Culture

Manipulated keywords are driving all that generic Spotify background music

Once billed as a golden platform to reach an ocean of listeners, Spotify is now a hellish landscape with ghost "artists" gaming SEO — and how we enjoy music.

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Streaming music services were pitched to the world as audio heavens where millions of listeners could find the right kind of song to make their day. As it is with almost any pitch to "disrupt" an industry, it didn't take long for that utopia to crumble.

As Input previously reported, there are scammers on Spotify pretending to be famous artists and now, an in-depth report from OneZero shows how "artists" with generic and boring names on Spotify have managed to game its SEO and get humongous amounts of engagement — in the case of "Relaxing Music Therapy," the "artist" has over 500,000 monthly listeners — without ever truly having any in-person gigs or concerts. Or even a physical album to boast.

One of the individuals to have played the game by bending the rules told OneZero that it is less about musical talent, prowess over an instrument, or even a specific genre, and more about coming up with the perfect kind of branding and a heavy dose of algorithmic manipulation.

Upload and win — It would be far more accurate to call these "artists" what they actually are: uploaders. One of them is the founder of SubmitMusic, Jason Cerf, who told OneZero how it all works. Fair warning: if you're a musician struggling to reach listeners, your blood might heat up a notch or two reading this.

"If you name [yourself] 'Joe Smith,' and you put out a classical music album, it’s not going to resonate with a digital consumer," Cerf told the outlet. "If you put out classical music under the name 'Classique Elegante,' that is an on-brand piece of data that is put up in front and center [...] and is likely going to harbor more digital activity, or clicks."

Monetize it up — The idea is to game the SEO and monetize an existing list of music. And there's no penalty from Spotify. The company's CEO Daniel Ek, in fact, is a proto-enabler of such mindless proliferation as he has openly emphasized quantity over quality. Or in this case, volume over music.

As a result, you have millions of listeners tuning into generic playlists for activities like writing, sleeping, driving, and more coming from phantom "creators" who are, in simple terms, playlist uploaders. And these uploaders are known to slip in songs that are not specific to the genre, thus manipulating user consumption, as OneZero points out.

One solution to this phony hell is human moderation. But the scope of these catalogs is so enormous that it will take a consistent and strong amount of human-applied quality filters to root out the fake rot. But the likelihood of Ek supporting that approach is fairly slim.