It is 10pm on Tuesday, and I have just become the 1,106,079th Spotify user this month to listen to an artist called Charles Bolt. The track I’m playing, Far and Beyond, is a gentle piano instrumental, not unlike the music Yann Tiersen composed for the soundtrack of whimsical French movie Amélie. This, I confess, is proving something of a problem. I have been listening to gentle piano instrumentals not unlike the music Yann Tiersen composed for the soundtrack of Amélie all day, and I suspect I reached the limits of my tolerance for it some hours back. This music long ago ceased to make me feel chilled or peaceful or any of the adjectives used in the titles of the Spotify playlists that contain it. Now I suspect it has turned me faintly hysterical. I can’t stop laughing at it. A playlist prosaically titled Piano in the Background has made me snigger.
There’s something ineffably hilarious about the thudding inevitability of what comes out of my headphones. The mysteriously named Novo Talos and the Hellenic-sounding Milos Stavos both make gentle piano instrumentals not unlike the music Yann Tiersen composed for the soundtrack of Amélie. So does Wilma Harrods. And so does an artist called Mayhem, which part of me really hopes is the legendary Norwegian black metal band, famed for their horrifying backstory of church-burning, suicide and murder. I quite like the idea of their members taking a break from performing songs called things such as Chainsaw Gutsfuck in order to make gentle piano instrumentals not unlike the music from the soundtrack of Amélie.
The reason I’ve ended up listening to this stuff for hours on end is because some people are claiming none of these artists exist. Last year, the website Music Business Worldwide ran a news story claiming that Spotify was engaged in making “fake music”. The company was, it claimed, secretly paying producers a flat fee to create tracks within specific musical guidelines – invariably “chilled out” instrumental music of one kind or another – then using these tracks to fill their hugely popular curated playlists, under pseudonyms. The story understandably created a stir within the music industry, not least because exposure on a curated Spotify playlist can be hugely beneficial to a real artist’s career. Around the same time as the story broke, the Guardian ran a piece by British jazz musician Neil Cowley, who described how having one of his tracks included on a Spotify playlist had resulted in it being played 2m times; his music, he delightedly announced, was at last being enjoyed by people who might normally be put off by the baggage attached to the word “jazz”. It appeared that musicians such as Cowley were being quietly elbowed out of that limelight in favour of ones who didn’t exist, and in favour of music for which Spotify wouldn’t have to pay royalties.
Last week, Spotify issued a fierce denial. “We do not and never have created ‘fake’ artists and put them on Spotify playlists. Categorically untrue, full stop,” said a spokesperson, who, unfortunately for Spotify, only served to fan the flames of the story. Music Business Worldwide published a list of 50 artists on Spotify it suggested were fake, and also claimed to have tracked down two of the anonymous producers responsible for the actual music, Stockholm-based Andreas Romdhane and Josef Svedlund, a duo best-known for writing songs for Geri Halliwell, Westlife and Simon Cowell’s ghastly operatic man-band Il Divo, and for whom the phrase “Don’t you think you’ve done enough harm already?” might thus have been invented. A further raft of articles appeared, including a piece in a Minnesota magazine purporting to be an interview with one of the fake artists, Enno Aare (“my uncle was called Bryan Enno… He recorded a series of ambient knock-off cassettes in the 70s for K-Tel. Mostly sold at truck stops. Music for Gas Stations was the big one”). Others speculated on what Spotify might be up to and why. One theory is that it might be about “quality control”, which seems to carry with it the mind-boggling implication that the global appetite for gentle piano instrumentals is so insatiable as to have outstripped supply. Another is that it is linked to the streaming service’s fraught negotiations with record labels to re-sign global licensing deals: if labels don’t agree to Spotify paying them less money for their music, then Spotify will produce its own and cut them out of the equation entirely.
But what about the music itself? Of course, just because it all sounds remarkably similar doesn’t mean that it’s the work of fake artists, but there’s definitely something faintly odd about the list of artists produced by Music Business Worldwide. Not just because every name on it seems to have racked up hundreds of thousands or indeed millions of Spotify plays without attracting any attention whatsoever from the wider world – none of them seems to have a website or a social media presence or indeed any footprint on the internet outside of Spotify – but because of the names themselves. Józef Gatysik, Mbo Mentho, Giuseppe Galvetti,, Hultana, Lo Mimieux, Heinz Goldblatt, Benny Treskow: either there’s a hitherto-unnoticed global music scene, a rainbow coalition of artists of every conceivable nationality and ethnicity dedicated exclusively to making gentle piano instrumentals that sound a bit like the soundtrack of Amélie, or shadowy figures such as the Swedish songwriting team Music Business Worldwide tracked down are employing a vast array of unknown musicians hailing from around the globe to perform their material. Sitting down and listening to what they or whoever it is have produced is a bizarre experience, perhaps because you’re not actually meant to sit down and listen to it: it’s just supposed to float unobtrusively around the room, the musical equivalent of a scented candle. In fact, a conspiracy theorist would doubtless suggest you’re not supposed to notice it at all. After all, if too many people find their ear so caught by Charles Bolt’s Far and Beyond that they feel impelled to rush to Google and find out more about their new favourite artist, then the jig is up.
For whatever reason, I quickly become gripped by the certainty that this is the most bizarrely nondescript music I’ve ever heard. Each track seems almost utterly devoid of variation or any kind of individual character: it makes the oeuvre of Status Quo seem a fathomless, baffling universe of eclecticism and variety. After a while, even the faintest hint of dissimilarity – the appearance of a synthesiser in the background, the piano recorded in such a way that you can hear the squeak of the pedals – feels dramatic and jolting. When one of the allegedly fake artists breaks ranks and does something different – one track by Fellows eschews the piano entirely for a bit of wafty electronica, while Advaitas offer up a surprisingly lo-fi take on the kind of droning new-age music you hear in health spas – I feel like punching the air. But then I move on to another allegedly fake artist and we’re back to tinkling piano and what feels like a gradual collapse of the will to live. Who listens to this stuff? Do any of them actually love it? Are there people out there who, when questioned about their music taste, earnestly announce: “You know what my favourite kind of music is? Piano in the background.” That thought sets me off laughing again.
It’s all too easy to imagine it’s being made by the same people, perhaps two very bored Swedes, dolefully paying the bills on autopilot while remembering the good old days, when the studio shook to the groundbreaking sound of Geri Halliwell and Il Divo. In fact, it’s easy to imagine it has not been made by humans at all, instead generated using computers and algorithms.
Indeed, that may well be where this odd saga ends up. Yesterday, it was reported that the streaming service had hired a man called François Pachet, an expert in the application of artificial intelligence in the world of popular music, whose team last year released two songs entirely generated using AI. The future may well involve music made not by fake artists, but untouched by human hands.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010