Music

Is the Music Industry Losing Money to Sped-Up Remixes?

In the TikTok era, homemade remixes of songs — typically single tracks that have been sped up or slowed down, or two tracks mashed together — have become ever more popular. Increasingly, they are driving viral trends on the platform and garnering streams off of it. 

Just how popular? In April, Larry Mills, senior vp of sales at the digital rights tech company Pex, wrote that Pex’s tech found “hundreds of millions of modified audio tracks distributed from July 2021 to March 2023,” which appeared on TikTok, SoundCloud, Audiomack, YouTube, Instagram and more. 

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On Wednesday (Nov. 1), Mills shared the results of a new Pex analysis — expanded to include streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, and Tidal — estimating that “at least 1% of all songs on [streaming platforms] are modified audio.”

“We’re talking more than 1 million unlicensed, manipulated songs that are diverting revenue away from rightsholders this very minute,” Mills wrote, pointing to homemade re-works of tracks by Halsey or One Republic that have amassed millions of plays. “These can generate millions in cumulative revenue for the uploaders instead of the correct rightsholders.”

Labels try to execute a tricky balancing act with user-generated remixes. They usually strike down the most popular unauthorized reworks on streaming services and move to release their own official versions in an attempt to pull those plays in-house. But they also find ways to encourage fan remixing, because it remains an effective form of music marketing at a time when most promotional strategies have proved toothless. “Rights holders understand that this process is inevitable, and it’s one of the best ways to bring new life to tracks,” Meng Ru Kuok, CEO of music technology company BandLab, said to Billboard earlier this year. 

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Mills argues that the industry needs a better system for tracking user-generated remixes and making sure royalties are going into the right pockets. “While these hyper-speed remixes may make songs go viral,” he wrote in April, “they’re also capable of diverting royalty payments away from rights holders and into the hands of other creators.” 

Since Pex sells technology for identifying all this modified audio, it’s not exactly an unbiased party. But it’s notable that streaming services and distributors don’t have the best track record when it comes to keeping unauthorized content of any kind off their platforms.

It hasn’t been unusual to find leaked songs — especially from rappers with impassioned fan bases like Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert — on Spotify, where leaked tracks can often be found climbing the viral chart, or TikTok. An unreleased Pink Pantheress song sampling Michael Jackson’s classic “Off the Wall” is currently hiding in plain sight on Spotify, masquerading as a podcast. 

“Historically, streaming services don’t have an economic incentive to actually care about that,” Deezer CEO Jeronimo Folgueira told Billboard earlier this year. “We don’t care whether you listen to the original Drake, fake Drake, or a recording of the rain. We just want you to pay $10.99.” Folgueira called that incentive structure “actually a bad thing for the industry.”

In addition, many of the distribution companies that act as middlemen between artists and labels and the streaming services operate on a volume model — the more content they upload, the more money they make — which means it’s not in their financial interest to look closely at what they send along to streaming services. 

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However, the drive to improve this system has taken on new urgency this year. Rights holders and streaming services are going back and forth over how streaming payments should work and whether “an Ed Sheeran stream is worth exactly the same as a stream of rain falling on the roof,” as Warner Music Group CEO Robert Kyncl told financial analysts in May. As the industry starts to move to a system where all streams are no longer created equal, it becomes increasingly important to know exactly what’s on these platforms so it can sort different streams into different buckets.

In addition, the advance of artificial intelligence-driven technology has allowed for easily accessible and accurate-sounding voice-cloning, which has alarmed some executives and artists in a way that sped-up remixes have not. “In our conversations with the labels, we heard that some artists are really pissed about this stuff,” says Geraldo Ramos, co-founder/CEO of the music-tech company Moises. “They’re calling their label to say, ‘Hey, it isn’t acceptable, my voice is everywhere.’”

This presents new challenges, but also perhaps means new opportunities for digital fingerprint technology companies, whether that’s stalwarts like Audible Magic or newer players like Pex. “With AI, just think how much the creation of derivative works is going to exponentially grow — how many covers are going to get created, how many remixes are gonna get created,” Audible Magic CEO Kuni Takahashi told Billboard this summer. “The scale of what we’re trying to identify and the pace of change is going to keep getting faster.”

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