This article first appeared in the May 10th issue of Billboard Magazine.
The silent listening party is over for Vulfpeck. For about seven weeks, the Los Angeles-based groove band reaped payouts from streams of its album "Sleepify" on Spotify, even though the album's 10 tracks -- with names like "Zzz" and "Zzzzz" -- didn't contain any music. The group encouraged fans to stream the album repeatedly, piling up play counts -- and the micro-payments that go with them -- in order to fund an upcoming tour of free shows.
But Spotify only tolerated "Sleepify"'s existence for so long. The company's first email was friendly, offering assistance if the band needed anything, according to keyboardist Jack Stratton. But in late April, the act received a respectful request to take down "Sleepify" for an unspecified terms-of-service violation, before Spotify pulled the plug itself.
"I'm genuinely surprised they took it down," says Stratton. "Or at least at the timing -- that they waited instead of doing it immediately. It maybe would have reflected better on them if they did it right away instead of getting all this press first."
Vulfpeck's cheeky response: a new three-track album titled "Official Statement" that contains one primarily spoken-word track describing Spotify's removal request, a 31-second silent track and a keyboard instrumental.
Although Spotify professed some amusement initially, the company may now be wary that other artists might try to game its system. Spokesman Graham James declined further comment beyond a previous brief statement that called "Sleepify" "a clever stunt."
For Vulfpeck, the affair yielded plenty of attention, and at least a few new fans -- not least the band Cake, which championed the prank on Facebook. "Artists who 'adapt and evolve' get smacked down? 'Permissionless innovation and disruption' [are] only truly excellent when done TO artists?" Cake wrote. Meanwhile, at least some people in the tech community branded the band "trolls," says Stratton. The group's audience is still relatively modest: It has about 1,600 Twitter followers, and its most popular traditional track on Spotify, "Wait for the Moment," has just 72,000 streams.
As for the tour, Stratton says that's still "up in the air," since Vulfpeck won't know how much it really earned from Spotify until mid-May at the earliest. Based on 5.4 million streams and a calculation from previous payouts, he estimates the payday at $30,000.
He'll take it, but Stratton says he's generally underwhelmed by Spotify's compensation to artists. "They've set up this economy where they get 30 percent and [content owners] get 70 percent, and surprise, the payout is very low."
Already under fire from some artists over its payouts, Spotify may now have to contend with a new question: What constitutes legitimate work? "I don't see it as a misuse at all," says Stratton of "Sleepify." "I see it as an art piece -- or something."