Discover more from Hot Takes
How major label lawyers are breaking social platforms like Twitter, SoundCloud, Spotify, etc
Big tech letting lawyers from major labels dictate rules on their platforms is an ongoing/existential problem we must fight against. Legitimate users are banned w/o explanation daily. It has to stop.
[Summary as this is a long post]: SoundCloud’s content ID, implemented due to pressure from record labels, incorrectly flagged one of my uploads as infringing material. As a paying customer and huge fan of SoundCloud, Twitter etc I am fearful clueless labels may be senselessly setting a precedent that will destroy the web’s best platforms and communities for independent artists. Not to mention cost labels profits, fans and create a backlash against record labels altogether – who as overly litigious middlemen could be irrelevant in a digital future. Some ex below are from a few years ago but what's wild is a total of zero have been effectively addressed and in many regards things have gotten even worse since then. Essentially, the internet badly needs fixing for creatives. Let's get into it.]
I’ve already written posts bemoaning industries who cling to the past particularly on issues like copyright. But I’ve typically shared examples of other people and brands put in these ridiculous situations that benefit no one.
Inevitably, I also have a personal story of overly aggressive copyright holders going after my own art. It’s a few years old but the circumstances surrounding it have not changed as I continue to face roadblocks that have become so bad I am fearful every time I attempt to share anything 100% original I create. I am not alone here, the experience is very common.
First some quick context: for those who don’t know, when not working in tech or blogging I produce and mix downtempo electronic music. It’s a relatively obscure genre and one of the best ways to find new artists is through mix sets. One of the biggest reasons I create them is to uncover hidden gems and unknown artists to share with new listeners. In all cases, the songs are mixed, edited and include FX. This means it would basically be impossible to rip off a single song as a stand alone element, it is part of a larger production. I also gladly pay for the songs I use to support the artists and help them reach new listeners. This is the entire function of this genre of music: it’s hobbyist and word of mouth driven.
What happens next is if a listener enjoyed one of the specific tracks or artists on a mix they’ll seek it out on their own (tracklists always included) and purchase copy of that song (or even a whole album), start to attend that artist’s concerts, look for future releases and potentially become a true fan. This find-ability is important for artists of all sizes but particularly up-and-coming artists. In fact, I would say that all artists, except perhaps those at the “mega fame” level who lack empathy for their fans and their less famous artistic peers (so all but .01%) would be happy their works were adapted by others for their own projects. For digital creations more circulation always increases its value. The greatest threat to creatives is by far obscurity, not the rounding error of piracy which occurs (and really only exists because legacy media make it a near impossibly difficult experience to consume media in a way that is user-friendly). In cases the work is adapted or built upon this is even more so - as people will seek out the original. It’s literally free, and the best kind of marketing (organic WOM, most companies and industries would kill for this). And anyway, from a copyright standpoint this seems like a clear cut case of fair use, one you’d have to be a special kind of hater of art to go after.
So if you were a label publishing anything in an obscure genre certainly you’d be interested in hearing your artist’s music reach new listeners, as well as keeping the “connectors” of the genre (who, by the way, are *always* paying customers and easily most frequent purchasers) interested in using your art as part of their works. Right? In a sane world, yes. In our illogical world of copyright insanity, nope. It’s no wonder the industry is suffering, they’re fighting the future and driving us away from their labels and artists.
Copyright itself is broken and in reality needs to be scratched / built back from the ground up to work in a digital world to not hinder the creation of new works and frustrate artists and fans. But that doesn’t mean in the meantime labels can’t treat fans well and let artists freely engage with and adapt their work. It’s a shame this isn’t frequently the case.
There is ongoing drama on YouTube for ex about copyright claims/DMCA abuse, which frequently involves users on Reddit, Twitter and media blaming YouTube. But YouTube’s copyright system isn’t broken, the world’s is. This has created problems both small/frustrating (project taken down with nebulous claim lacking details) and existentially large (accounts being de-monetized). Platforms are handling this in a way that’s so user hostile it breaks my brain given how hard they worked to grow audiences that exist because they had such delightful experiences in the past. I’ll share my personal story in a second, but first if you want to hear the root of the problem I highly suggest watching this video from Tom Scott or at least skimming if too long. The issue is complex and I do appreciate Tom didn’t dumb it down and went though the tangled wire of a mess we’re in.
On to what happened: I had finished a new mix to kick off the new year previously and in addition to publishing it on my (now deprecated) music blog, I of course decided to upload it to SoundCloud to share with listeners there.
About a minute after the upload had finished, I noticed it disappeared from my SoundCloud dashboard. What had happened? I received the following email from SoundCloud — apparently my mix (which is 100% legal / fair use) had tripped their Content ID which scans for copyright material being used illegally:
I was pretty shocked, as I pay for all the songs I use in my mixes, source credit appropriately and happily support the artists and labels I like. According to the copyright warning, my mix included a track that on a label called Merge Records. But wait! My version of the song purchased was not on Merge Records, the remix I used was released on a different label and was incorrectly flagged. I pulled up my receipt of my Beatport purchase and confirmed that, in fact this song was released on a label called Sonar Kollektiv who does allow their music to be used in other artist’s works:
I was curious so went to the song page on Beatport to explore more, and discovered that this label’s version was in fact being used by others in mixes and charts:
I sent an appeal to SoundCloud, which eventually was resolved, but it took weeks and the entire time I was depressed something I worked so hard on as a non-profit creative was censored unnecessarily. As a paying user of SoundCloud I expect to be able to share my work instantly. Otherwise, why would I pay for their service when I can upload to my own domain and not deal with blocks to sharing my own art? Hosting is cheap, SoundCloud is easily making huge margins from me (and other users) hosting a few GBs on their servers, you’d think they’d be catering to their customers and not copyright lawyers from overly aggressive, anti-Internet record labels. Subscription service 101: focus on the user.
To labels: I’ve created at least 30 mixes over the last 20+ years and 100% of the time, until today, labels and artists were excited I was using their work and exposure they received. I’ve gotten plenty of emails from artists thanking me for using their creations. And I’m equally excited when others use my tracks in their mixes. There is a long tail of artists out there and personally I don’t have any interest dealing with those not supporting an open culture in music. It makes no sense to get involved in music in the first place if you don’t want to be a part of a creative and collaborative process. This is literally the antithesis of hip hop, electronic, jazz and indie rock music culture. Physical mixtapes were so important to the success of so many musicians/enjoyed by fans for decades. Making the digital version of this illegal is so incredibly dystopian and truly against free and open music culture, discovery and freedom.
I wanted some outside feedback, so today I chatted with some of my artist peers who have also had their content pulled without warning from SoundCloud. Again, in this case the artists I spoke with do not profit from their work. They create it as a labor of love, and SoundCloud is their platform of choice they pay to use as a hobbyist. Why a record label (shockingly the example above is an independent one) would want to try to stop themselves from being a part of digital culture is insane. Is it possible an indie label is that out of touch with the world and doesn’t realize this type of art music is ingrained in remix culture? My SoundCloud issue did eventually get resolved, but that last sentence is really the scary part. Digital is the best free marketing machine for their work there is. The artists on these labels should think carefully about if they want to align themselves with a brand hurting their relationships with their biggest fans. You’ll never build a reputation by treating your users like criminals. I’d encourage anyone producing music to either go with a label that allows and encourages fair use of your work or skip having one altogether.
Back to SoundCloud, of course, I don’t have to use it. I also hosted the mix on my own music domain – available 100% for free to listen and download. The labels obviously have no grounds to send cease and desist letters to me for a case of clear fair use so there’s never an issue with that. The reason they target SoundCloud is it seems like an easy thing to blame, freak out about the fact that someone else built a platform they didn’t, and try to stop something that (was) a true artist community. For no benefit to them: at no point was SoundCloud a haven for piracy. So I think this is a huge mistake for SoundCloud to engage in this type of mass, automated enforcement of copyright police and cater to the whims of labels instead of their users.
A comment from another SoundCloud user on their new policy issuing content ID sums it up nicely:
This is a MAJOR mistake that is gonna cost you dearly. If you stop allowing dj’s to upload their dj-mixes it’s just a matter of time before they’ll all be gone. Guaranteed. You should have stood up and fought for a new system, an elimination of the conservative thinking that is paralyzing the music industry. It would have gotten you legendary frontrunning status. But you – probably your spineless management – have conformed and thus failed, no matter how cool and nice you’re trying to sound in your statement. 100% wrong and an incredibly costly mistake. You’ll experience the consequences.
While harsh, this is legitimate. I understand the importance of not allowing individual songs to be posted to SoundCloud that are clearly someone else’s intellectual property. But again, as a longtime SoundCloud user this was never an issue with the service. Rather than having a guilty until proven innocent policy, SoundCloud needs to determine a better way to manage the platform.
Beatport should be upset here too..
I’m also really concerned for Beatport here. As a huge fan of them and having spent easily $5,000 dollars+ on their content to support artists I love, sites like SoundCloud issuing content takedowns may cause me to stop supporting new artists this way if I’m unable to use their work how I wish. Which is literally the entire reason Beatport exists, to be able to purchase and download high quality files of music to do with what I wish. If I can’t, there’s no longer a reason to and those artists lose a signifanct revenue source, free promotion and their work becomes trapped in the cold/mechanistic streaming machine, locked away of any sort of creative use by fans and remix artists. I have a feature request for Beatport that could greatly help our whole industry: add a warning tag next to labels and songs engaged in policing their work against being mixed / remixed so as artists we can make the decision to purchase them or not. And I can almost guarantee a majority of users would only purchase from labels who allow use of their art, encouraging more artists to align with them. I certainly would. Note, this is not just SoundCloud, it’s Spotify too:
I reached out to Spotify and the response I got was not only patronizing as I understand my rights here very well, as well as the fact that I am a non-profit musician and do not profit from my work. In this case, my samples actually were 100% cleared for such use, but their platform has no such support for creative commons as they assume we’re all for profit creatives. Which is an insane position, because there’s literally millions of people who create art out of love. We are simply unwelcome on their platform.
My additional conversations with Spotify leadership left me somewhat hopeful, as their acknowledged the problem several years ago. Sadly, no progress has been made and non-profit/creative commons artists are still locked out:
Why is this happening? Fear. Not understanding how technology can benefit artists and labels alike. Yet the fear is illogical and the opportunity is here now: from a macro perspective, digital revenues for music continue to increase in share.
The internet opens up a whole new world of creativity and legitimate uses for art. Yet what we’re seeing above is the old guard trying to put the genie back in the bottle and treat digital music as a scarce resource. The simple fact is music is now democratized to create and share, giving birth to a long-tail of artists, remixers and producers. But the music industry isn’t interested in that. They want to manufacture and tightly control the creations of bland, vanilla artists that appeal to the masses (and as a by-product they don’t care about artists and remixers).
Until recently the music culture I am a part of (electronic / jazz) has remained fairly underground and outside of this. But it seems like our culture may be on the cusp of ruin as well due to clueless labels and music executives who are anti-art and see their fans as line items on a balance sheet as opposed to humans. The artists themselves are in most cases complacent which is also sad.
Yet, despite all the “sky is falling” fear revenue in the music industry is up and piracy is down. My friends at Techdirt sum up this issue:
…the reason that music piracy is down and revenue is up is because the industry has finally started allowing more innovation into the market. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we’ve been arguing for years. If you let the tech industry create useful new services that better provide the public with what they want, you get services and products that people are willing to pay for. And when that happens, infringement decreases, because the legitimate and authorized services are better than infringing. It’s why music infringement fell off a cliff in Sweden when Spotify launched there, despite also being the home of The Pirate Bay. Notably, when music infringement plummeted in Sweden, other types of infringement did not similarly drop.
In other words, for all the complaints about these new services, and the many, many attempts to hold them back or neuter them, letting new services grow and thrive seems to be the best “anti-piracy” measure that the record labels could have used. And yet it still thinks it needs to focus on punishing fans and limiting services.
For me, personally I’ll continue to forgo having a label and publish all my music for free under a Creative Commons license. I still think it has never been a better time to be a fan or creator of music. For fans, the selection continues to widen and your ability to build an amazing library has never been easier. For producers software like Ableton puts studio-quality tools at your fingertips. Let’s hope the technology platforms do the right thing and don’t ruin their products by bending to the whim of clueless labels stuck in the past.
SoundCloud at first responded to me and still refused to let me publish this mix. No one wins in this situation: the artists, labels and fans all lose. But, after much prodding, several emails to their investors and an articulate case made from a paying customer of $15/mo to host my art which I’ve used as my canonical home for my work for 11 years, I was able to get them to allow the project to be unbanned. It’s here if you want to listen or embedded below.
It’s not just SoundCloud, I’ve also even been banned from Twitter for sharing a video a friend made of 100% original content he shot from his drone combined with a 100% original song I produced, because for some reason never disclosed their filters flagged it as copyright infringement. It’s that broken. And this is from 2022 so is a very recent example. None of the problems I outlined from years ago have been fixed. If anything they're now even worse.
My story is not special or unique, and while it was resolved after several days the anxiety given to me might never go away. It makes the web feel deeply unfree, policed by nebulous set of rules no one is privy too that automatically assumes guilty until proven innocent (something we long ago decided against doing in America).
TL;DR: clueless labels are treating fans and supporters as criminals and attempting to ruin the next generation of digital platforms for indie artists, making products like SoundCloud, Twitter, YouTube, etc not only far less useful, but so far broken to make long term users question if they should be used at all. When a completely separate, overly litigious group decides to continue to treat users and internet as a whole as a place where it’s assume guilt and do all you can to enact petty/user-hostile policies it’s a slippery slope to ruining them altogether. Instead of encouraging people to remix, share and celebrate work of artists (which increases their value!) we see traditional media simply continue the same practices from the Napster days. Clearly, lawyers are in charge and they view the world in a completely different light than what the free/open culture of the internet biases to. Left unchecked, it may be the demise of themselves and the current wave of social platforms, which could very well be rendered unusable.
Hot Takes is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.