Disguising bootleg audio as podcasts, ingenious Spotify users reimagine the collective spirit of file-sharing for the streaming age
In 2015, a then-underground BROCKHAMPTON won the inaugural VFiles Loud! song competition with the single “Dirt.” A music video soon followed. The video was my first exposure to the band and led me to frontman Kevin Abstract’s debut album MTV1987 (2014). I listened to it endlessly. “Degas Park,” the album’s eighth track, became a mainstay on practically every Spotify playlist I created for years until the album was removed from streaming services in 2018. Recently, on a nostalgic whim, I searched Spotify to check if it had been re-uploaded. As I expected, it hadn’t—at least not legally. The search returned a podcast episode titled “08 Degas Park” which, to my excitement, proved to be the song—only disguised in podcast form.
Spotify is filled with user-uploaded, bootleg music and audio masquerading as podcasts. In the music category charts, a variety of phony podcasts hide amongst established shows such as Song Exploder and Dolly Parton’s America. Often, snapshot cover images and textspeak captions like “pretty melodies!! weeb!!!” are easy giveaways. These ‘podcasts’ run the gamut in terms of genre. Some contain entire albums and mixtapes, playlists full of leaked or unreleased music, soundtracks compiled from video games, TV shows, and anime, or even audio tracks ripped from viral memes. For all of these chart-topping ‘podcasts,’ there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, more that don’t make it to the browse page.
Spotify doesn’t host podcasts. Instead, it relies on over 20 different third-party “aggregator partners” to do so. Adding a podcast to the service is as simple as linking an RSS feed, via the podcast’s host platform, to a free Spotify for Podcasters account. Unlike uploading music, there’s a remarkable lack of oversight and virtually no cost to get a podcast on Spotify. Ingenious users are taking advantage of this third-party system as a backdoor means of getting their favorite non-streamable music on Spotify.
“With over 286 million overall users, Spotify is the world’s most popular music streaming service. Its on-demand immediacy and seemingly infinite catalogue has made it the principal mode of music consumption today. Still, there is plenty of music that isn’t on Spotify.”
Getting a podcast onto Spotify may be easy, but it’s not intuitive. Recognizing the loophole requires some familiarity with podcasting. “I took a podcasting class last semester so I knew how to upload it in theory,” says Golda, 19, who uploaded MTV1987, “but I wanted to try it out for myself!” As another user, Rareslit, 19, told me, they “just so happened [to be] looking up how to start up an actual podcast” shortly before launching Very Rare, Never Scared—a playlist replete with leaked and unreleased rap songs.
With over 286 million overall users, Spotify is the world’s most popular music streaming service. Its on-demand immediacy and seemingly infinite catalogue has made it the principal mode of music consumption today. Still, there is plenty of music that isn’t on Spotify. “The whole idea of creating a podcast to upload music came when the highly anticipated Lil Uzi Vert song ‘Zoom’ was leaked and I had no way of listening to it on Spotify,” says Rareslit, “so I decided to take it upon myself to get it put on the platform.” Similarly, Golda cited a desire to centralize her music as the reason for uploading MTV1987. “I feel like the reason I did it was because, although I’ll use Spotify for most of my music, I’d [also] use third party apps to stream things that weren’t on streaming services.”
On the surface, bootlegging music on Spotify seems to satisfy an archival urge to centralize one’s library for ease of access. However, Spotify’s local file function satisfies this impulse by allowing users to connect and download their own personal music libraries to their account for offline listening. Clearly the impulse to bootleg is not as straightforward as being able to listen to one’s favorite music on one’s favorite streaming service. So why take the risk?
“File-sharing allowed peer-to-peer networks like Napster to amass enormous databases of downloadable music—and, in doing so, ushered in a new, albeit illegal, system of music collecting and distribution based on decentralized ownership.”
Around the turn of the century, music collecting, and piracy, were revolutionized by the advent of the MP3. The digitization of music dislocated the medium from physical bounds, thus allowing music to be circulated widely without loss of quality or ownership. File-sharing allowed peer-to-peer networks like Napster to amass enormous databases of downloadable music—and, in doing so, ushered in a new, albeit illegal, system of music collecting and distribution based on decentralized ownership.
In time, the collective nature of these networks fostered a sense of community amongst those who participated. In his 2000 essay “Unpacking My Record Collection” rock critic-turned-technology journalist Julian Dibbel claimed to be “on more intimate terms…with my fellow collectors” thanks to Napster. To Dibbell, the sharing-based systems of P2P networks heralded a paradigm shift in music collecting by “connecting the collector not just to [music] but, of all things, to other people.” File-sharing not only crowdsourced an otherwise unattainable trove of music, it connected music lovers from around the world as well.
Hacking Spotify’s podcast library appears largely motivated by a desire to reintroduce co-operative systems of music sharing, not unlike Napster, for the streaming age. “I miss the community built within sharing stuff!” says Golda, “That’s why, for discovering a lot of music, I lurk subreddits and old forum sites.” Spotify is a social space, but it’s not designed for sharing. Music streaming services rent out music. We pay to access their libraries and in turn forgo ownership. In this model, we have nothing personal to share. Instead, we search. Or, more accurately, we ‘discover’ the music algorithms leave out for us. Responsively, bootleg music via podcasts acts as a means of staking out ownership and establishing in-groups within Spotify’s private library by redistributing illicit wealth, so to speak, amongst fellow music renters.
Rareslit’s podcast, Very Rare, Never Scared, garners around two millions plays a week thanks in large part to the substantial community they have built around it. The podcast, which launched in 2019, has “just grown by itself over time” by virtue of “always having the latest music that everyone is looking for and a lot of word of mouth,” claims Rareslit, but that isn’t the full story. Rareslit has also created a tightly organized Discord server, with over 1,500 members, for followers of the podcast to connect with one another outside of Spotify. The server provides text channels for members to chat with one another, track recent uploads to the podcast, request songs to be uploaded, and even self-promote. “I love talking with people in my Discord or on Instagram because we already have something to bond over; the music we both like,” says Rareslit, “the community is what I do it for.”
“Individual users may operate these bootleg podcasts, but they’re curated for, and influenced by, real communities that exist outside of Spotify—both IRL and online.”
One uploader, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me, “I just made the podcast so I can add music for me and my friends that’s not on Spotify.” Similarly, Golda often gets “suggestions and recs from friends and people on what to upload” to her podcast. When we talk she asks if I have any recommendations. I request “LAMB,” a non-streamable single by BROCKHAMPTON. A day later it’s uploaded along with various other singles, demos and albums including Mac Miller’s Faces, SZA’s See.SZA.Run and Charli XCX’s Super Ultra.
Individual users may operate these bootleg podcasts, but they’re curated for, and influenced by, real communities that exist outside of Spotify—both IRL and online. For some the connective thread is music, for others it’s Animal Crossing, History channel’s Vikings, Barbie, or one very specific meme (I promise all these are all real, but I won’t link to them without the uploader’s consent).
Spotify’s terms clearly state, “Spotify for Podcasters should not be used to distribute music tracks or similar musical content. Spotify reserves the right to remove podcasts that violate this policy, regardless of the licensing status of your music.” The company also released a statement to Pitchfork in February promising to investigate and deal with phony podcast piracy. Given the free-to-access nature of podcasting, the company doesn’t pay out for podcast streams, so there’s no financial theft at play; but long-standing issues regarding copyright persist. Spotify has invested heavily in podcasting within the last year and has every incentive to crack down on piracy to legitimize its platform.
Still, Rareslit tells me they’re not worried about Spotify’s promises. “The podcast gets taken down [and] I always put it back up the same day. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing that can be done about it on [Spotify’s] end.” Since we spoke their podcast has been taken down twice and, true to their word, it was up again within a day. Golda admits she initially feared her account might be reported and possible legal recourse taken, but ultimately music should be available to everyone. “I wish more people would have easier access to mixtapes, albums, and songs [that are] otherwise hard to find because of copyright or an artist’s personal reasons to remove the work [from streaming],” she tells me. As of last week, Golda’s podcast was removed from Spotify. She plans to reupload it soon.