Junk Explained: How “Fake” Bands Are Taking Over Spotify And Fooling The Algorithm

If you've ever wondered why generic sounding bands keep getting stuck in your playlist - here's why.

spotify fake artists photo

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Ever taken a wrong turn down a Spotify search function and found yourself mired in a world of extremely fake, generic sounding bands?

The streaming service prides itself on the fact that it covers for every single taste, no matter how obscure. But it also appears to cater for tastes that people might not even have known they had.  Typing in phrases like “music for dogs”, ‘music therapy”, and “music for sleep” will bring up entire swathes of bands with generic names, photographs and song titles that have been designed to trick the algorithm.

Why? Because it’s big business that’s only getting bigger; a world of bots, big companies, and algorithmic deception.

Let’s dive right in.

How Do Generic Bands Make Money On Spotify?

Spotify streams aren’t exactly known for being lucrative —  according to recent data, musicians are paid between $0.004 and $0.007 every time you listen to one of their songs.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no money to be made on the platform. Scooping up the big bucks on Spotify simply requires a different approach to art: one that highlights search engine optimisation (SEO), rather than actual artistry or cultural heft. The less effort that you put in to making the music itself and the better you game the algorithm, the more money that you can make. And some companies have turned the process down to a fine art.

That’s the point made articulately and clearly in a Medium post by Peter Slattery that is currently going viral. In the piece, Slattery notes that the music streaming app is absolutely lousy with “fake” artists. By that, Slattery means musicians that have been carefully created to top Spotify’s internal search function.

If the band name is vague enough to hit key search terms that users are en mass typing in, then it’ll be the first or second result. Appear high enough in the search bar for long enough, and you start racking up real streaming numbers — which means big bucks. These companies will even list the same piece of music as belonging to several different artists, all in an attempt to disrupt the algorithm even further.

Such generic music first came to the public’s attention in a big way a few years ago, when Spotify users noticed a number of bands they didn’t recognise in their end-of-year Wrapped list, the most common being an act with no profile picture called the “Bergenulo Five.” When these users listened back to the “top songs”, they discovered they were short, wordless and generic tunes, with names similar to those used by their own favourite bands. Some even thought their account had been hacked. But the real answer was much simpler — they had been tricked by the algorithm.

How Do Generic Bands Trick The Algorithm?

In his piece, Slattery mostly focuses on the music that people play when drifting to sleep, or at events like children’s birthday parties — he notes that there’s a whole industry in people publishing slightly misspelled versions of nursery rhymes.

There are however even more tactics that SEO-gaming companies use. A particularly popular one is dropping an album of generic music with a similar title to a record by a big name. In the hours after folklore was announced, for instance, there were dozens of “folklore” playlists and records populated by the music made by these companies.

Elsewhere, in the years it took for Beyonce’s Lemonade to hit the streaming service, there were all sorts of generic, “fake” rip-offs of that record, designed to trick people who went looking for the original.

Moreover, if bands don’t own the copyright of their name, then there’s nothing stopping these generic musicians from releasing their own music under the same moniker as big acts. That’s what happened to the band TV Girls a few years ago —  they discovered that a generic music company was uploading “TV Girls” tracks with bland, repetitive album art in an attempt to trick the band’s fans into streaming the wrong song. When TV Girls got in touch with Spotify, and asked them for their help, they were told there was nothing that could be done.

These same companies will also attempt to drive their songs into the “sounds like” playlists that Spotify auto-generates — once you’ve finished listening to a song or album, the streaming service will start automatically playing another musician that listeners also like. Getting into such a playlist is particularly valuable, given that it means you can rack up a lot of streams thanks to users who play music while they are asleep.

What Can Spotify Do About All This?

None of these “bands” are really breaking Spotify’s rules. In fact, the algorithm is a core part of Spotify’s operational proceedings. The streaming service will never get rid of it, and it’s hard to imagine what rules could even be applied to stop the crop of generic acts. You’d never want to say that no two bands can release an album with the same name, or that songs with misspelled titles will be pulled.

So we’re stuck with it, at least for the meantime. Not that all this music is bad, mind you — in a 2017 Guardian article, Alexis Petridis admitted to quite enjoying Amelie soundtrack rip-offs. It’s just a new frontier for music, and proof that the internet really has changed everything.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.