An Update on UMG Watermarks

April 2020 Update: All UMG tracks are now clean. Enjoy the music! ♪ ♫

Today, years after first complaining about Spotify sound quality issues, I'm happy to report this problem is fading out.

It appears that watermarks are gradually disappearing from the Universal catalog. The following tracks have undergone a marked improvement, first noticed in mid-June 2019:

They used to have a distinct watermark, and now they don't. Importantly, these tracks come from the back catalog. They're not merely new tracks that were delivered under the latest watermarking policy.

14 ResponsesLeave a Reply

  1. jpeterson

     /  July 12, 2019 Quote

    I can confirm the absence of watermark on Stevie Wonder "Songs in the Key of Life" on Deezer (96001912, 124787). Only 1649297 still has it.

    Watermarks that still exist in listed and available releases¹ are slightly different than described in the old article. The frequencies are between 2 kHz and 4.5 kHz. The added noise is relative to the signal power. During fadeouts, less/no noise is added.²

    It seems that in the surviving (but unlisted) Stevie Wonder example there are two layers of watermark starting at 1 kHz.

    1. "Barenaked Ladies Are Men", 13634976. "Growing Up", 41842071

  2. RussellH

     /  July 27, 2019 Quote

    Wow, that's great news! I wish there were some way to catalog what has been fixed. It would be great to create some kind of detector/crawler to create a database of watermarked tracks.

  3. Chris

     /  August 19, 2019 Quote

    Thanks for this Matt. In your last post about this you referenced a MATLAB script to attempt to smooth out the watermark. Is that script open source? And would it be possible for that script to analyze an audio file and determine if the file contains the watermark?

  4. Moongrazer

     /  August 29, 2019 Quote

    I feel like I'm still hearing the watermark on Piano Concerto No 1. It's subtle - but it sounds like there's still some fluttering noticeable in those opening crescendos. Not having the previous version to compare it to, I don't know how much has changed.

  5. Hi Chris, just sent you an email.

  6. Actually, it was Tim's words. Now, can you explain how ripping off watermarks makes them a "conduit" to the "free world"? I'm not sure if you're just confused about the technology, but watermarks are not an actual protective DRM mechanism, they just allow UMG to slightly narrow down the source of a pirated file (though I'm not sure what they accomplish by doing so). Meanwhile, they reduce the value of the product - they may not be that noticeable in a heavily-produced pop song, but they sure as hell ruin an orchestra. In fact, that's a great idea. Live symphonies should have a guy stand in the back playing a steady didgeridoo note, in case anyone makes a bootleg recording. The audience surely wouldn't mind!

  7. Most of their newly released materials starting from March 2018 (International Division e.g. Asia)/August 2018 (US Division) are watermarked-free, except if it is to be released in the United States region services, those are tagged with variant 2, watermarked region 1-3 kHz.

    They reuploaded their entire catalog in June this year on Apple Music/iTunes for unknown reason. However, there are still some new releases with the content watermark enabled.

  8. Hi Matt,

    Thank you so much for these blogs and the basic work.

    For several years occasionally I came across these kind of artefacts knowing from my own experience as engineer they are not from encoding. It took until today to find your pages via the Spotify forum and when I heard the examples here I found confirmed what annoys my ears. I even left Tidal for Spotify some years ago and now find impaired albums rarely in Spotify also.

    This is very annoying as such to get bad quality for money. It also damages the reputation of digital audio processing.

    However the most nasty thing is the fact the support teams are denying any issue and recommend to reinstall what ever is needed to get the stream – pointing to the users equipment. I spent days re-installing what so ever before I gave up. No wonder I had no success. I assume that the platform operators such as Spotify, Tidal others MUST know the watermarking is applied.
    So why not tell the customer? Because it cannot be what must not be? Why not mark the respected tracks?

    Luckily most of the music on Spotify is OK and I am more than happy with it.
    And now there is hope the watermarking is removed over time.

    Again thank you. Excellent work: Keep it up!!
    Best Regards!

  9. Rich B-S

     /  November 29, 2019 Quote

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks so much for highlighting this, we've been discussing it a lot in the Spotify community and this week I think we've finally seen the end of the watermarking!

    Would be interested to hear if you have found the same in your test cases!

  10. I managed to get ahold of one of the songs and ran it through a ID-10-T Spectrum 4 Analyzer, cutting out the primary tracks and cutting down the supposed 'humming'. When isolated and played back and normal speed, the watermark sound is obvious. It's a chorus of redneck belching recorded while they were all drinking Schlitz beer. Heck of a watermark. Guess UMG really wants to screw up the music so nobody can enjoy it.

  11. I went deeper and checked out one of the tracks from the original comparison post: "Just Dance". It's on Qobuz three times, or at least three times that I cared to check out in Hi-Res.

  12. Rick

     /  May 8, 2020 Quote

    Nothing beats vinyl or very well mastered CD. A vinyl record will sound better, more open, detailed with no colouration depending on the cartridge used. No compression of the sound in order to accommodate a small digital file. The imaging, depth, front back and lateral dispersion comes from the source. Assuming the record was well mastered for vinyl it will kill Spotify all day. Spotify is for the convenience and frankly most people find it sounds good enough. Then when some of them compare with a good source -turntable they hear the difference. Spotify is without doubt a sound compromise for the sake of convenience and access on any device that works on a data plan or wifi from your modem

  13. John Bahn

     /  May 8, 2020 Quote

    You are so right Rick it's when people actually compare they notice that streaming music is most definitely a compromise. A half decent turntable and cartridge will sound better most of the time.

  14. Russell Haga

     /  May 10, 2020 Quote


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