If you’re a recording artist, you aren’t relying on Spotify to pay your bills—even the most generous estimates have Spotify paying less than 2 cents per premium play. But some artists on Spotify aren’t going to see either penny from my many repeated streamings. They’re the unknown voices and instrumentalists, found mostly on accident, whose identies lost to history, but just like the painters of sarcophagi in Egypt, their artistry remains.
Thanks to the giant music library’s sorting options, deep in the recesses of Spotify you can uncover songs attributed to noteworthy artists such as Male Singer*, and bands you know that you’ve heard many times before, like, Anonymous Jazz Band.
Granted, in a lot of these cases, even if Spotify knew their names, the artists wouldn’t be getting paid, due to the difficulties that the deceased have cashing checks. But as someone who listens to a lot of dead artists anyway, I still wonder whose talents I’m enjoying. How did they end up on there without an identity? Especially someone capable of such a breathy and sultry performance as Unidentified Female Singer. Equally mysterious is the northern man who asks her what other songs she knows at the end of the track.
First off, I guess it’s important to remember that this emphasis we place on the performer of a particular song isn’t universal. In a way, it’s a product both of recorded music itself and on the type of music that we think of as normative. Some music isn’t really for sitting down and watching, it’s for participating in, and its lifespan need not be longer than its performance.
Religious music isn’t an end in and of itself, it’s pointing you somewhere. As much as I want to know more about this “Catholic Jew from Spain,” singing the Pentateuch in Jerusalem in March 1913. His name was maybe lost when the wax cylinder of his song was first made a century ago, but it was definitely gone by the time that wax cylinder made it to a record, and eventually onto Spotify. This relic has no author, only someone to uncover it.
The really famous performers, the ones on par with Liszt or the Beatles who inspire their own “-manias,” are rare eruptions of extreme talent and/or marketing, and they are heralded as exceptional, that is, a-typical.
Many of Spotify’s anonymous artists, on the other hand, were recorded specifically because they were typical. That’s why they ended up on a Folkways record.
Now known as Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, after the institution acquired the label in 1987, Folkways was first incorporated in the 1940s with the self-appointed mission to “record and document the entire world of sound.” The founder, Moses Asch, was inspired by a meeting with Albert Einstein and by Theodore Roosevelt’s observation that “folklore and folksongs were the real expression of a people's culture.” He set out to record performers in the field, feeling that there was something deceptive about bringing them into a studio, and instead tried to be “invisible conduit from the world to the ears of human beings.”
Folkways recorded blues, folk and jazz, and accepted submissions from ethnographers working in the field. Some Folkways artists, like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, enjoy fame. Some, perhaps submitted by an ethnographer far from Folkways New York office, never even knew they were on a record.
So some of these field recordings are more like short documentaries of a moment, than features with starring roles. Take this “Drunken Woman Singing at a Bar” by Female singer. To listen to it is to travel to San Mateo Ixtatan, Guatemala during the fiesta del San Mateo in 1964, to hear the nigh-universal phenomenon of someone getting wasted and singing, albeit in a culturally-specific and unfamiliar way.
The liner notes for the record say that woman is likely a Chuj Indian and she got drunk and is “singing at one of the cantinas. Marimba music is heard in the background.” Elsewhere we learn that she’s probably drunk on a sugar cane alcohol called "aguardiente," which was customarily served at the fiesta. That’s it. Who this woman is, and how often she sang, and whether what she is doing is formally admirable is sort of lost, but this moment—that is as particular as a photograph—can still tell us something.
The song performed by Female Singers singing the "Vugo," a wedding processional performed by the women of the town as they brought the wedding gifts from the groom’s house to the bride’s, really drives home the fact that the women of Lamu, Kenya were amazing singers in the mid ‘70s.
Some music has a fairly utilitarian purpose, like the singing of a chain gang, or the rowers on the Dragon Boat, in order to keep people in rhythm while performing their task. It’s a fascinating musical tradition, but the way programs like Spotify (or iTunes for that matter) organize them seems shoe-horned in at best.
Perhaps the oddest example of a work song that you can hear on Spotify is this album of drill sergeant chants by US Drill Sergeant Field Recordings that you’re supposed to work out to. It’s unpleasant to hear, but then working out can be unpleasant to do, so maybe it’s perfect suited to the task, or maybe it’s doubling your displeasure.
There’s also plenty of non-music on Spotify, attributed to no one in particular, even on musical albums. Who is this Dutchman introducing Judy Garland? He is known only as Anonymous, here performing his hit "Male Dialogue."
And the farther you get from people, the less music has to do with it and questions of “the artist” become less and less relevant. Should this ambient sound of a creek, suburb and light traffic really belong to Sound FX? How should this common snipe be credited? Or this “Tasmanian devil eating a carcass?”
If you're bored this weekend, you should try turning on that "Exotic Animals of the Arctic, Oceana and Australia" album and watch your pets go nuts. Who would've thought that a bred-in hatred of foxes could overcome a lifetime of city living?
Sure, you could get all Jaron Lanier at this point and talk about how categorization of music due to technological limitations is an abomination, but really the paring down of the music experience for nonmusical reasons isn’t new to our internet age, and certainly isn’t unique to Spotify. Plus, after a long week, who has the bile for that?
As imperfect of a program as it is—as unfair as it is to the artists—I feel deeply in its debt, even though I pay for it monthly. Without Spotify, how could I have ever discovered the incredible sounds of Unknown male and his hit “Let’s Ball All Night Long”?
*Thanks to the eccentricites of of Sporify's embed code, the names of these artists do not appear in the embedded track boxes.
Contact the author with any other Spotify oddities via Twitter: @a_ben_richmond