A Scrappy Band Finds a Way to Make Spotify Pay for Its Silence

Some musicians complain about how little money they make from streaming services. Others do something about it.

Vulfpeck, a small-time funk band with a couple of retro-styled albums under its belt, recently released Sleepify, an album made up of nothing but silence. This isn’t a completely new concept: Anyone with a pompous theory streak will insist that it’s really the silence between the notes that matter—and congratulations if you’re already thinking of John Cage’s 4’33,” a composition performed by sitting there without playing.

But Vulfpeck’s latest album is a business experiment, not a musical one. The idea behind the project is for fans to stream the “songs” constantly, generating royalties for the band in their spare time. Vulfpeck plans to use the proceeds to go on tour. It’s an ingenious publicity stunt and, if you squint hard enough, a commentary on the way music is valued in the digital age.

Plus, if you want to get nerdy about it, Sleepify is a clever form of donation by distributed computing. There are precedents here, for both good and evil. Scientists at Stanford have more than a quarter-million people helping them study diseases by running software on their computers; when you get an e-mail suggesting you click on a suspicious link, it’s often really a request to use your computing power to send more spam.

The 10 tracks on the all-silence album are already the most popular music that Vulfpeck has released on Spotify, with about 1,115,000 plays in total. Spotify pays between 0.6¢ and 0.84¢ per track, according to data released by the company in December, which means Vulfpeck has made somewhere between $6,700 and $9,400. You’re not setting up something like the Watch the Throne tour with this, but it’s nothing to scoff at if what you’re after is gas money and Slim Jims. Jack Stratton, who plays drums and keyboard for Vulfpeck, says he has no idea how much he’s made from Sleepify or, for that matter, what a life on the road costs. “We haven’t toured,” he says. “We’ve only played twice in three years.”

Stratton isn’t a streaming malcontent. He says that Spotify does a great job of presenting his music to fans and believes that about 10 percent of new fans come to the band through the service. The rest of the people who find Vulfpeck online come from YouTube, he says, and “frankly, we make less on YouTube.” The silent tracks have also inspired a big bump in traffic to the band’s actual music. (By my count, the band made about 6¢ from me as I wrote this article.)

Spotify seems to smile on Vulfpeck’s stunt. A spokesperson, in an e-mail, called it clever, with a caveat: “We prefer Vulpeck’s early albums. Sleepify seems derivative of John Cage’s work.”

If the band wants to get serious about making digital dollars for not playing, it would do better to stop asking humans not to listen. Bots would be the ideal nonaudience for the nonmusic. Writing programs to drive traffic is already big business in digital advertising, where so-called impression fraud is a widely acknowledged problem. Last year researchers from the firm Broadcast Interactive Media estimated that brands lose $180 million annually paying to advertise to robots, whose sole purpose is to game the system.

Spotify didn’t want to talk about whether it has ever had to deal with bot-driven traffic. Doing so would probably be possible, although there would be some technical barriers. You’d have to create many accounts and automatically log in using them, since Spotify keeps a single user from listening to more than one track at a time. Any scheme large enough to be very lucrative would also potentially capture the attention of the company.

Another problem has to do with the way Spotify pays for music. While streaming royalties are often discussed on a per-listen basis, Spotify actually uses a slightly more complicated model. The company pays out about 70 percent of its revenue to labels, artists, and music publishers, and it calculates who gets what by determining what proportion of overall Spotify plays accrued to a given artist. By gaming the system, you end up gaming not only a tech company but also other honest bands just trying to make a buck. And that would be a bummer.

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