EMMANUEL DZOTSI: Today’s episode is brought to you by that one unreasonably warm day in the dead of winter that comes at just the right moment. You know, the kind of day where you put on your favorite t-shirt, you inflate your bike tires for the first time in months. You go outside, you come alive. You’re uplifted by the sights and sounds of your city. There’s not a cloud in the sky, you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin again. And it doesn’t matter that it’s going to snow tomorrow. Because even as the sun sets, you believe, because you need to believe…that spring is just around the corner. Anyway, here are the real ads.
EMMANUEL: Hey folks, just wanted to say before we kick things off that today’s episode has a racial epithet in it that might be uncomfortable for some people to hear. Um, so with that, let’s start the show.
EMMANUEL: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, I’m Emmanuel Dzotsi.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
EMMANUEL: Hey Alex, how are you doing?
ALEX: Not bad, um, you know I’m moving some stuff so I just drove a U-Haul for many hours on the highway. Um, I like driving in a U-Haul, I feel like I’m the king of the road. Feels very Mad Max to me.
EMMANUEL: It is kinda nice, like, it is this joy in being that big on the road. It really is. [ALEX: Yeah totally] Totally. Um, but anyways, I’m here with a kind of story we haven’t done for a while, which is, uh, I have a Super Tech Support for you.
ALEX: Ah, my bread and butter. I’m so glad that I- that there’s a Super Tech Support that I’m not reporting and I get to learn about. [EMMANUEL laughs]
EMMANUEL: Um, so, you know how people write to us about all kinds of things?
EMMANUEL: But I feel like one of the things that people write to us about a lot, at least in the entire time, uh, I’ve been at the show, is just like, the- [laughs] the plethora of problems people have with their Spotify accounts.
ALEX: Uh yeah, that is definitely a thing. Even more so a thing now, now that [laughs] we are owned by Spotify. Um, I feel like we’ve gotten emails from people saying stuff like there are bots taking over my playlists, or there are people hacking into my account and playing weird songs.
EMMANUEL: Totally. And like, I feel like when you look at that stuff, it’s just obvious that oh, there are tons of people trying to game Spotify and trick other people into listening to their music.
ALEX: Yeah, exactly.
EMMANUEL: And it makes sense to me why people would reach out because they’re just like, you guys work at Spotify, surely you know what’s going on. But, like, we don’t [laughs]. Like, we work at this large tech company and I gotta say I have no idea how this app works. [ALEX laughs]
But I was reading some of these emails, I was just like, the more I read the emails about this stuff, the more I wanted to know more about this world of people trying to game Spotify. So I reached out to someone who spent a lot of time looking into this, uh, this one writer.
EMMANUEL: Morning, Peter. It’s nice to meet you, dude.
PETER SLATTERY: How’s it going, Emmanuel? Uh, yeah, it’s Peter here.
EMMANUEL: It’s going well. It’s going well.
EMMANUEL: His name’s Peter Slattery.
PETER: I’m an editor/writer based in Brooklyn. Just the most cliche thing ever, but, you know. What’re you gonna do? [EMMANUEL laughs]
EMMANUEL: He writes specifically about Spotify and what I’m gonna call Spotify spammers, which are people who do everything they can including gaming the system just in order to get as many people to listen to their music as possible.
EMMANUEL: Was there one incident in particular that sort of made you have questions? Or was there—yeah.
PETER: Yeah. Um, I had seen the movie The Joker as a, uh, favor to a friend. I didn't want to see it, but I saw it. [Emmanuel laughs] It was bad. It was really bad. But it has this one song in the trailer [EMMANUEL: Mm-hmm.] that I really liked.
EMMANUEL: And what was the song?
PETER: It's Jimmy Durante’s "Smile".
It's from like, the '60s. Um, to me, it's a banger.
PETER: Um, and so I went on Spotify and searched “Joker soundtrack” and clicked the first thing that showed up and was listening to it. Basically I let it go, this playlist. And then EDM stuff started playing.
And I'm like, wait a minute, that's not —
EMMANUEL: That wasn't in The Joker movie.
PETER: Right. And so, I look, and I’m like, wait a minute. The playlist creator is not official at all. Um, it’s some random guy called Naeleck. And I go to his profile, and he’s made hundreds of playlists that are very similar. Call of Duty: Official Soundtrack. Frozen 2: Official Soundtrack.
EMMANUEL: And it, like, turns out, of course, that the person who made the playlist is a guy who runs an EDM label, and he’s just using this playlist to try and promote his music.
ALEX: Ohh. Kinda brilliant.
EMMANUEL: Yeah. And this whole Joker event, it got him super interested in how these spammers worked.
And like, the more he started looking into them, the more he just started to see all of these, like, people who were just infiltrating all these different parts of the Spotify ecosystem.
Like one area he told me about where you see a lot of these folks operating is Spotify’s Release Radar, which is a playlist Spotify makes for you that shows you recently released music from artists you listen to a lot.
And he noticed people were gaming this playlist by uploading songs and claiming a bigger artist like say, Jay-Z, was on their song.
PETER: Jay-Z’s not on the song. You’re not allowed to do that. Spotify’s rules say you can’t do that. People get away with it because Spotify’s system is opt out.
PETER: So, I say Jay-Z is on a song, and Jay-Z’s team has to say, “No, we’re not.” And if they don’t press that button fast enough, boom—I have a song that Spotify’s robots think Jay-Z’s on.
So, Peter said Jay-Z is actually a bad example. He’s probably honestly too big for something like this to happen to him. But things like this are happening all the time to more up and coming artists.
And Peter told me about another kind of spamming that has turned the white noise genre into absolute mayhem, where people just like, upload fan noise in a frenzy every day just so they can be the latest new fan noise on the app…and get streams.
PETER: Some of them are uploading the same thing literally hundreds of times.
EMMANUEL: It’s the same audio, but they’re just naming it differently?
PETER: Same name. It’s, it’s—
EMMANUEL: It’s the same name.
PETER: ... it’s exactly the same.
EMMANUEL: So every day the white noise is showing up as “new” in Spotify even though it’s the same fan noise as yesterday.
And uh, you know, I asked Spotify about this and the other strategies Peter told me about and they were just kinda like, yea we’re aware of it, stuff like this is against our rules, this is an industry-wide issue…and even though we try to stop this kind of stuff when we see it, like there’ll always be people trying to do it.
But I don’t know. I was talking to Peter. I was just like, “Huh. Okay. This world of spammers is, like, a fertile world full of, like, really, really, really cunning, like, ingenious people and strategies, you know?
EMMANUEL: Um, And around the same time, we got an email about, like, a Spotify spamming strategy that, like, I just did not understand and has really confused me, honestly, uh, since I first heard about it. So, I don’t know. We got an email from a listener about a weird thing that was going on with their Spotify Wrapped.
EMMANUEL: Um, you know, like that, that wonderful marketing campaign our company does where they basically take all of our data and say, “Here, it’s actually fun that we’re spying on you so much!”
ALEX: Wow. When you put it that way.
ALEX: Yes, I’m familiar.
EMMANUEL: I mean, that is what’s—kind of what’s happening. I mean, okay, if you’re not a Spotify user, uh, how Spotify Wrapped basically works is they like, will do this whole presentation at the end of the year where they show you which songs you listened to most, and the artists you listened to most, and like how many minutes you consumed on the platform, what genres you liked, you know, all that kind of stuff.
ALEX: Truly the bane of my existence, Spotify Wrapped.
EMMANUEL: I don’t know if I’ve actually ever seen yours.
ALEX: Yeah, you know why you’ve never seen mine [laughs]? [EMMANUEL laughs] Because while everyone’s out here chasing clout with their cool music taste, I’m looking at mine right now. Top songs. “Let it Go” from the Frozen soundtrack, “In Summer” from the Frozen soundtrack, two songs I like, “For the First Time in Forever” from the Frozen soundtrack [EMMANUEL laughs].
Now let’s look at my top artists. Hold on just a second. It’s really gonna shock you. Top artists. Christina–Kristen Bell and Idina Men- Menzel from the Frozen soundtrack; Kristen Bell, Agatha Lee Monn and Katie Lopez from the Frozen soundtrack; Kristen Bell and Santino Fontana from the Frozen soundtrack. And then, strangely, an episode of Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin with Kristen Bell from Frozen? [EMMANUEL laughs] How?!
EMMANUEL: Anyways. Uh, so that listener who wrote in to us, her name is Katie. She’s in Detroit. And at the end of last year, all her friends started posting their Spotify Wrapped on social media—you know, like you do.
KATIE WILSON: And all my friends are like, “Oh, if you don’t post your Spotify Wrapped, like, you’re embarrassed, blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, “I haven’t even looked at mine yet.” Like—
EMMANUEL: Like, what does your Spotify Wrapped normally look like?
KATIE: I’m just like, not like, a huge music listener by any means or like super, super into it. So like all the big names that you think of, like Justin Bieber is on mine, and Kanye, and Frank Ocean.
EMMANUEL: When do you- when do you like, listen to music normally?
KATIE: Like when I- like in the shower I’ll listen to music, or like when I’m going in the car and like, think about. I know people, like, can’t even leave the house without their AirPods in, and like, I would just walk somewhere and not be listening to music. Like, I mean, it doesn’t bother me–
EMMANUEL: Woah. You’re one of those people actually who can- who’s okay [KATIE: Yeah] with hearing your inner thoughts when you leave the house?
KATIE: Yeah. Yup. I guess.
EMMANUEL: That is not me. [laughs]
KATIE: If you put it like that.
EMMANUEL: And so, she was looking through her Spotify Wrapped, and she sees her top artists, and, you know, she has at number five, Olivia Rodrigo.
EMMANUEL: At number four, she has Drake.
EMMANUEL: At number three, she has Frank Ocean.
EMMANUEL: Her number one, of course, is Justin Bieber, but you’ll notice I skipped number two?
ALEX: I sure did, and I’m dying to know what it is.
EMMANUEL: [laughs] Well, okay. So, she looks at number two, and it’s somebody she doesn’t recognize.
KATIE: It says number two is called Drumkoon?
EMMANUEL: Drumkoon? Number two?
KATIE: Yes. Number two—my top two artist of the whole year—is someone I’ve never heard of.
EMMANUEL: Number two, above Drake, above Frank Ocean, [KATIE: Yeah.] which is already a ludicrous thing to say, is an artist called Drumkoon?
KATIE: Yeah. So, it goes Justin Bieber, and then Drumkoon.
ALEX: I’m sorry, huh? Drumkoon?
ALEX: Like G-R-U-M-K-U-N?
ALEX: What the fuck? [laughs]
EMMANUEL: Like “coon”, like, as in, like, the racial epithet.
EMMANUEL: Yes, yes. With a ‘k.’
EMMANUEL: And, you know, she was just kinda like, “Who is this person?” Uh, so she clicked on him.
EMMANUEL: I do have to ask, is this person black?
EMMANUEL: Okay, that makes it kinda better [laughs] [KATIE: Yeah.] I was like, Drumkoon is like a weird—it’s a weird name.
KATIE: Yeah, it is.
EMMANUEL: Um, okay, okay.
KATIE: And so, I just kind of was looking into it. And then I was playing some of his music.
KATIE: And it sounds like this. [MUSIC BEGINS PLAYING] This is one of my top songs, also.
EMMANUEL: Like, listen to that, Alex. Like, it’s, it’s kind of vibey, right? Almost synth-y. I don’t, I don’t even really know what the instrument is.
ALEX: I mean it, it doesn’t even sound like a synthesizer. It sounds like… Yeah, I mean, it just sounds like wind chimes, kind of.
EMMANUEL: Yeah. And, you know, Katie understandably is sort of like, “What’s going on?”. So, she goes to look at the list of her—like, her top songs.
KATIE: Like, it’s, like, too much Justin Bieber, “White Ferrari”, “Levitating”, Dua Lipa, and then the next one is by Drumkoon that says, “Hey Alexa, play ambient music.” [EMMANUEL laughs] That’s the title of the song.
ALEX: [laughs] Is it—is, is this a person who, like, is, is trying to get their song to play whenever someone says, “Hey Alexa, play ambient music?”
EMMANUEL: Yeah, I mean, I think so.
ALEX: It’s kind of a brilliant gambit, honestly.
ALEX: I mean, okay. I mean, I guess I have to ask the question, does she have a smart speaker?
EMMANUEL: So, this is what I found particularly tickling—she does, right? But she doesn’t actually own an Alexa.
ALEX: Ohh. [laughs]
EMMANUEL: She owns a Google Home.
EMMANUEL: So that’s weirder, because you wouldn’t ask your Google Home to be an Alexa and play you ambient music.
KATIE: Right. I, I don’t know. It’s—I—yeah. I don’t know, I haven’t—it blows my mind. I have no—it’s, yeah, interesting.
EMMANUEL: Honestly this whole thing was just really bizarre to me. I wanted to know more about this guy Drumkoon and what he was up to. So, the first thing I did was I sat down with Sanya, our colleague and producer.
EMMANUEL: All right. Let me pull up Drumkoon. [Plays music]
EMMANUEL: And opened up Drumkoon’s Spotify page.
EMMANUEL: Can you hear that?
SANYA DOSANI: Yes.
EMMANUEL: And, you know, right away, we saw that Drumkoon—he hadn’t just made, like, a couple songs designed to trick smart speakers.
SANYA: There’s “Hey Google, play the music.”
EMMANUEL: Whoa. Oh, so wait, there’s a—there’s actually a lot of different types of, like—
SANYA: There’s a bunch of them.
EMMANUEL: There were fake songs for basically every imaginable scenario or mood. There was, “Alexa, play family time music.”
SANYA: “Hey Alexa, play morning music.” “Hey Alexa, play Christmas music.”
EMMANUEL: Wait, wait, wait. Are you hearing this “Morning Music”? It’s just water. It’s, it’s just water sounds along...
EMMANUEL: And not only that—it seemed like maybe Spotify or even Google had caught on to his smart speaker shenanigans at some point, because there was an album—
SANYA: And, like, the title is “They Tried to Ban This”. That’s weird.
EMMANUEL: That’s very weird.
EMMANUEL: That was just like, full of these, like, “Hey Google” songs, only with Google spelled G-U-G-L-E., I guess to, like, avoid detection. Um.
ALEX: Brilliant. I am so proud of him.
EMMANUEL: But as I kept scrolling, I realized there was more to Drumkoon than just, like, his—the, the “Hey Alexa/Hey Google” songs. Like, he’s actually, like, a super prolific artist. Like last year, Alex, in 2021 alone, he recorded 10 different albums.
EMMANUEL: And in addition to that, he released, like, 40 additional, like, EPs and singles. Like, he’s just constantly making stuff. And the sort of music he makes is all kind of like that, like, ambient kinda synth-yish sound that, like, I played for you already, right?
EMMANUEL: Like, there are all these albums filled with music from a sort of fancy steel drum he plays called a handpan.
There’s a bunch of music on an instrument called a Venova, which, uh, is a kind of cool instrument that sounds a lot like a saxophone.
Um, and there’s, like, some spoken word stuff. It’s, like, kind of, you know—it’s this eclectic mix of things. And on Drumkoon’s Spotify page, he had this artist statement…
EMMANUEL: “My music is liberated eternally from the world’s market forces because they cannot fathom or perceive its true or real eternal value.” At the bottom, signed 10th of September, 2021…and we have an email,
So, I wrote to him.
EMMANUEL: Okay. So, I wrote Drumkoon to be like, “Hey, will you talk to me?”
PHIA BENNIN: Mm-hmm.
EMMANUEL: And he, he wrote back. And his email is wild. [laughs]
EMMANUEL: When I got Drumkoon’s email, I jumped on a call with the rest of the team on this story—Phia, Sanya, and Damiano.
EMMANUEL: Most people I get—I write to ask for an interview don’t write back saying “Thank you for your email. Before I say yes or no, I would ask three things of you. One, you have to watch my documentaries on YouTube. And he lists, like, three documentaries. Two, watch all my music videos on Drumkoon Vevo. And the playlist is 101 videos long. [laughs]
Just to say Alex, I missed a couple videos - turns out there were 108.
Then Drumkoon goes on to say, “When you have done the above, by immersing yourself into this Venova Fusion journey, then write me again detailing your experience [DAMIANO laughs] going down the Venova Fusion rabbit hole. The reason I’m doing this is because my music is a completely new music genre and style, so it’s important music history, and it has to be told very well. [MUSIC] Are you the one I will give my first podcast interview to?”
PHIA: I like it a lot.
SANYA: That, that, that is the boldest move, though. Like, “Send me back a personal essay [laughs] after you have done this.” Like, what?
EMMANUEL: Yeah. I’m gonna do it. Like, that’s what’s pathetic about it. Like...
EMMANUEL: But just a half hour after I got off that call, before I’d even had a chance to start my homework, I got a text from a Danish phone number. And it was Drumkoon, who wanted to talk.
That’s after the break.
– BREAK –
EMMANUEL: Welcome back to the show. So, Alex, um, Drumkoon, the mysterious artist who had shown up somehow in Katie’s Spotify Wrapped, he’d reached out to me and said, uh, he’d talk.
EMMANUEL: So, he’s based in Denmark, he told me. Um, but he was like, “Oh, I’ll be happy to do any time that worked for you.” Uh, so we hopped on a call.
DRUMKOON: I’m, I’m gonna first of all read my statement.
EMMANUEL: All right, go ahead.
DRUMKOON: Um, this is official now, so. [MUSIC] I'm not liable to any person or entity with respect to subject matter contained herein because of the possibility of human and mechanical error, as well as other factors. My statements are made without warranty of any kind for commentary, scholarship, research, and freedom of speech purposes. Tendai Frank Tagarira, that's my real name, aka Drumkoon, my musician name, Hashtag Venova King. The date, 21 January 2022.
EMMANUEL: I don't know if I've ever had somebody actually, like, read the, um— ike a whatychamacallit, like—
DRUMKOON: A disclaimer. A liability statement.
EMMANUEL: Soooo that’s Drumkoon, and as he just said his real name is Tendai. Uh, and when he insisted on starting the interview this way, I was not exactly sure what I was gonna be in for for the rest of our interview. I think I was just like, okay, this dude’s come ready to play.
But actually once the statement was out of the way, I feel like I got to see who Tendai actually is a little more. He’s a super jovial guy - and just so you can picture him - he’s medium height, has this big beard, and some extremely healthy-looking dreads that I'm kinda jealous of.
He was sitting in the middle of what appeared to be some sort of mancave, just surrounded by all of these different instruments. I asked him to give me a tour of the place.
DRUMKOON: Man, I've got, uh, so many microphones, uh, in—you know, I've got a whole bunch of gear. I mean, amplifiers. I've got, uh, you know, smart speakers, you know. [laughs] I've got, I've got a whole—I’ve got congas, man, I've got the— it's like—
DRUMKOON: When I say it’s a mess, you know, I've got so many drums, I had to donate about—was it 10 or 15 to my kid's kindergarten.
DRUMKOON: You know? That's how —
EMMANUEL: Just to clear a room?
DRUMKOON: Yeah. When I, when I—somebody tells me they have a birthday, I can just grab an instrument and give it to them ‘cause I have so many.
EMMANUEL: Tendai and I kinda shot the shit like this for a while. He told me he’s actually a published author. It turns out he’s a big critic of the government in his native Zimbabwe, —so much so that Denmark actually granted him political asylum and he’s been living in Denmark for over a decade.
ALEX: Wow. Okay.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, which I was—I don't know. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was, I was not expecting that. Like, you know, this is a guy who is known by international organizations as an outspoken activist. And it just didn’t really add up to me. I was just like, how does a guy with this background end up becoming a Spotify spammer, of all things?
So, I just got to the business at hand.
EMMANUEL: So, I want to just upfront kind of talk about why I'm, I'm reaching out and how I kind of found you. Um, so we have a segment on the show...
EMMANUEL: So, I told him about Katie’s Spotify.
EMMANUEL: She was just like, wait, who, who is Drumkoon? I've never listened to this person. [DRUMKOON laughs] And when she looked closely, the songs that it said that she'd played a bunch were like, had titles like —
DRUMKOON: Yeah, yeah.
EMMANUEL: “Alexa, play this” or “Google, play this”.
EMMANUEL: And she was, like, completely nonplussed as to how they could have possibly been on her Spotify Wrapped.
DRUMKOON: [laughs] Uh-huh. Mm.
EMMANUEL: Tendai just sort of paused for a moment, as if he was, like, thinking really carefully about what he was gonna say next. And then he launched into the story of how he’d become Drumkoon: the artist and the spammer.
He told me it had all started back in 2018. He’d recently moved out to the middle of nowhere in the Danish countryside. Which was even whiter than the city he’d been in before. It’s one thing to move to a country like Denmark that doesn’t have a ton of black people, but rural life was especially isolating.
DRUMKOON: Oh, here’s the thing, man. My friend is my lady, you know. And—
DRUMKOON: Of course I talk to my neighbors and stuff like that. There are not that many African people out there. It’s really, like, out there, out there, you know? [laughs]
DRUMKOON: I didn’t really make friends in that way.
EMMANUEL: And it was around then that he decided to learn how to play the drums.
He started with, uh, the bongos, and then moved on to a bunch of other sort of instruments like congas and stuff which for him was massive, because he’d spent his whole life thinking that he just wasn’t good enough to be a musician of any kind.
Yea it was like this empowering midlife hobby. And he told me, like, he, he will just like, walk around and leave his house, like, with an instrument wherever he goes. So, he’s just kind of like, you know, this, kinda large nice black guy who just walks around rural Denmark, like, playing the bongos [laughs] and like, surprising his neighbors.
ALEX: Dude sounds awesome.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, he is. And eventually, he decided to start sharing his music with the world. And he chose the name Drumkoon as a stage name kind of ironically, as a reference to the racist coon songs that white Americans, I guess, couldn’t get enough of in the early 1900s. And after he’d been on Spotify for a while, he started feeling just frustrated by the arbitrary nature of success on the app.
Like, he looked at music like the ambient instrumentals on official Spotify playlists like “Serenity”, and wondered, what’s the difference between me and the other people making these songs? How do I get to the top?
DRUMKOON: Uh, as a black man, as a DIY, it’s, uh, it’s like you're up against a mountain. I think some people have climbed a mountain. I don’t know if you’ve ever done it. In South Africa, there’s a Table Mountain. A lot of tourists—
EMMANUEL: I’ve done table mountain. It’s beautiful
EMMANUEL: Right. I’ve done Table Mountain. It’s beautiful.
DRUMKOON: Okay. But how did you get up there?
EMMANUEL: Oh. Um, we took a trolley up. [laughs] We didn’t climb it. We took the trolley.
DRUMKOON: You took the trolley. So, it’s—there was a mechanism. This is interesting, very interesting, Emmanuel. There was a mechanism that helped you to get on top. But how do other people get up there?
EMMANUEL: You could, you could—it seemed wild to me, but you could actually climb the whole thing. You could hike it. There was a path, yeah.
DRUMKOON: Yeah. Right. So, I feel as a DIY, it’s like a dodgy hiking.
DRUMKOON: But I feel like for some other musicians out there, there is a pulley system designed for them to just [whistles].
EMMANUEL: And then he came across one specific pulley system that did not seem designed to help artists like him at all—his smart speaker.
DRUMKOON: I was wondering, how is it that this algorithm, you can say to it, uh, some code word, you know, "Hey Google, play music". And then it just gives you major label music. You know, I was like, that—it can't be right. [laughs]
EMMANUEL: Oh, you're like, why, why would it not just play any music? Why is it only major label?
DRUMKOON: Thank you. That was one of the reasons.
EMMANUEL: And thus, his “Hey Alexa” spam operation was born. But like, for me, the thing I really cared about was how had any of these songs ended up on Katie’s Spotify Wrapped, especially since she didn’t have an Alexa and she’s never heard of any of his music, right?
And when I posed this question to Tendai, he actually gave me an answer I wasn’t prepared for.
DRUMKOON: You know, I, I couldn’t possibly tell you how that happened, you know? [laughs] You know, that’s a mystery that, that probably, I can’t solve it. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask somebody else to solve that mystery because I cannot solve it, you know.
ALEX: Oh, that’s so weird. Okay, so now what?
EMMANUEL: So, I don’t know. At this point, right, like—I don’t know. I was just like, the answer has to be with Katie, right? Like, it has to kind of be with her, like, Spotify account.
EMMANUEL: And, like, what was going on in it.
So I was poking around on Spotify's website and found out that actually anyone can actually just request their listening history, like Spotify will just give you a list of every song you’ve ever played on your Spotify account. So we put in that request. And like a couple weeks later, Katie got it back.
[Google Meet ping]
EMMANUEL: Hey, Katie.
KATIE: Hey, how are you?
EMMANUEL: I’m good, how are you?
EMMANUEL: So Sanya and I, we called Katie.
EMMANUEL: And, you know, we opened the data Spotify had sent like. It was showing me, like, the date that, like, a song was played, the time that, like, it finished playing, and, like, the number of milliseconds it played So, of course, the first thing I did was just, like, search for Drumkoon.
EMMANUEL: And you know how, like, when you search in, like, a Google Doc, it shows you the amount of times a word pops up?
ALEX: Yes. It’ll be like, one of 156 or whatever.
EMMANUEL: Totally. So, like, I searched it.
EMMANUEL: I’m seeing oh my god. Do you want to guess how much it is?
KATIE: I’m scared I have no idea.
EMMANUEL: Oh my god. It’s actually wild. If this is to be believed it’s actually- it’s 964 is the number i’m seeing.
SANYA: I’m screaming. This is hilarious.
ALEX: That’s crazy.
EMMANUEL: Right? And so, I decided I was gonna try and click through, like, [laughs] all the 964 to see when they happened, you know? ‘Cause I was like, that many songs has to be, like, spread out. But right away I found two of Tendai’s Drumkoon songs like, right next to each other that had played back-to-back. And the first of those was, “Okay Google play some music.”
KATIE: Oh my gosh.
And then right after those songs, I saw one a song by a person I didn’t recognize at all. It’s by this guy Jeremy Arndt.
EMMANUEL: Do you know who that is?
KATIE: No, I don’t think so.
EMMANUEL: Let me- let’s play that music, let’s see what it sounds like. [MUSIC]
We look it up and it’s handpan music, which is just like a lot of Drumkoon’s stuff.
KATIE: I’ve never heard something like that.
And then in this list it’s just like song after song like this - like, Drumkoon’s songs mixed in with songs by other ambient music artists. Like, Spotify was kinda doing it’s whole Pandora radio station thing where it’s playing artists like Drumkoon.
EMMANUEL: So I just- I just want to see how long this- this, kind of, it’s basically like a handpan bender on your account. [laughs] It’s so- it’s- I want to see how many songs it is. It’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8- [MUSIC]
SANYA: I’m going to save you some time, Emmanuel, You are going to be going for multiple days long. I’ve been like, scrolling down.
EMMANUEL: Wait, it’s multiple days?
And basically what seems to have happened is that Tendai’s music played on Katie’s account for three straight days.
ALEX: [laughs] That makes perfect sense. That makes perfect sense.
EMMANUEL: And I’m talking, when I say played for three straight days, I’m talking like, every second of every day for three days is filled with music, like, from sunup to sundown, while she’s asleep.
EMMANUEL: Yeah. But here’s the thing, like, I did not get, and she didn’t get either, like, how she could’ve played music for three straight days and not noticed. [laughs]
ALEX: Hmmm .
EMMANUEL: So you want to know what I think, what my working theory is right now?
EMMANUEL: So it has to do with one person who up until now has stayed out of this story and who was really shocked when I confronted them about it.
EMMANUEL: I think it was you.
GABRIELLE: Me? No I don’t believe it
EMMANUEL: Yeah, like–
GABRIELLE: No. Fake news. No.
So that person is Katie’s former roommate and one of her best friends, Gabby. I had actually talked to Gabby early on when I was first poking around, you know, just to rule out whether someone close to Katie had gained access to her Spotify somehow.
And back then Gabby had told me that no, she didn’t have access to Katie’s spotify, that she’d never heard Drumkoon’s music, and that like Katie she owned a Google Home. So there was no way that she could’ve conjured up the song, “Hey Alexa play music” ‘cause she didn’t have an Alexa.
Um, and anyways, at the time all of that made sense to me. Um, but here’s the thing – because this is Michigan, they actually- when they lived together they actually had space, and so they have like two- they have a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment.
ALEX: I was really wondering where “because this is Michigan” was going.
EMMANUEL: I’m just saying I- as I sit here in the tiny closet in my Brooklyn apartment I’m- I’m just aware of the things I would do for a two bed, two bath. But anyways, they lived in a two bed two bath, and like, she, unlike Katie, does listen to like a bunch of music. And they both kept their Google Homes in their bathrooms, and their bathrooms kind of like- they shared a wall. And Gabby did tell me that like every once in a while when like, she would ask her Google Home to play music, it would- like Katie's Google Home would hear her through the walls and it would play that way.
ALEX: Oh my god is Katie's roommate really into handpans?
EMMANUEL: Well so Gabby doesn’t listen to handpan music, but I think that Gabby like, asked her Google Home to play some music, Katie’s Google Home heard it but for some reason it was on like low to no volume, and just played for like, a few days. And I think the only reason Katie didn’t notice is because, at the time, she probably just like wasn’t home or something, because she has a boyfriend and like, maybe she was staying over there.
EMMANUEL: And the biggest reason we didn’t immediately see this link, Alex, was because, I don’t know, we were just like, so thrown off by the, “Hey Alexa” song.
ALEX: Right, that makes sense.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, but obviously, like it turns out that the song that Gabby would’ve actually have brought up in that scenario wasn’t, “Hey Alexa,” it was, “Hey Google play some music.” And the only reason we didn’t know that was because that song, “Hey Google play some music” was actually taken off Spotify before Spotify Wrapped came out last year. [ALEX: Oh.] Presumably because like, Spotify, or like, Drumkoon’s distributors didn’t like the fact that he was like, doing his whole smart speaker thing, right?
EMMANUEL: So it didn’t show up on Katie’s Spotify Wrapped and we didn’t see it.
ALEX: Got it.
EMMANUEL: Yea. So, I don’t know, I- I was explaining all this to Gabby and it was really funny because Gabby was one of Katie’s friends who made fun of her the most for having Drumkoon as one of her top artists [ALEX laughs]. So now she’s just super embarrassed now that she realizes it’s like her fault.
EMMANUEL: You know what, I'm happy that Katie has something to come back at you with every time you talk about this story and make fun of her for it.
GABBY: [laughs] Yeah I really won’t live this down probably until the next Spotify Wrapped comes out.
ALEX: I gotta say, man, you’re really cut out for Super Tech Support. You really- you really crossed all your Ts and dotted your Is on this one. I’m impressed.
EMMANUEL: [laughs] Thank you, Alex. Uh, that honestly—it means a lot. Although, I don’t know, there was one thing that I was kind of worried about. Which is, what would happen to Tendai’s music, you know, like, Drumkoon’s music, once I like, exposed his whole, “Hey Alexa” thing? ‘Cause I figured Spotify might do something about it. Especially if I had to ask them to comment.
And Drumkoon knew our show was owned by Spotify, and when we talked about it- you know, he wanted to talk to me anyways.
But I checked this morning, and Spotify and the distributor he used to upload a lot of his songs, they actually removed a ton of his music.
ALEX: Oh no! That’s so sad but, you know, if the past is any indication he will figure out a workaround. The dude seems pretty creative when it comes to putting up songs that are called like “Hey Google” or “Hey Alexa.”
EMMANUEL: Well, so here’s the thing. I called him and I was like, “Yo dude I’m so sorry about this,” and you know, while he was bummed, he kind of didn’t care because he was just like, “Well, you know, I’ve already had music taken down, some of the rest of my music is up, and you know what? I’m just happy for people to listen to my music without weird titles and stuff like that.”
ALEX: He's’ gone legit – good for him.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, seriously. Long live Drumkoon.
This episode of Reply All was produced by me, Sanya Dosani, and Phia Bennin. It was edited by Damiano Marchetti. And, of course, the episode wouldn’t have happened without the rest of the Reply All production and editing team: Anna Foley, Bethel Habte, Tim Howard, Lisa Wang and Kim Nederveeen Pieterse. Our intern is Sam Gebauer.
The show is hosted by Emmanuel Dzotsi and Alex Goldman. This episode was mixed by Rick Kwan, with fact-checking by Isabel Cristo, music and sound design by Luke Williams. Additional music by Breakmaster Cylinder, Marianna Romano, and Tim Howard.
Special thanks to Nitish Pahwa, Ellen Frankman, Max Green, Reyhan Harmanci, Tad Davis, and Kimu Elolia.
One last announcement before we go. We’re hiring! We’re looking for a producer to come help us make stories. So if that’s you, go to replyallshow.com/jobs. Once again that’s replyallshow.com/jobs.
Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.