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Universal Music Declares War on Streaming Noise

Universal Music Declares War on Streaming Noise

Every night, I bury my tinnitus under brown noise, cats’ purrs, and the tap of rain on leaves. This “functional music,” as it is known, certainly serves its function—lulling me to sleep. It also accounts for a vast portion of the streaming world: Spotify recently revealed that white noise and ambient podcasts rack up 3 million hours of listens a day.

In a weird industry quirk, these ambient sounds, often recorded or generated by AI, are assigned the same monetary value as actual songs. One stream is one credit—one equal piece of the pot that’s shared among everyone. A system like that is pretty easy to game.

A deal struck between Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record label, and the French streaming service Deezer promises to change this. Under a new model, which Deezer has branded “artist-centric,” Deezer will demonetize the hum of the washing machine and the drone of bot-generated muzak. Additionally, every stream of someone whom Deezer dubs a “professional artist”—those with a minimum of 1,000 streams per month by a minimum of 500 unique listeners—will count for double. Hunting for specific artists will double this again, so if I search “Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle” and listen to “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme),” that will count as four streams. The demonetized “nonartist noise audio” will eventually be replaced with Deezer’s own in-house functional music, not included in the royalty pool.

“We are essentially taking away the incentive to try and monetize any other content on our platform than music created by artists who attract a consistent and engaged fan base,” Deezer chief executive Jeronimo Folgueira says.

Any tinkering with the unyielding music streaming model, largely unchanged since Spotify’s launch in 2008, is welcome news, and this deal does shift the dial in artists’ favor. Yet streaming is still conducted at the whims of the majors. Those yearning for revolution will have to hope this signals the start of an open dialog. Not everyone is convinced.

“We really need to call into question when a company like UMG claims a new partnership will ‘better reward the artists’ and reflect ‘the true value of artist-fan relationships.’ Which artists and which fans?” says Liz Pelly, a music journalist who is writing a book about the streaming industry. “The answer is pretty obvious.”

Universal Music declined to give an attributable comment.

Streambait spammers have long infested streaming platforms: Deezer estimates 7 percent of its streams are fraudulent. These scams employ a variety of subterfuges. They might involve uploads with optimized search names like “Relaxing Music Music Therapy” or “Relaxation, Sound Therapy.” Sometimes, they are songs just long enough, at 31 seconds, to trigger royalty payments. Other times, scammers will upload 10,000 versions of the same track, each with a different artist name. As generative AI becomes more accessible and sophisticated, spamming platforms is only going to get easier.

Streams tagged as “noise” represented approximately 2 percent of streams on Deezer. The company didn’t share exact figures, but white noise and other nonmusic content “significantly” dilutes professional artists’ royalties, says Folgueira. And we do have figures for how this clutter plagues the biggest streamers: Spotify has found that removing white noise would boost its annual gross profit by $38 million.

Under the new model, Deezer promises to separate professional artists from the musical clutter of hobbyists, functional music, and system-gaming bots, and to future-proof its platform.

“The new model is designed to effectively stop gaming behavior using white noise,” says Folgueira. “It will also give us a framework to continue developing tools to deal with future abuse, including, for example, fraud and copyright infringement using AI-generated content.”

This agreement should benefit professional artists. Deezer claims they should see payout increases of 10 percent. “I think ultimately, this model is probably going to end up being to the benefit of most artists that you know or care about,” says David Turner, founder of music business newsletter Penny Fractions and a strategy manager at SoundCloud. Ultimately, he says, the hobbyists will lose out on payouts worth less than a cup of coffee, while an artist with a small but dedicated following might now be able to pay the rent.

It is not without its problems, though. For one, the framing pits hobbyists against artists, argues Pelly, implying that hobbyists are the reason that “proper” artists aren’t earning more.

“There are so many artists who cannot make a professional living from recorded music, in part because of how unfair the streaming system is, or who intentionally choose to make music in a deprofessionalized way for personal or artistic reasons,” she says. “These systems are also incredibly unfair for those types of artists too.”

It’s also difficult to draw the line between bad actors, functional music with a purpose (like covering my tinnitus), and more avant-garde forms of “noise.” “Allowing major labels and streaming execs to start making calls about what counts as ‘nonartist noise content’ and what counts as ‘art’ is a really slippery slope,” says Pelly. “There is a lot of music that could fall into a gray area—ambient and noise musicians who work with field recordings, for example.” Folgueira counters that these kinds of artists will benefit from the professional artist boost, and Deezer will, initially at least, only demonetize white noise.

Of course, Deezer is intended for music and podcasts. (My tinnitus mix comes from apps like Calm). But Deezer’s plan to upload its own functional music begs some questions, says Pelly. “It does kind of open the door to normalizing streaming services creating and circulating their own recordings, which could have more consequences for artists down the line.” Folgueira says that Deezer has “no ambition to start producing and distributing content that will compete with professional artists.”

Both Pelly and Turner agree that, for Universal, the primary motivation is market share: The indie label scene in the UK, for instance, has seen year-over-year growth, one theory being that streaming algorithms lead users toward nicher artists. In that context, cutting out the noise might be a way to reassure investors. “To me, when I see a story like this, I see Universal Music Group trying to expand its market share and make sure as much streaming activity as possible is happening around its catalog,” says Pelly. “Major labels see ‘nonartist noise content’ as something impeding on their market share.”

Streaming has long been criticized for its pro rata model, where all revenues flow into one pot and are distributed according to the share of total streams. As a result, aficionados can listen to “insert-musical-obscurity-here” to the benefit of Bruno Mars. Deezer, a fraction of the size of the big streaming platforms, with 16 million monthly active users, has pushed for a user-centric model, where revenues are distributed according to what a user actually listens to. Though this deal is not that, Universal’s involvement is key. As the writer Cory Doctorow pointed out in his book, Chokepoint Capitalism, it’s a misconception that streamers dictate the streaming model. In reality, the big record labels hold the power, since consumers don’t love Spotify—they love Taylor Swift and Bad Bunny. This means that any deal those record labels are involved in will be conducted on their terms.

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