Music streaming manipulation - artificially boosting stream counts to improve chart positioning, increase market share and royalty payments, or for other non-legitimate purposes - is a real problem for the entire music industry.
Not only does streaming manipulation devalue or shut out legitimate artists, but since streaming payments are calculated as a percentage of total plays, any inflated streaming counts reduces the per-stream payouts for everyone.
Earlier this summer I participated in a great panel at A2IM's Indie Week on Streaming Manipulation: The Ethics of Streaming. While doing research for the panel, I identified four distinct forms of streaming manipulation that range from smart marketing to almost-illegal.
Album Stuffing - This first tactic, used by dozens of artists, exploits streaming chart rules which say that 1,500 song streams from an album are equivalent to one album purchase by stuffing an album with many, often short, tracks. While far less nefarious than other forms of streaming manipulation, it is manipulation none the less.
- Drakes 2018 album ‘Scorpions’ had 25 tracks.
- In 2017 Chris Brown released a 45 song albums. “Heartbreak On A Full Moon” was certified Gold in less than 10 days even though none of the songs from it made it to the top 40.
- Thunderstorms: Sleep & Mindfulness, produced by Filtr Sony’s playlist brand, has 16,000 followers. This playlist is made up of 330 tracks, all just over a minute long. The songs were produced by a production house presumably paid by Sony and at 1 minute each calibrated to earn maximum revenue.
Fake Streams - This practice uses bots and other methods to rack up large stream counts. When Spotify, Apple Music and others catch this kind of manipulation they throw the offender - and sometimes the artist - off the platform. How diligently the streamers look for these offenders remains an issue for rightsholders.
- MyMusicViral is one of many sites that offer 100,000 Spotify plays for under $200. The same number of Soundcloud plays are just $115. Another service offer 100,000 YouTube views for $500.
- For $100 or less you can purchase your own Spotify bot and there more than a dozen free videos on YouTube that teach you how to use it.
- Unscrupulous playlist promotion companies promise to boost streams for a fee. Some claim not to use bots.
- To paraphrase the incredible investigative work of fellow panelist Markus Tobiassen: Beyoncé’s and Kanye West’s streams on TIDAL were manipulated to the tune of several hundred million false plays… which has generated massive royalty payouts at the expense of other artists. Earlier this year there were reports that Norwegian criminal justice unit Økokrim had opened an investigation to learn more.
The entire music industry is affected by these practices, but it may be indie artists and labels that are hurt the most. One executive at a streamer told me off the record that, “the playlist promotion companies do tend to focus their efforts on scamming the Indies and ultimately we are all paying the price for that.”