One in 35 million: How unlicensed music by Aaliyah ended up on Spotify

Although the late R&B innovator Aaliyah is one of the most beloved pop stars of the past three decades, her music has been kept off major streaming platforms — unless you know where to look. Vanessa Okoth-Obbo investigates the bizarre underbelly of Aaliyah bootlegs on Spotify.

Ola* has been using Spotify since 2011. When his phone service provider Vodafone partnered with the streaming giant two years later, Premium membership — high-quality audio, unlimited track skips and no ad interruptions — became just as essential as placing and receiving calls. The relative ease of curating playlists from the platform’s vast selection of music — over 35 million songs as of publish — is what drew Ola there in the first place. Since signing up, he has spent years perfecting playlists, particularly one called Old School Hip-Hop. It lives up to its name but, in true modern fashion, the genre criteria is flexible. That’s how ‘More Than A Woman’, the second single from Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled album, wound up alongside tracks by Craig Mack and Jay-Z.

Aside from her 1994 debut Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, most of Aaliyah’s music has never officially been available on major streaming platforms. Ola added ‘More Than A Woman’ to Old School Hip-Hop via the album R&B Divas (International Version), one of two compilations with the same title released simultaneously by, it seems, Universal Music International in 2007. While listening to the playlist from his phone last month, ‘More Than A Woman’ came on and Ola idly tapped the song’s title, something that normally takes the user to the source album. But instead of R&B Divas, which features music from artists like Rihanna and Amy Winehouse, Ola says he found himself looking at the full tracklist for what appeared to be a bootleg version of Aaliyah.

“I was actually pretty surprised at what came up that day,” he said over the phone in late January. “[When I looked at] the list of songs that were available, basically the whole album was on there. That was a weird one to see.”

Aaliyah was one of the brightest R&B stars of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Across three albums and multiple hit singles, she turned her gentle soprano and laidback swagger into critical and commercial success and, eventually, a starring role in the Jet Li movie Romeo Must Die. Then, in August 2001, as her eponymous record gathered steam and she readied herself for her second film, the tale was cut short. While flying back to the US from a video shoot in the Bahamas, the plane carrying Aaliyah and her crew crashed after takeoff, leaving no survivors.

The shock of an untimely death ripples forever outwards, as grief sustained by unsatisfying speculation about everything that could have been; there are as many coping strategies as there are forms of sorrow. When it comes to departed musicians, the instinct is often to revive the music as an entity separate from the artist — tribute concerts, cherry-picked compilations, hologram performances in the digital era. But in recent years, Aaliyah’s musical afterlife has gotten tangled up in another phenomenon: the advent of streaming services.

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The Global Music Report published last April by IFPI (an international body that represents record industry interests) noted that streaming has become the dominant mode of music provision and consumption, outpacing physical sales and digital downloads in most major markets for recorded music. In a December 2016 article for Complex, LA-based journalist Stephen Witt laid out the reasons why Aaliyah hasn’t been part of this sea change.

“… you won’t find most of her music online. In fact, Aaliyah’s most popular, most important works – the albums One in a Million and Aaliyah and late-career singles like ‘Are You That Somebody’ – aren’t available for streaming or sale on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, or any other online music service,” he wrote.

Before her death at just 22 years old, Aaliyah’s pop culture impact was sizeable. Her “street but sweet” style, that often paired oversized jackets and baggy trousers with crop tops, was instantly recognizable and often replicated by young women around the world. The ineffable cool that radiated through her songs and tightly choreographed music videos has inspired many artists across genres: noted superfan Drake, who was once-rumored to be working on a posthumous Aaliyah album and has a crude illustration of her face tattooed on his back; artists of the new R&B vanguard, like Kelela and Alexandria, who are often compared to Aaliyah; Hyperdub icon Burial, who sampled her voice on his classic 2007 album Untrue. But the opportunities to trace this influence back to the source have been notably limited in recent years, as the physical release — currently one of the only official ways to own her music — continues to fall out of favor.

Witt’s article lifted the veil on Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, who owns the masters for her subsequent releases and has been famously reluctant to make them streamable. Ola had read the article, which is why he was surprised to come across music that he thought was off limits. Although there was no public confirmation of the albums’ prior availability on Spotify, they are undoubtedly there now for users in the UK — and have been for almost three months at time of writing.

Ola lives in London, so he can listen to Aaliyah on his various devices except for the songs ‘Never No More’ and ‘Loose Rap’, a standout collaboration with the late singer-songwriter and producer Static Major. But the album’s Spotify entry shows up in Google searches and registered users in other countries can see the full tracklist when logged into the platform’s web player. Also on the service and apparently blocked for listeners outside of the UK: two versions of her 1996 sophomore album One In A Million – Ola could only play the title track and ‘Come Over’, a standalone single that wasn’t released until years later for a tribute project – and Ultimate Aaliyah, a 2005 greatest hits compilation that was made available on iTunes and Apple Music in 2017, and taken down 24 hours later. Physical copies of Ultimate Aaliyah, which include two CDs and a DVD, can retail for nearly $900.

Songs from Aaliyah that were never put out as singles (‘What If’, ‘Those Were The Days’, ‘I Can Be’, ‘It’s Whatever’) are available on Girls Of Hip-Hop Vol. 1, a collection that inexplicably pairs the R&B star with Khia, a rapper who achieved modest success with the raunchy ‘My Neck, My Back (Lick It)’ in 2002. The artwork attached to these entries comprises of low-resolution, crooked, reproductions of the original album covers or crudely-cobbled new compositions; the tracklists are inconsistent and song titles are occasionally misspelled.

“This is something I talk to people about, and there’s almost a sense of nostalgia involved because it doesn’t really happen that much anymore,” says David Turner, a writer who has reported extensively on the streaming economy. “I would see albums or songs that clearly weren’t uploaded by the [rightful] owner, then they would be flagged and taken down.”

Turner, who is based in New York, recalled that when Spotify was launched in the US he would often see rap mixtapes uploaded by hip-hop blogs, or DJs who were putting up mixes of other artists’ work. “You would have to take a step back and consider that if a DJ was uploading the music they probably weren’t paying out the royalties received from the streams to the artists, featured guests, producers or anyone else that had something to do with it,” he continues, adding that in recent years he has seen significant progress in the way unauthorized music is scrubbed from the service.

The sophistication of methods for getting songs onto the platform in the first place accounts for some of this. Spotify has agreements with most major labels who, in turn, handle the process for their signed artists, and an adjacent economy of content aggregators has sprung up to assist those with no direct label backing. Distributors like CD Baby and TuneCore help independent artists put their music on the leading digital services and collect any royalties resulting from streaming or sales, for varying fees.

It’s highly probable that the Aaliyah albums were bundled in via a similar third-party service: aside from her debut, which was distributed by Jive Records, all of her subsequent recordings were released by Hankerson’s now defunct imprint Blackground Records. Research into the ongoing saga surrounding the singer’s audio legacy repeatedly turns up one name: Craze Digital. The London-based content distribution and licensing group was behind the aforementioned leak of her greatest hits collection to Apple’s platforms last year, and was also sued in 2013 for illegally profiting off sales of One In A Million and Aaliyah via iTunes. Craze Digital (formerly known as Craze Productions) is also listed as the copyright holder of the singer’s music in at least two instances on Spotify. Girls of Hip-Hop Vol. 1 is credited to Rapier Records on Spotify, yet another mysterious London-based group with a horse in this race.

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Gary Pierson, an intellectual property and entertainment attorney based in St. Louis, Missouri, is puzzled by how this music made it through the system; from his experiences dealing with Spotify on behalf of clients, he doesn’t believe that the company takes the matter lightly. To get down to brass tacks, Pierson highlighted two important elements: musical compositions and sound recordings. “A musical composition is the notes and lyrics that make up a song as it is written,” he wrote via email. “A sound recording is any audio recording of that composition. For a sound recording to be available via streaming services, that service would need the proper rights from the owner[s] of both.” In a subsequent phone call Pierson noted that it was possible for a record to be available in one jurisdiction and not another, which would account for the country lock on the albums.

Spotify makes content available in various regions according to label and rights-holder instructions; they have no deal in place to host Aaliyah’s music exclusively on the platform. Emails to Rapier Records and Craze Digital were unanswered at time of writing, and phone calls to the number listed on Craze’s website rang indefinitely; later an automated message claimed that the number was out of service. However, a representative for Reservoir Media, the company that owns the composition rights to part of the catalog, wrote in an email that “Craze [Digital] does not own any master or publishing rights for any of Aaliyah’s music”. Every revelation leads to another, more complex web of actors and considerations.

There is a twisted comedy behind the shoddiness of the Aaliyah entries on Spotify; they look so obviously unofficial, yet still managed to pass muster. While third-party distributors can do a lot to vet the songs that they send up the chain, the model is imperfect. Collectively these services represent just one faction in the dance between labels, musicians and fans, that is as old as the commercialized record industry; the rapid scaling of streaming services has only revealed new tensions. The turbulent story of Aaliyah’s relationship to the digital space is a good case study for understanding where accountability can and should lie under the current model.

From David Turner’s perspective, the distribution services have a responsibility to try and stop anything illegal from being uploaded, but he doesn’t place the blame squarely at Spotify’s feet. “In an example like this, I would not put that on them,” he said. “With 30 million songs in play, they can’t have eyeballs on every single thing that gets put up there. When something bubbles over and attention is brought to it they can act quickly, but it’s hard to ask them to be ever vigilant.”

While the company does have measures in place to detect, investigate and deal with artificial or fraudulent activity, the largest coalition of active eyes and ears is made up of Spotify’s subscribers; music lovers could lead the charge by flagging impropriety to their preferred service when they notice it, with the understanding that access to the content they love might be revoked. Turner thinks this is “counterintuitive to the basic idea of fandom.” Taking advantage of his Spotify Premium membership, Ola moved quickly to download his favorite Aaliyah songs to his device while he could. In a blunt reading of his action, it represents money out of someone’s pocket — business is business. Still, the chances of a fan turning down a chance to engage with their idols’ work are slim, in any era or arena.

That leaves Spotify, and whoever is responsible for uploading the Aaliyah albums without permission, open to scrutiny. For Gary Pierson, the matter is clear cut: a service is liable for what it hosts. “This can get more nuanced in the case of ‘user generated content’ such as Youtube videos, but for the streaming services it’s pretty clear,” he summarized. The streaming behemoth has a lot on the line: Spotify recently moved to go public, filing for a direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange in a money-generating step that some analysts have deemed unconventional. While the move could bring in much-needed capital to help the company resist copyright lawsuits (to which they are no stranger), a music streaming service cannot risk the stain of failing to protect artists’ interests; the public offering might also leave the company open for more intense scrutiny as more is revealed about its inner workings. While reports swirl that Apple Music is on course to overtake Spotify in terms of paid users in one of its largest markets, the perception of safety for, and fairness to musicians will be crucial.

What’s certain is that in order to flourish, streaming services will need access to more songs to chase more listeners; this paradigm can crowd out the human element behind the art. There’s an affecting revelation in Stephen Witt’s Complex article that describes the impact of Aaliyah’s death on her uncle: “Hankerson was devastated, retreating into a long period of grief… According to those who worked with him, he never really recovered.” Without direct confirmation from the man himself, it is impossible to know exactly why Hankerson chooses to handle Aaliyah’s musical legacy this way — and easy for those who cherished her work to paint him as a villain for making it inaccessible. It’s just as easy to view him as a person who lost a loved one, and has no desire to profit off the pieces she left behind.

There have been reports of tension between Hankerson and his niece’s nuclear family; lawsuits brought against him for a host of offenses; and multiple claims from Aaliyah’s parents and brother of dissatisfaction with unauthorized tribute projects; there doesn’t seem to be much concrete evidence of the Haughton family objecting to this digital embargo specifically. Indignation over Hankerson’s choice must then be reserved, in equal measure, for any party that would so doggedly go against the wishes of the person who had direct, familial links to the dearly departed “Baby Girl”. Craze Digital and its ilk aren’t righting an injustice, their insistence isn’t valiant.

Almost 18 years after her death, it would be a new travesty to let this legal and moral tug of war dominate the Aaliyah narrative. When an artist is gone, none of what they created automatically belongs to the world — to have been moved by it is a privilege, and those can always disappear.

Vanessa Okoth-Obbo is a freelance writer and reporter. Find her on Twitter.

Read next: After a turbulent 2017, can SoundCloud survive the streaming wars?

*This name has been changed by request of the source.



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