Earlier this year, controversy swirled around accusations of Spotify populating popular mood playlists with “fake artists,” quite literally music made by studio musicians and not active, real deal acts. The allegations stem from a Vulture story which cited a 2016 Music Business Worldwide piece about Spotify stuffing playlists full of this fake music (we’ll refer to it as “muzak” from here on out.) Epidemic Sound, a Swedish music production company, was revealed to have supplied said muzak for popular mood playlists like Peaceful Piano and Deep Focus. The company remained fairly quiet, until yesterday.
Oscar Hoglund, CEO of Epidemic Sound, spoke to the research group Music Ally about the controversy and their relationship with Spotify. “We got in contact with all of the streaming services, and the one that was quickest was Spotify,” said Hoglund. “There was nothing exclusive about it: they were just fast, and we uploaded our music. No special deal, no back door, no nothing. We just uploaded our music.”
In the beginning, Spotify was rather cagey about their connection to Epidemic Sound (who they share investors with.) That changed in a July New York Times story when Jonathan Prince of Spotify told the publication, “We’ve found a need for content,” Mr. Prince said. “We work with people who are interested in producing it.”
This is interesting not only because the fake music can be found across dozens of playlists, but the sheer number of how much of it exists. 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. If any other playlist skewed that heavily toward a single record label, surely someone would raise a stink.
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.
A number of labels I spoke to earlier this summer were a bit unnerved by Spotify’s behavior because “mood” playlists are often trumpeted by the company as a way of expanding their listenership. Seeing these playlists filled with Swedish muzak is just another door of opportunity closing for smaller acts, who’ll potentially never reach the upper tier playlists like Today’s Top Hits.