Here’s a modern music quiz: What’s the difference between an album and a mixtape? Confused? You’re not alone. In fact, it’s simpler to name how they’re alike. Both are collections of songs by an artist and, despite their analog-sounding names, are transmitted digitally. Where they differ comes down to the artist’s goals: Albums are intended to make money, and so are backed by the marketing muscle of a recording label. Mixtapes are meant to build buzz. They often lack the slick production values that come with an expensive recording session, and they’re usually free.
The DIY nature of mixtapes is crucial to understanding the success of Spinrilla, a mixtape website and app founded in 2013 by Dylan Copeland after he left Georgia State University. Spinrilla, a top 10 music app download, has been a breakout success. Users—the service doesn’t say how many—call up the app on their phones, where they can stream or download thousands of mixtapes uploaded by musicians registered with Spinrilla. The company makes its money by selling premium subscriptions and advertising. In these ways—except for maybe the subscriptions—Spinrilla isn’t much different from a terrestrial radio station.
Except radio stations aren’t being sued in federal court for potentially billions of dollars by five major record labels. On February 3 the Recording Industry Association of America filed a lawsuit against Spinrilla on behalf of labels Universal Music Group; Sony Music; Warner Bros. Records; Atlantic Records; and the defunct LaFace Records, whose catalog is now owned by Sony. It essentially accused the Atlanta-based upstart of hosting music by their artists without the labels’ permission. Spinrilla, according to the RIAA, is “ripping off music creators by offering thousands of unlicensed sound recordings for free.”
Flashbacks to 15 years ago, when file-sharing networks such as Napster and Kazaa helped cut the recording industry’s profits by half, are understandable. Major labels and the RIAA ended up suing those companies, too, effectively putting them out of business. From their ashes sprung streaming music services such as Spotify and Pandora, which strike complex licensing deals with big labels to avoid running afoul of copyright laws. Some record companies have even taken an ownership chunk of the services as revenue from legal streaming grows, reports say.
But the Spinrilla case raises different issues. The labels claim they never gave Spinrilla permission to host the music—or album covers—and never saw a dime in compensation. Why pay to download Kanye West’s Saint Pablo when users could get it for free on Spinrilla, as the complaint alleges? Meanwhile, the service was selling advertising and premium memberships to users who, according to app reviews cited in the complaint, raved that they could allegedly download “AS MUCH MUSIC AS I WANT!”
Copeland’s attorney David Lilenfeld—the CEO declined to be interviewed—says the lawsuit is a misunderstanding of the service’s business model. Spinrilla, he says, “is a forum, a venue for artists to promote their own work.” Unlike other sites, Spinrilla requires artists who want to upload music to apply and be approved. “They’re painting this as if it’s some Napster-like community where people share other people’s music, but it’s not that at all.”
Lilenfeld says Spinrilla uses a content recognition service—one the record labels recommended, according to the company’s response to the lawsuit—to catch copyrighted material before it appears on the site and app. When artists have added unauthorized songs and the labels complained, Spinrilla pulled down the content—more than 400 times, the lawsuit says. It also offered a third-party purchase option for some songs, he says, driving revenue for the record companies. What’s more, Lilenfeld claims that labels asked Spinrilla to promote and market their artists’ work—including Young Thug’s Slime Season 3, a mixtape cited in the lawsuit—before and after filing the complaint. “I would say the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he says.
Such agreements between labels and streaming services are not unusual, says Orlando McGhee, a music consultant and former executive at Warner Bros. Records, who once managed Future. Before the Atlanta-based hip-hop star achieved mainstream success, he was the most downloaded artist for three years on LiveMixtapes, another mixtape service. McGhee says Future’s team often collaborated with LiveMixtapes to promote his work. But now that more streaming services are paying royalties and labels are releasing their own mixtapes, McGhee says, the perspective has changed. “There’s no upside for the label to put their arm around” streaming services if the record companies think they are violating copyright, he says.
Both Spinrilla and the RIAA want a jury to decide the case. The industry association also seeks damages that, at $150,000 per copyright infringement, could run in the billions—or whatever profits Copeland has allegedly reaped from the copyrighted works. In court documents, Spinrilla has indicated a settlement could be reached. Catherine Moore, who teaches music and technology at the University of Toronto, says Spinrilla could serve as a launchpad for new acts in exchange for leeway on licensing. Or, like Soundcloud, it could ink formal deals to license copyrighted songs. Or, McGhee says, the labels could simply purchase Spinrilla. It has a following, after all. “That’s where my daughter discovers all her music,” he says.
This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.