Vulfpeck, a Michigan-based funk band, has dreamed up a simultaneously brilliant and trollish way to fund the group’s next tour: The band posted an album on Spotify and made a video asking fans to stream it. But there are no actual songs on the album — it’s five minutes of silence.
“Here’s how it works,” frontman Jack Stratton explains in the promo video. “Vulfpeck released ‘Sleepify’ the album last week on Spotify. This album is different than our previous albums. This album is much quieter. In fact, we believe it’s the most silent album ever recorded.”
He goes on to explain that Vulfpeck makes half a cent for every Spotify play; a user playing the “album” all night on repeat would generate $4 for the band. In exchange, Stratton promises the band will play free shows on its “Spotify-funded” tour and even plot the route based on where Sleepify is streamed most.
It’s a funny gimmick — even Spotify seems amused — but the issues it addresses are all too serious. The streaming economy doesn’t always work to artists’ benefit, particularly when we’re talking about small-time artists like Vulfpeck. By the service’s own metrics, a “niche indie album” can expect to pull in only $3,300 in a month, or between six- and eight-tenths of a cent per song. The royalty situation is spottier for songwriters, who earn a lesser percentage.
Services like Spotify point out, correctly, that they’re helping put music in front of more fans — and, perhaps more convincingly, that even half a cent per song is more than an artist would make off a pirated copy. But that hasn’t stopped complaints from notables like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who pulled his music from Spotify in July.
Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no get paid. meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples.— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) July 14, 2013
“your small meaningless rebellion is only hurting your fans … a drop in the bucket really” No we’re standing up for our fellow musicians— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) July 14, 2013
Vulfpeck’s Sleepify stunt also raises some less obvious questions about the Spotify model — like whether it might favor certain genres or artists. Vulfpeck savvily end each of their “songs” around 30 seconds, thereby guaranteeing more plays (and more revenue) overall. Meanwhile, songs from bands like The Flaming Lips can stretch on for 20 minutes or more — does that mean they only make a penny if you tune out after an hour? And if so, doesn’t that kind of incentivize artists to write shorter, snappier songs?
Things aren’t quite so clear-cut, it turns out: Spotify’s royalties are based on a number of factors, including the band’s popularity and individual royalty rate. But the fact that Vulfpeck could “hack” Spotify with short songs — and that they needed/wanted to hack the service, in general — certainly complicate Spotify’s claims that it’s an “everyone wins” utopia for artists and listeners.
In fact, even Vulpeck’s little stunt has its losers. Since Spotify pay-outs are based, in part, on the artist’s “market share” — a.k.a., the percentage of Spotify streams he has, vis-a-vis other artists — Vulfpeck will get a larger share of the pie at the expense of other artists. Meanwhile, Spotify will make more money as it plays more ads.
Clever? Sure. Viral? Clearly. But Vulfpeck isn’t exactly sticking it to the man or tricking Spotify into funding their next tour — intentionally or not, other small musicians are footing that particular bill.