6 min read

Spotify is filled with AI junk – here's new music you can't miss

Today’s dispatch is a grab-bag of music-biz-related items, including new music not to miss, and an update on Spotify's terrible business practices.
Two images of guitarist Phil Manzanera wearing wild sunglasses.
Phil Manzanera - some shades never get old.

In one way or another, I’ve been involved in the “music biz” since I don’t know — 1984? It began in my high school years when I served as a lyricist and lead vocalist for a Hüsker Dü-ish cowpunk band, organized the occasional all-ages charity benefit concert, and worked “off-the-books” at a 100,000-watt Classic Rock format FM radio station one town over from mine. Later, I did the same at a way smaller, but way cooler, rock station a ten-minute walk from my house, where I got paid in tons of promo LPs by bands that were far too weird for those square, smalltown East Tennessee outlets’ playlists, but which were, as Steven Toast might say, “right up my rue.”

When I relocated to the odd, sleepy swamp of coastal Georgia in 1986 to study video production at the little-known and then quite small Savannah College of Art and Design, the die was cast. I quickly ingratiated, or conned, my way into becoming a founding member of a fledgling band with other students. We started writing and performing original alternative-rock songs slightly beyond our collective skill level but still catchy and accomplished enough to earn us a devoted local audience. That band led to another and then another, and so on, until those disjointed, happenstance efforts eventually became something that I’m only now comfortable viewing as worthy of the general public’s attention.

For the past 40 years, I’ve survived on the fringes of that world as a performing artist, record producer, music journalist, and concert promoter. Some of those roles fit better than others. Yet, all things considered, in hindsight, I suppose this myriad of DIY accomplishments add up to an accidentally well-rounded “career” in that industry.

With that in mind, today’s dispatch is a grab-bag of music-biz-related items that have caught my eye as they came down the wire. They’re an interesting snapshot of the unpredictably bizarre and nonsensical business of making, selling, and distributing music in 2024. Let me know how these stories resonate with you by replying to this email or, for my paid subscribers, leaving a comment.

Jay-Z, Kanye, and Phil?

First, I can’t get enough of this ridiculous tale from the inimitable electric guitar wizard Phil Manzanera of the 1970s and 1980s British glam-scene art-rock icons Roxy Music and the experimental rock supergroup 801. In his just-released memoir Revolution to Roxy, he describes how a few seconds of a forgotten, tossed-off guitar lick he came up with in 1978 wound up unexpectedly generating more cold, hard cash for him than an entire half-century’s pay-outs from his most famous and acclaimed band. The guitar line also appeared on a quirky solo prog-rock album that sank without much of a trace that same year.

The Virgin executive… added that they’d already negotiated the guitarist would receive a third of the royalties from sales of the track… (and) even ventured Manzanera would probably earn more from the track than Jay-Z or West.

That’s what can happen when two of hip-hop’s biggest artists lift a few seconds of your playing and make it a focal point of the lead track on their massively successful album.

Get a load of the entire anecdote at the link above, as it’s a doozy. 

For those who’ve never heard much of Manzanera’s solo work, here’s the 1978 track in question — from an album that featured a stellar cast of session musicians and singers, including drummer Simon Phillips (The Who, Toto), vocalists Tim and Neil Finn (Crowded House) and Godley and Crème (10cc), and bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia):

I wonder who was involved in the production of the 2011 hip-hop album that had this particular piece of vinyl in their crates?

And here’s how it was turned into a real moneymaker:

Amazing how simply slowing down Manzanera's lick instantly creates a bluesy, juke-joint vibe, huh?

Are you familiar with this Jay-Z and Kanye track? If so, were you also already familiar with Manzanera’s music? Have you ever been led to discover and enjoy an artist’s work by tracking down their original source of samples? Let me know!

Way down in the hole

Coincidentally, just a few weeks before I learned of Manzanera’s good fortune, I discovered the fascinating online resource, WhoSampled.com. It helps musicians, producers, and fans understand the complex sonic architecture that undergirds modern pop songs. Dive in at your own risk, as it’s easy to spend a lot of time exploring this labyrinthine database of pilfering paying homage.

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

I steadfastly refuse to engage with anything related to Spotify or the asshole “visionary” who runs that sham of an “audio streaming and media service provider.” It is the world’s largest artist-unfriendly Hoover vacuum of money, which sucked up close to $14.5 billion in revenue in 2023 alone, despite paying musicians virtually nothing for their work. I do, however, keep track of the various bad-faith mechanisms Spotify uses to generate massive fortunes for its management and stockholders while brazenly screwing over recording artists, songwriters, and composers.

Its service is designed to be almost preternaturally convenient and predictive for the average user. However, Spotify is increasingly utilizing opaque, cutting-edge technology to maximize its revenues without regard to the destruction it causes to career musicians and engineers, producers, and promotional teams.

First, there is the increasingly common use of AI to cheaply generate soulless, synthetic, soundalike tracks and albums by nonexistent “artists” the public assumes are real people. In fact, they are designed by computer algorithms to appeal to fans of existing musical acts. These tracks then lay in heavy rotation to displace recordings by human artists, which Spotify must —by law— pay royalties to stream.

This saves the company many millions of dollars each year.

This next practice predates the AI ruse for much longer. Spotify games its own system by striking secretive contractual arrangements with specific artists and/or labels. Those entities agree to license their musical tracks to Spotify at a fraction of the standard rate — but in exchange, flood the company’s catalog with hundreds or even thousands of essentially interchangeable tunes, all created and recorded by a handful of people but disingenuously credited to dozens or even hundreds of imaginary “artists.”

This underhanded deception allows a small number of people with access to even a basic, home-based recording studio to quickly supplant scores of other unique, individual acts on the platform while masquerading as numerous, unrelated solo acts or even “groups.” The music these folks create is not inherently sub-par. But by colluding with the platform to lease their recordings at lower rates than most musicians would accept, they receive favorable positioning, guaranteeing more plays. They are profiting off the misfortune of their musical peers while Spotify laughs all the way to the bank.

Such piano-heavy playlists are particularly popular among users seeking music to play in the background while they work, eat meals or relax. Inclusion on one of these highly popular lists can make or break a musician’s career.

Meet Johan Röhr, the Swedish superstar no one’s ever seen.

Waxahatchee breaks big

And finally, here’s an unrelated, brand-new performance by an artist I really dig, and one who’s well on their way to breaking out of the indie-folk world and into established mainstream consciousness.

Alabama native Katie Crutchfield garnered critical acclaim recording and performing under the name Waxahatchee for over 12 years now. But even though she’s performed at the fabled Newport Folk Fest to rave reviews, she only landed on my radar recently. She openly mines the same rich vein of bittersweet country vocal harmonies and slow-burn melancholic string-band meditations as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The entirely warranted buzz surrounding Waxahatchee’s latest album is allowing her to finally make the leap into headlining 2,500-seat U.S. theaters — backed by a rough and ready combo including drummer Spencer Tweedy, son of Wilco frontman (and Americana royalty) Jeff Tweedy.

For this recent, sublime late-night TV performance, the group is joined on guitar and backing vocals by Asheville’s MJ Lenderman, a 25-year-old wunderkind. He draws the eye and ear here as he did mine during his recent Savannah appearance with Wednesday, his own band, at the Lodge of Sorrows all-ages warehouse space.

When it comes to music of this type, folks, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Paging Ryan McMaken: Let’s get Waxahatchee at the Ships of the Sea Museum for the 2025 Savannah Music Fest!

I would give just about anything to play drums in a band that sounded like this.

Until next time, dear readers.