of the (presumably) more serious labels and their musicians.

How interesting. Apparently, streaming has opened entirely new ways to scam serious and hard working musicians who are already suffering from (purportedly) ridiculously low payouts from the streaming services. A tempting line of discussion in itself: Are musicians now getting paid fairly instead of an inflated income when we (you and I) had to buy complete albums to get access to one or two good tunes? Maybe half of the CDs still in my attic have never been played in full,  and many played only a few times. Not really good value for money. With streaming, we play what we want we when want it, and the musicians get payed for actual use, not for a bunch of stuff we didn’t want in the first place… Then there is the question of how the streaming services calculate and compensate for actual play – and I’m not going down that road. I’m sure someone else has done that already.

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So, back to the allegedly fake (streaming) music: How bad can it be when so many of us choose to pay to listen to it? It has never been easier to push the skip-button. What’s the problem? It seems to me that the choices the streaming services make look pretty much like what the radio stations did in the past – and still do. Are there kickbacks? I don’t know. Is it fair? Probably not – but then again, what is ‘fair’ in this context and who holds the power to define?

Right off the bat it seems to me that you and I – the consumers – are more guilty than any ‘fake’ musician and their labels. Just like you, I did notice many new names on some of our curated playlists, and I liked it. Being exposed to new artists is a desirable benefit of choosing such lists in the first place. New acquaintances like Peter Sandberg, Karen Souza and many others were great additions to our old favorites – ranging from Ben Webster and Stan Getz to Jacob Collier. 

Then, after becoming aware of the ‘fake music phenomenon’, I took a closer look at some of the lists, typically soft-jazz and smooth-jazz. And yes, there are plenty of unknown names – some of them not to be found anywhere else. Like when I tried to move all my playlists to Qobuz and Deezer, there were quite a few songs that couldn’t be found anywhere outside of Spotify – not even by Google. And there is another sure sign: You can google an artist (like the Tree Four Trio), find a number of ‘albums’ (actually EPs) but nothing about the players. No names, no instruments. I don’t like that, but I still like some of their music. It may be argued that the Traveling Wilburys did (almost) the same thing, but that’s different. They invented fake names for a reason, and everybody knew their faces already. So no, anonymity has no place here.

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Still, here’s the thing: I like many of them. They’re doing a decent job. Calling their music fake just doesn’t feel right. OK, other artists are complaining, labels are complaining but they’ve always done that – about each other or something/someone else. ‘They’re taking advantage of a hole in the system’ I hear. But what system? And why is it a hole, what about ‘opportunity’?

Of course there are things not to like here, but this is the new normal. To many artists this may be their chance to move the next level, their venue to get exposure. Is there an ethical problem? Let’s define it and decide what to do. Is there a practical problem? Let’s fix it. Is it simply whining from the ‘old guard’ not wanting competition? Good.

So the message from a music loving customer to artists and labels is get used to it. Participate, be engaged, don’t get stuck in history but evolve, fix what’s not right, move on. That’s evolution, isn’t it?

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