How We Cope with Spammers, Fakers, and Cloners

April 26, 2013

Here, The Echo Nest Senior Software Engineer Aaron Mandel explores the sneaky techniques used by musical spammers to “game the system” in music services — and how we stop them from succeeding.

The Echo Nest knows approximately 2.4 million artists as part of our database of music information, which is the largest in the world. However, we also keep a list of artists to ban from our system intentionally, so they never get recommended on any of our clients’ services, or in their apps.

This isn’t a matter of taste (so Coldplay and Raffi are in no danger). It’s because those banned artists are spammers.

Musical spam is much less familiar than email spam, but it works the same way: If it’s too hard to find the 10 people who might enjoy a shady or questionable product, spammers go for sheer volume, in their attempts to spoil your online experience with unwanted email or music.

Let’s take a tour through the tawdry world of musical spam, including a few exceptions that we choose not to ban.

If you want to follow along on our tour, listen to this Spotify playlist, which includes most of the tracks mentioned in this post. Be warned, though, that just like pop music and spam, this playlist may contain taboo words.

Even if you don’t mind a bit of bad language, you might want to listen on headphones anyway, because a lot of this music is terrible.

Okay. Ready?

Those moccasins someone else has been walking in*

The very best type of music spammers — the ones whose music elicits the best mix of hysterical laughter and retributive threats when you play them for friends — are the cloners. These groups record their own versions of popular songs, replicating the originals as closely as possible with whatever time and talent they have. (Spoiler: Often, that’s not very closely.)

These cloned songs are credited to “artists” such as The Hit Crew, Hip Hop’s Finest, #1 Hits Now, DJ New Release — names that could, and often do, pass for compilation titles. They might be named after the very song they’re cloning (“Call Me Maybe,” “Thrift Shop”) or a lyric from it (“Here’s My Number,” “Party Rock Is In The House Tonight”). The name doesn’t matter, so long as it’s close enough to fool people into clicking on the track without thinking twice.

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A handful of cloners have managed to introduce their music into digital distribution networks with the original artists’ names attached — the ones they are ripping off — and that is very bad news.

If you stream music (who doesn’t?), I recommend investigating some cloners for yourself. Pick a recent popular song that you know well — the kind that you can identify after just a few notes. Search for it by its title on a streaming music service, without the artist’s name, and look for the aforementioned generic artist credits, or song titles with notations like “as performed by Macklemore” or “tribute to Macklemore.” 

Then hit play. (This is fun whether you like the song or not, but choosing one you do like might protect your sanity.)

You won’t have to explore many of these before you find something awesomely Just Not Right — a clone of a song based around a single big riff which gets that big riff completely wrong (like The Hit Crew's clone of “Gangnam Style” or Soundclash's clone of the Caesars' “Jerk It Out”), or one where the vocalist gives up on faking their accent partway through the first verse, like the band Call Me Maybe's clone of the song “Call Me Maybe.”

The most amazing one that I’ve found to date is Charts Hits 2013's clone of Macklemore's “Thrift Shop.” It features a vocalist who makes no attempt to sound like Macklemore, and even so, he's in way over his head. Clearly, the guy is reading from a lyric sheet. He says “mezzanine” like it rhymes with “nine” and says that he's draped in a “Leonard mink.” The horn riff is also agonizingly squared off, with every note played at exactly the same volume.

This “Thrift Shop” clone is on the Spotify playlist of musical spam we mentioned above, but really, it’s way too good to miss, so here’s a YouTube link too.

Okay, so… where do clones come from?

Some are made by openly proud cloners. Drew’s Entertainment created The Hit Crew and other clone artists. Their website will happily explain to you all about how their CDs are a convenience for party hosts and DJs who want to hear their favorite songs without regard for authenticity or quality (not the exact wording).

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Drew’s Entertainment has even landed some of their releases on Billboard charts recently, and — credit where it’s due — cheerfully includes Billboard’s befuddled quote on its website (above in blue).

That’s an exception to the rule. Most of these cloners are secretive, so we have to guess at their motivation.

Some clones are sold alongside karaoke versions (i.e. same track, no vocals), suggesting that the cloner’s main business lies in selling karaoke backing tracks, and the clones are just a byproduct of that — a case of “Why not?” Maybe having someone sing a scratch track helps keep the band together while they record, and these cloners simply decide to release both versions.

Others seem to appear when a hit song hasn’t been officially released in a particular country, so a clone steps in to fill the gap in the market. This type has a long history, going back at least as far as the fake Beatles records that hit America before the originals had been issued here.

There’s more. Let’s keep moving.

"Happy Birthday, Keanu!"

In terms of the sheer bulk of the spam they produce, the worst culprits when it comes to musical spam are “personalized music” artists, who make a practice of releasing hundreds or even thousands of the same song with various names spliced in.

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The group responsible for these “Happy Birthday, [Your Name Here]” songs, Birthday Song Crew, apparently didn’t want to shell out licensing fees for the familiar “Happy Birthday” song, nor risk legal action for using it without permission.

Instead they simply wrote some new tunes with deceptive titles “Happy Birthday (Reggae)”, “Happy Birthday (Jazzy),” and “Happy Birthday (Hillbilly),” each of which is a depressingly bad genre pastiche. They are not the “Happy Birthday” you’re looking for, and on top of that, they’re musically awful.

You may also notice in the screenshot above that some names appear twice. That, as far as I can tell, is because the “Happy Birthday, Jerome!” at the very beginning of the song has a slightly different intonation on some tracks, and the duplicated names are the ones where both intonations are available.

Some of these artists, especially the ones aimed at parents, claim to be personalizing entire albums for your special child. They aren’t. They have one personalized birthday song, followed by a dozen tracks that are identical to what every other kid is getting.

The Birthday Bunch and The Teddybears, among others, are guilty of this. Maybe their full-album approach comes from the days when CDs ruled the roost; if you were buying hard copies of these albums, your kid’s name would be printed on the front cover, in addition to being pasted into one track a few times. So there’s that.

To be clear, The Teddybears are spammers. Teddybears, also known as Teddybears STHLM, are not; we love them and have been known to blast “Get Mama A House” on the office stereo. We do not particularly love, but are also not going to ban, The Teddy Bears (note the extra space), a doo-wop group best known for their 1958 hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” which a Google search just told me featured a teenage Phil Spector. They’re fine.

The process by which these spammers choose their names appears to be manual, even if the recording is more, shall we say, automated. Birthday Song Crew have five or more tracks called “Happy Birthday Jay-Z,” even though Jay-Z has not yet cracked the top 1,000 baby names for boys. At least here in the U.S.

Money for nothing and your clicks for free*

What could be easier than personalizing music by splicing various names into the recording?

Think about this one for a second before reading on, because the answer is pretty brilliant.

That answer: Personalizing music by NOT including names in it. Or any vocals at all, for that matter.

Silhouette is a shadowy figure responsible for hundreds of copies of the same instrumental track, completely unchanged, other than the name:

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Lest anyone misunderstand this spammer’s intent, a smattering of the tracks have “(Dedicated to My Love)” added to the end of the title. They also appear to only name this track after women. One might wonder whether that’s more insulting to: women, or people who date women.

One might also wonder why “Doris (Dedicated to My Love)”, “Yvonne”, “Maite” and “Beyhan” — and none of the others! — are marked “Explicit” by some services. But too much wondering can corrode the spirit, so let’s leave that alone for the moment.

Today, I don’t feel like doing anything*

What if you have already convinced all the people you know that you are utterly devoted to them and/or are aware of their first names?

Is there anything left to achieve in your life that music spammers want to help you with?

Well, yes, obviously.

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Brainwave Mind Voyages is one of several artists in digital music catalogs who, rather than music, sell the promise of subliminal upgrades to the human mind. These are long white-noise (or even silent!) MP3s that supposedly teach you things, change your habits, or make your teeth grow while you hang out and listen. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to work while you’re asleep, though that would probably be more convenient, if no more effective.

We got our hands on several MP3s from one of these outfits, once upon a time, and determined that they were all bit-for-bit identical. In other words, the same white-noise MP3 would subliminally teach you to speak English, Spanish, French, German, Tagalog, Swedish, Lojban, or hundreds of other languages, while also making you a successful CEO, a successful computer programmer, a lottery winner, and the life of the party. Brainwave Mind Voyages also offers to help you with card counting, thinking outside the box, time travel, and tooth regeneration. Among other things.

It’s worth pointing out that, as with birthday music, even people who want to listen to these tracks on demand presumably do not want them showing up in radio playlists. We are more than happy to help with that.

I wanna rock and roll all night* and then for 200 additional hours

Even among non-cloners, some spammers actually make music. A lot of music. Like this:

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Why Not is a person or band (hard to tell) that has released hundreds upon hundreds of albums of unremarkable psychedelic rock. All of those albums consist of the same few hundred songs, repeated in various combinations. No two albums are the same, but they all draw from the same pool of material — a large pool, but not enough to support hundreds of albums without including the same songs over and over again.

Perhaps to mask this, most of these albums have titles suggesting greatest hit anthologies, or other compilations. A dozen or two are named after countries: Rock Over Peru, Rock Over Norway, etc. I haven’t been able to discern anything particularly Norwegian about Rock Over Norway, though maybe I missed it.

Then there are the eccentrics.

Sir Juan Mutant produced an epic-length discography that recycles the same tracks many times, in one instance giving the same track nine different names, on the same album. (The album, Cash The System, is 11 hours long.) This artist also frequently reuses the same title for different tracks, adding to the confusion and repetition:

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The Echo Nest does not always ban these faux-prolific, song-cloning artists. They seem to be creating original music, and it’s not always possible to distinguish objectively between a band like Why Not and, say, Rick Springfield or Fleetwood Mac, both of which have (re)released the same songs on a staggering number of anthologies and reissues.

There’s also little danger of our deeming Why Not to be similar to other artists, so he’s pretty much out of circulation to begin with. Nobody is talking about him online, let alone using terms that would link him to music that people really are listening to. He’s benign, in our grand scheme of things, so we leave him alone.

Stop — Hatin’ Is Bad*

Why does the music clone issue matter, and what are we doing about it?

The main reason it matters, as mentioned earlier, is that it’s very easy to predict whether a listener wants to hear any of these tracks. The answer is almost always “no,” so we want to leave spammers out of recommendations and playlists — particularly the ones who impersonate music that people really do want to hear, because that’s extra annoying.

Another reason it matters to us is that our systems are always optimized for real-world music. Hundreds of near-identical releases could potentially slow or confuse our system; if it were music we needed to know about, that would mean it was time for some clever engineering to solve the problem — which we are perfectly willing to do when the situation calls for it — but for spam, why even bother? We leave most of them out.

When it comes to finding spam in order to ignore it, our tools vary by the the spammer’s technique.

In some cases, pure track counts are enough to bring someone to our attention. Spammers The Birthday Bunch have a catalog comparable in size to Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash, which raises a flag.

In many other cases, our audio fingerprinter tips us off, whether because it tells us that tracks with wildly different names are actually the same music (as with Sir Juan Mutant or Silhouette) or because a big-name artist is weirdly associated with one, very unpopular song (as with the cloners who manage to attach their work to a legitimate artist’s name).

The process isn’t fully computerizable, only because new types of spam are always appearing. I haven’t even gotten into the horrors of:

  • joke ringtones (such as the artist Comedy Ringtone Factory Funny Ring Tones, Phone Humor — despite the comma, that’s a single entity);
  • identical new-age instrumental albums sold under different names as baby brain music, yoga background music, and a romantic soundtrack; and
  • quick-buck compilations of popular songs re-recorded as dubstep, “workout mixes”, or piano bar music.

Nor has this post touched on bizarre, one-off cases like:

  • the strange case of Deborah Weissbuch, who, as far as we can tell, simply uploaded Beatles recordings as her own; and
  • Slim Shady, the rapper who borrowed Eminem’s alias and song titles for totally non-Eminem songs. He is not the real Shady.

I could go on here, but there are only so many hours in the day, and besides, some of us have already spent hours compiling lists of our favorite Sir Juan Mutant song titles, such as “Did You Put That Man On Fire” and “I Mean Sorcery And All That.”

Have fun. And happy birthday, whoever you are.