COLUMNIST: The sound of scammers

“Mahogany Flex,””Afternoon Nap” and “Tropical Taste” sound like bad cocktail ideas that never made it past the napkin stage. But they’re just a selection of the musical styles offered by artificial-intelligence app Boomy, which conjures up ready-made tracks for users in a matter of seconds–and which has become the latest target of record labels’ fight against “fake” music.

Spotify Technology SA has taken down a chunk of the app’s catalog from its streaming service after Universal Music Group NV raised suspicions that the songs’ popularity was being artificially inflated with fake streams, The Financial Times reported. This is the head-spinning flipside of the AI coin: Machines listening to music that machines helped create–and making real money from a $30 billion recorded music market.

If that’s what’s been going on–Boomy itself says it’s “categorically against” manipulated streams–there’s a clear need for action. One aim should be to build a better digital mousetrap to catch those skimming profits from the royalty pot. But longer term, record labels and streaming platforms need to fix the economic structure that siphons money away from artists lower down the musical food chain in the first place.

Yet it’s misleading to imagine this is a problem that will simply be solved by better fraud detection. The all-you-can-eat model built by record labels, rights holders and tech platforms has been its own worst enemy in some ways. The current system of distribution of royalties means listeners’ $9.99 subscription fees go into a big pot that is paid out according to streaming market share. When all of the spoils go to the most popular tracks that are listened to for more than 30 seconds, everyone’s habits have become more robotic: Songs have become shorter, playlists are stuffed with fictional artists churning out muzak, and real musicians are more prone to toying with half-minute formats. No wonder it’s getting harder to spot the bots: There is more music on Apple Inc.’s streaming service than you could listen to in a lifetime.

Which is why one of the best ways to deter the bots might be to change the music payment model itself, as suggested by one indie-music representative at a recent UK parliamentary inquiry into the economics of streaming. A “user-centric” system that would see listeners’ subscription fees go to the artists they individually streamed would make it easier to stop money flowing to music that only machines want to hear. If the fear and hype around AI can bring balance to an unequal system, then maybe humans have a chance after all.

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