Do Playlists Dream of Fake Artists?
8 min read

Do Playlists Dream of Fake Artists?

Hello, good morning, afternoon, or evening to y’all reading today. Nothing super new or exciting happening in my world, so that's it for this intro. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns reach me at Otherwise let’s chat about muzak and playlists.

Two years, Music Business Worldwide reported that Spotify was playing artists upfront to make music specifically for their playlists. The charge went a bit under reported until Vulture mentioned it a piece last summer, then MBW published a list of supposedly 50 “Fake Artists.” Then that’s where things got interesting.

(I'm making an aside here to say "Fake Artist" is extremely imprecise nomenclature but my definition was: An artist's music only appeared on Spotify, no amount of googling could reveal more information about the act, and they appeared to have an absurd monthly listener to follower ratio (i.e. 400,000 monthly listeners and 898 followers). This certainly isn't exact, but wanted to mention that upfront)

Additional reporting eventually showed that some of this music was being made by the Swedish background music company Epidemic Sound. The New York Times even reported on the matter, where Spotify's Jonathan Price said: “These are legit deals between us and labels that everyone feels comfortable with.” Obviously based on the amount of pushback and the fact he was speaking with the Times made it clear everyone wasn’t comfortable. Still the story eventually passed as there were no real details revealing  the nature of this deal and what if any effect Spotify connecting with a company like Epidemic Sound might mean for playlists.

Last November I reported for the now defunct music site TrackRecord that in fact Epidemic Sound received fairly disproportionate attention on certain Spotify playlists:

"Ambient Chill, a playlist with over 500,000 followers, features 34 songs by Epidemic Sound. There are only 52 tracks on the playlist, meaning 65% of those songs are owned by a single company...Before Epidemic Sound started working with Spotify, mood playlists were full of established ambient acts. According to the playlist analytics site Chartmetric, on February 23, 2017, Spotify’s Ambient Chill playlist switched out 16 tracks by Brian Eno, Bibio, Jon Hopkins and other well known electronic acts for 28 songs connected to Epidemic Sound, operating under fake names like They Dream By Day, LUCHS, and Silver Maple."

This is where I wanna return back to for a minute this week.

Who Are Playlists For?

Earlier this year I worked with Cherie Hu, a writer I frequently mention here, in an effort to dive a bit more into this story. When I was doing initial reporting on this story last summer I came across well over a hundred "fake artist" profiles on Spotify of acts with thousands, if not millions, of streams. Hu and I tracked these artists and started to identify just how many playlists this kind of muzak ended up to see if there were any other patterns that might've emerged. This research was done using both Chartmetric and SpotOnTrack to dig back through playlist history to note and observe changes and see what songs were currently on these playlists and to identify what was removed over time. That's how we ended up with this list of over 50 playlists that either still have "fake artist" on them right now (see: Peaceful Piano) or used to. The list of playlists is here:

"Peaceful Piano (4.5 Million Followers), Deep Focus (2.7 Million), Sleep (2.7 Million), The Most Beautiful Songs in the World (1.6 Million), Brain Food (2.2 Million), Coffee Table Jazz (1.5 Million), Sueño Profundo (1.3 Million), Microtheraphy (1.2 Million), Peaceful Guitar (1.1 Million) - ES, Piano in the Background (930,000 Followers), Music for Concentration (926k), Chillout Lounge (768k), Ambient Chill (743,000k), Sleep Tight (544k), Calm Vibes (491k), Songs for Sleeping (371k), The Stress Buster (354k), SPA Treatment (278k), Electronic Concentration (231k), Christmas Peaceful Piano (208k), Smooth Morning (209k), Nachklang (196k), Workday Lounge, Soul.House.Relax, Concentration Maximum, Lullaby Baby, Klassik zum Entspannen, Reading Chillout, Acoustic Calm, Chilled Jazz, Sleepify, Winter Sounds, Jazz par Darmir, Nocture, Chill Beats, Cool Down, Targeted, Evening Jazz, Baby Sleep, Piano Dinner, Keep Calm, Peaceful Meditation, Per Dormire…, Kopfkino, Tuck Me In, Douce Nuit, Peaceful Retreat, The Great American Songbook , 100% Lounge, Pluggfokus, Chilled Classical, Detox, Chilled Dance, Peaceful SPA, Yoga Today, Piano Comfort, Rofylld, Dreamland, Sleep, Baby Sleep, Soothing Harp for Sleeping Babies, Rauhoittumislista, Natal Relax, Electro Focus, Pehmein, Kauniita unia, Romantica, Coffee & Piano, Instrumental Backdrop, Just Jazz."

(I included the list of "fake artists" at the end of the newsletter if you'd like to cross reference between the two. Just didn't want to clog up this space with too many walls of text.)

What prompted me to bring up this nearly year-old story that was originally reported two years ago? Earlier this month I spoke to a manager that repeated what Billboard reported earlier this year about Spotify reaching out to smaller acts in an effort to sign direct deals. What they heard happening was that popular acts in certain niche genres were being approached to direct licensing deals where they use a pseudonym to ghostwrite material for playlists in agreement these songs would get top billing and provide a strong secondary income stream.

Billboard’s initial report mentioned there being frustration with this practice: “But one act that signed an agreement with Spotify last year has received less playlist promotion than it had hoped, a source close to the act tells Billboard.” I initially read this an odd complaint because this kind of quid-pro-quo wouldn’t want to be too obvious in lieu of ringing bells of people at labels and even casual music fans. Yet if these smaller ghostwriting deals are explicitly to create an additional revenue stream rather than defect from their label, then that complaint makes a bit more sense. A producer who goes out of their way to make music potentially for Ambient Chill to only see their song at no. 54 instead of 12 on their playlists makes sense why they’d be annoyed.

A reason why this story even a year later stuck out to me was just how Spotify does nothing to explain any of this. The idea of Spotify filling its playlists with cheaper commissioned music is fine, but Spotify does nothing to inform their consumer they may be listening to muzak. That’s why I mentioned that on the playlist Ambient Chill Brian Eno, a pioneer of ambient music, was replaced with Silver Maple, a non-existent who of music. Spotify is within their right to swap out music on their playlists, but it always felt strange to me that part of the reason for a playlist is potentially to discover new music and effectively dozens of Spotify playlists aren’t tools of music discovery but just consumption. Spotify's Brain Food playlist is effectively drinking Soylent.

Spotify last week officially rolled out their new playlist submission feature for artists. I saw a few comments that implied this might be a good things for smaller acts, but for acts who already are on major labels or big indies then this probably won’t matter. Now this potentially could offer a better end result for smaller acts, but I’m not expecting Today’s Top Hits to be full of acts who submitted through this system.

Last year when reporting on the initial controversy around fake artists a number of small indie labels were frustrated not only because some of their music was getting swapped out for muzak, but because this entire system Spotify created if was being filled with muzak essentially is just another door of opportunity being closed in their face.

There is nothing surprising that playlists function so similarly to radio—see the exclusion of women on playlists like RapCaviar. However the narrative of Spotify is that there are no gatekeepers, but that flatly isn’t the case. The “fake artist” story never left my head, because I’m always interested in what spaces on these platforms do offer real opportunities for smaller acts versus what is effectively musical AstroTurf. Spotify isn't bound by any government regulation with its platform and the choices it makes in the music being promoted. Still I'd appreciate a little more transparency to know if the song I'm hearing is by a young artist who wants me to be their fan or effectively audio filler tunes.

Chance the Rapper Shares 4 New Songs: Listen - Pitchfork

It is of course #rare I’ll ever just include an artist dropping new music as a news item. Yet I do think that Chance the Rapper choosing to premier these songs on SoundCloud is an interesting move. The songs eventually did make their way to other platforms but after the last couple of years of everyone obeying the global release date of Friday I like seeing more acts opting out of that rather limiting time frame.

Rap, Activism, and Event Decay: Measuring Event-Centric Fan Traction - Chartmetric

Chartmetric’s blog continues to due amazing work looking at trends in music data. This time Jason Joven tried to see just how much big live performances or viral moments impacted the overall attention being driven towards an artist outside of a single song. This deeper look into data is honestly what I want to see more of in this space and I’ll even say as a challenge to myself in pushing to do more of this type of work.

Spotify Still Won't Let Users Block Their Harassers On Its Platform - Buzzfeed News

This is a sad story of a Spotify user being harrassed on the platform and Spotify shrugging of this user’s concerns. This kind of story along with their 180 switch on their Harmful Speech policy is why many of the companies “good” gestures are hard to take in good faith then repeated they don’t address real issues that users bring up.

YouTube reaches new milestone: 1.9bn logged-in monthly users - Music Ally

I was on an interview with someone from YouTube and they misquoted the wrong state of the company’s monthly users and their PR person quickly chimed in to say 1.9 billion. Big if true.

ANTE UP: I.B. BAD ON VALUATION - Hits Daily Double

Speaking of billions! Music companies are worth a lot of money. Are music newsletters worth a lot of money? Invest in Penny Fractions and see your a 100x return on your investment.

Can Spotify become "Spotify for X"? - Cherie Hu

I don’t mean to be bleak, but we’re slowly barrelling towards a world where essentially content is going to be in the Apple, Amazon, or Google entertainment bundle with Netflix, Disney, Spotify, and telcos fighting among themselves. Or maybe mass consolidation will be exciting to you? Either way, Cherie on the music tech side is really trying to see where Spotify could potentially fit in this space and well it certainly won’t be an easy battle.

Spotify 'Fake Artist' List

Ellen Courtois, Billy Frame, Heinz Goldblatt, Clay Edwards, Amy Yeager, Clark Ingram, Sam Eber, Juni Tinley, Wilma Harrods, Saga Rosen, Agatha Reilly, The 2 Inversions, Ronald Emery, Mirja Kempe, Franz Kulick, Once Proven, Purple Tulips, Joux, Jean Petri, Kumbhaka, Jonathan Coffey, Rebour, Pernilla Mayer, Tony Lieberman, Milo Stavos, Dorothy Laddlad, Koral Banko, Hermann, Christopher Colman, Martin Skoog, Kylian Rebour, Martin Fox, Josie O’Connor, Andy Kohl, Sigriour, Hilda Atkins, Bud Hollister, Adam Lansing, Samuel Lindon, Benny Bernstein, Jozef Gatysik, Leslie Jones, Antologie, Fellows, Jeff Bright Jr., Eagle Lake, Ahron Kupner, Allysa Nelson, Julius Aston, Kari Bin, Thomas Loof, Novo Talos, Pam Caddis, Musicboxes, Muni Yogi, Otto Wahl, Caro Utobarto, Milos Strevic, Yakamora, Stellan Johnson, Risto Carto, Piotr, Miteska, Hultana, Sickly, Sonya O’Malley, Giuseppe Galvetti, Rita May, Tonie Green, Hollow Light, Mia Strass, Harley Rain, Ebb & Flod, RJ Malcom, Oneke, Leo Finka, Ana Olgica, Grobert, Charlie Key, Regina Mira, Elba, Mbo Mentho, Pablo Monte, Alan Ellis, Ann Simons, Benny Treskow, Enno Aare, Deep Watch, Clark Younger, Devansh Tushar, Tekkla, Bon Vie, Robbie Hees, Evelyn Stein, Davide Ambrosia, Juliana, Serenity for Sleep, Lo Mimieux, David Fischbein, Ceilidh, The Waterbed Corporation, Milton Breech, They Dream By Day, (Dawn, Dawn, Dawn), Charles Bolt, Gabriel Parker, Ensidya, Sum Wave, Karin Borg, Halcyon Lounge, Goratie, Damian Syslo, Leon Noel, vvano, Vincent & A Secret, Advaitas, Sigimund, Dylan Francis, Bernard Dubicki, Amity, Cadet, Martin Landh, Embee, Brandon Mills, Relajar, NK-67, Greg Barley, The Chicago Duo, Androm, Silver Maple, Hiroshi Yamazaki, Tomas Skyldeberg, oomiee, Molife, Out of Gravity, (At the End of Times, Nothing), Pranayama Om, Evolution Of the Stars, Mar Vei, Sieeban Acht, Mayhem, Regentum, Chi Vaughn, Emblemi, Cospe, Elijah N