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The state of modified audio: Social media trends are diverting royalties away from rightsholders

Larry Mills

Social media trends often involve music, and creators aren’t shy about modifying music to fit their needs. For example, high-pitched, sped-up audio has become increasingly popular on TikTok and other platforms. Labels have even embraced the trend, creating playlist and radio stations for sped-up and nightcore versions of their catalog. While these hyper-speed remixes may make songs go viral, they’re also capable of diverting royalty payments away from rightsholders and into the hands of other creators. While modified audio isn’t new, it has become one of the music industry’s biggest challenges to identify and manage.  

At Pex, we track audio and video use across 20+ digital platforms, including the biggest social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Our identification technology was trained on modified audio and can identify content that has been edited, whether it’s speed, pitch, or other common modifications. We used our technology to track modified audio across platforms from July 2021 through March 2023, and found that not only is modified audio widespread in user-generated content (UGC), but it’s also making its way onto DSPs like Spotify. While rightsholders may be able to claim the use of modified audio on some UGC platforms (that is – if it can be identified correctly), DSPs may be unwittingly paying the modified audio creator instead of the original rightsholder. 

The first step in tackling modified audio is identifying it. Check out highlights below on the modified audio Pex identified. 

Hundreds of millions of modified audio tracks (21% of all matches) were distributed from July 2021 to March 2023

Over a 19-month period, Pex identified hundreds of millions of modified audio tracks, which accounted for 21% of all identified matches. Here’s what we learned: 

  • 21.16% of matches had modified pitch or speed
  • 20.10% of matches had modified speed 
  • 9.81% of matches had modified pitch 
  • 8.75% of matches had modified pitch and speed 

Mixtape and DJ-centric platforms have the highest percentages of modified audio 

While TikTok has been in the press for its rampant use of sped-up songs, it’s mixtape and DJ-centric platforms that actually have the highest percentage of modified content. Four of the top five platforms with the most modified audio are centered around mixtapes, playlists, or DJ mixes. It makes sense these platforms have the highest percentages, considering the nature of the content they host, but also that the majority of content we identified incurred only speed changes. For example, a ‘pitch lock’ or ‘key lock’ is commonly used in mixtapes and we found that around 50% of the speed-modified audio did not incur any pitch changes, while speed was changed between 75% to 150% (25% slower or 50% faster).

Audiomack and SoundCloud host the most modified audio 

SoundCloud, with nearly 64% of matches modified in just Q1 of 2023, has more than double the modified audio of TikTok. The most modified content however, was found on the on-demand music streaming platform Audiomack. Almost 70% of matches identified on Audiomack in Q1 2023 were modified for pitch or speed, a nearly 8% increase so far compared to 2022. 

Modified audio by platform

Out of the major platforms, nearly 31% of matches found on TikTok are speed or pitch modified, where YouTube (18.52%), Facebook (18.17%) and Instagram (19.81%) all sit below 20%.

Modified audio on DSPs poses risk to distributors and rightsholders 

Modified audio isn’t always a negative for rightsholders. As we’ve seen with sped up songs, it can drive success for the original artists. But once streaming royalties are being paid to the wrong people, rightsholders and the artists they represent definitely have a problem.

If streaming platforms only accept tracks from official distributors, why is modified audio making its way onto DSPs? With the rise of independent creators and ‘DIY’ distributors, it’s become easier for artists to get their tracks onto platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. Distributors need best-in-class ACR technology to check their releases for copyrighted content, especially modified audio, before distributing them to platforms. If modified audio is making it onto DSPs, then the current solutions aren’t working, and they’re putting distributors and DSPs at risk of infringement. 

Tackle modified audio with Pex

Not only can Pex identify modified audio, we can do it better than anyone else. Pex’s algorithms identify audio content that’s been changed significantly, including:

  • Pitch plus or minus 12.5 semitones ( i.e. a full octave up or down)
  • Speed changed between 50% (half speed) and 200% (double speed) of the original 
  • Combined pitch and speed changes between 50-200% of the original

In private benchmarks, we performed better than other ACR providers, identifying more content and more modified audio with greater accuracy. Curious how your ACR provider compares? Reach out to schedule a demo. 

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