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Bootleggers Find New Home On Spotify [Chris Castle]

2After a suspicious incident where what appeared to be bootlegs of R&B artist Aaliyah appeared on Spotify, evidence is building that bootleggers are now taking advantage of streaming service's lack of policing.

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Guest post by Chris Castle of Music, Technology, Policy

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Vanessa Okoth-Obbo’s eye-opening and must-read post about possible Aaliyah bootlegs on Spotify confirms a suspicious looking trend on digital music services–bootleggers finding another way to profit from lax policing by the “saviours of the music business” like Spotify.

As Vanessa writes in Factmag:’

Aside from her 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, most of Aaliyah’s music has never officially been available on major streaming platforms. Ola [a fan Vanessa interviewed for the story] added ‘More Than A Woman’ to Old School Hip-Hop via the album R&B Divas (International Version), one of two compilations with the same title released simultaneously by, itseems, Universal Music International in 2007. While listening to the playlist from his phone last month, ‘More Than A Woman’ came on and Ola idly tapped the song’s title, something that normally takes the user to the source album. But instead of R&B Divas, which features music from artists like Rihanna and Amy Winehouse, Ola says he found himself looking at the full tracklist for what appeared to be a bootleg version of Aaliyah….

The sophistication of methods for getting songs onto the platform in the first place accounts for some of this. Spotify has agreements with most major labels who, in turn, handle the process for their signed artists, and an adjacent economy of content aggregators has sprung up to assist those with no direct label backing. Distributors like CD Baby and TuneCore help independent artists put their music on the leading digital services and collect any royalties resulting from streaming or sales, for varying fees.

It’s highly probable that the Aaliyah albums were bundled in via a similar third-party service…

Taking advantage of his Spotify Premium membership, Ola moved quickly to download his favorite Aaliyah songs to his device while he could. In a blunt reading of his action, it represents money out of someone’s pocket — business is business. Still, the chances of a fan turning down a chance to engage with their idols’ work are slim, in any era or arena.

That leaves Spotify, and whoever is responsible for uploading the Aaliyah albums without permission, open to scrutiny. For Gary Pierson, the matter is clear cut: a service is liable for what it hosts. “This can get more nuanced in the case of ‘user generated content’ such as Youtube videos, but for the streaming services it’s pretty clear,” he summarized. The streaming behemoth has a lot on the line: Spotify recently moved to go public, filing for a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange in a money-generating step that some analysts have deemed unconventional. While the move could bring in much-needed capital to help the company resist copyright lawsuits (to which they are no stranger), a music streaming service cannot risk the stain of failing to protect artists’ interests…

Well…that ship has sailed.  We all know Spotify has demonstrated a lack of control over what’s on its systems for songs, and it increasingly looks like all of the services have fallen down on making sure that there’s no bootlegs in their catalogs.  So I ran the name “Aaliyah” through the SX Works NOI Lookup to see what came back–because if there’s no license for the sound recording, they can’t get an compulsory license for the song.  (If you’re new to the mass NOI problem, read my article from the American Bar Association Entertainment & Sports Lawyer).  

Sure enough, as you can see from the screen capture above, Google Amazon, Pandora and Spotify have all filed mass NOIs on Aaliyah, which means they are able to avoid  paying royalties on Aaliyah’s songs.  Some of these tracks may be from legitimate sources, but Vanessa’s story makes you wonder and points out yet again the need for the Copyright Office to take some responsibility for allowing these NOIs to be filed in a manner the Congress never intended.

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