Music

Bootleg Remixes Are Everywhere. What If They Were All Legit?

In March, a Spotify account named Lucky Socks uploaded a sped-up version of Mark Ambor’s “Belong Together” to the platform. More than six weeks later, this jaunty take on the folksy original is still earning around 350,000 streams a day, and various high-speed versions of “Belong Together” have been used in more than 400,000 TikTok videos to date.

This is just the latest sign that sped-up remixes — often made at home by amateurs — drive both music discovery and streaming activity. “A big percentage of the population is engaging with music in this way,” says Ben Klein, president of Ambor’s label, Hundred Days Records. “If you’re an audio platform, you need to start allowing people to tap into that.”

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That’s exactly what the platforms are doing. At the end of 2023, the streaming service Audiomack quietly rolled out Audiomod, a new set of tools that allow users to fiddle with tracks by changing the tempo, modifying the pitch, or swaddling them in reverb. In March, the company Hook announced that it had raised $3.5 million to further develop a platform that will help artists “monetize the use of fan-generated remixes on social media.” And in April, The Wall Street Journal reported that Spotify plans to introduce its own remixing tools. 

These initiatives signal a growing awareness that user remixes cannot be prevented — kids can make them easily on their phones. Since almost all of these reworks are unauthorized, labels and publishers will stand to gain if fans make and listen to remixes on streaming platforms where these can be paid out like a normal track. (“The next big forefront will be how we get paid for UGC,” Warner Chappell CEO/co-chair Guy Moot recently told Billboard, noting “the real challenge” of identifying all “those really sketchy sped-up versions.”)

And platforms can also benefit if new audio manipulation tools increase engagement or even attract additional users. “We think it can be a way to encourage more users to subscribe,” says Audiomack co-founder Dave Macli.

Audiomack Quarterly Uploads of Manipulated Songs
Audiomack Quarterly Uploads of Manipulated Songs

Creating new remixing capabilities will require the music industry to become comfortable with more flexible licensing agreements that legitimize what was previously a black-market activity — for fans, creating a remix at home without permission is fun; for labels, it’s technically copyright infringement. It remains unclear how artists will feel about labels sanctioning random reworks of their work, and whether listeners will connect with these homemade remixes when they’re not attached to addictive videos on TikTok or Instagram Reels. 

While user remixes and edits are not a new phenomenon, there is a sense around the industry that this behavior — pushing a song’s tempo recklessly fast, or slathering the track in distortion — is especially dear to a new generation which sees altering music as a way of expressing fandom. Audiomack has found that “modders,” who alter more than 100 songs a month, are 50% more likely to be under the age of 20 relative to the average platform user.

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“The younger users want to have some control over the sound on their own: ‘hey, what if we f—ed with this a little?’” says Tyler Blatchley, co-founder of the label Black 17 Media. 

As a result, artists and labels often encourage fan remixing because it can be an effective promotional tool. At the same time, they frequently take down the unauthorized reworks that they find on major streaming services, because those divert money from artists’ pockets. Some acts release their own official sped-up or slowed versions to try to capitalize on the popularity of the form. (Audiomack data shows this trend really accelerated at the end of 2022.) 

For the music industry, this patchwork system remains unsatisfactory. “There’s little visibility into what people are doing with the music, the artists don’t get to play a role in how their fans engage, and often they’re not getting paid for [the] consumption” of unofficial remixes, says Gaurav Sharma, the CEO of Hook.

Hook’s app, which recently launched a private beta, offers a more controlled environment for remixing activity, where users can select pre-cleared songs to manipulate and mash together. If a fan creates a new version they love — and, crucially, rightsholders have given permission — they will theoretically be allowed to export that alternate to other platforms when the app launches publicly later this year. In other words, a fully licensed and track-able remix or mash-up could be created on Hook and then go viral on a short-form video platform or in a video game. 

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While Audiomod allows users to play with tempo, distortion, and more, they cannot mash one song up with another or export their beloved remix to other platforms. They can share their preferred settings with friends, though, so pals can easily replicate their favorite mix. Plays of an altered version of a song on Audiomack will be paid out the same as plays of official recordings. 

Audiomack has Merlin — the global digital licensing agency for the independent music industry — “signed up for this,” says co-founder Dave Macli. “We are in talks with the majors.” 

At the moment, Spotify appears mostly to have a plan to create some remixing tools in the future. (A rep for the service declined to comment.) The company has been interested in figuring out ways to let users “play with and manipulate music” for years in contexts like a DJ set, according to a former executive. On top of that, “Spotify is trying to seize a lot of creator engagement moments, because TikTok is much more of an engagement platform.” 

While The Wall Street Journal reported that Spotify does not yet have licensing agreements in place for remixing tools, the former exec believes labels “will be all-in for anything that increases plays and gets them a bigger share of the royalty pool.” 

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And labels do appear more open to sanctioning user manipulation of their audio recently. In December, for example, the video game Fortnite introduced a new musical experience called “Jam Stage,” which allows gamers to play music with their friends — but every person can be noodling on a different song, creating a strange, cacophonous mash-up in real (virtual) time. 

The former Spotify exec believes the real obstacle to getting official remixing tools in place will come from artists being protective of their work. “What are [labels] permitted to do in their contracts with artists, and how will artists feel about it?” he asks.

At Audiomack, Macli says “we respect an artist’s decision if they don’t want to be a part of [allowing users to remix their songs]. But I think in a way you’re fighting the tide.”

Once platforms and labels sort out licensing, one big question remains: will users make and listen to sped-up remixes on streaming services without the enticement of a compelling visual trend or the possibility of going viral? 

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Audiomack users already appear to like sending around the tracks they pitch up or alter in other ways. “Over 9% of all shares on the platform are modifications of songs,” according to Macli.

Though Klein agrees that “there is an appetite for listening to sped-up stuff,” he believes “there’s a much smaller use case in that context.” “Sped-up sounds are really breaking through on audiovisual platforms” — especially TikTok, which has had a fraught relationship with the music business lately. 

Still, Macli says, “the industry is going to have to lean into this one way or the other. They should lean into it as a tech problem that the DSPs should solve.”

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