The machines 'faking the streams': How fake Spotify accounts are hijacking the music charts

So-called 'phantom listening' may be dictating who our most-listened to artists now are, not actual streaming data

HONG KONG, HONG KONG - DECEMBER 14: V, Suga and Jin of BTS attend the 2018 Mnet Music Awards in Hong Kong at AsiaWorldExpo on December 14, 2018 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
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Who's the most popular musician in the world? The data generated by our listening habits should make this an easy question to answer, but it's far from straightforward. Last year, South Korean boy band BTS sold a chart-topping five million copies of their two albums globally (Love Yourself: Tear and Love Yourself: Answer), but Canadian rapper Drake was the most-streamed artist, with 8.2 billion plays on Spotify alone. So who's bigger?

Official chart compilers such as Billboard use complex calculations to factor in the ways people consume music, while countless unofficial charts tell us what's popular and what's trending. But some of the numbers feeding those charts are being distorted and manipulated by "fake streaming". A group of 21 music industry companies, including streaming services, record labels and publishers, recently agreed on a "code of best practices" to tackle the problem. One label boss says as much as $300m (Dh1.1 billion) a year is being leeched from the industry by so-called "phantom listening".

The problem with 'fake streaming'

Musicians have long had their suspicions. The opening track of 21 Savage's most recent album contains the lyrics: "How many faking they streams? / A lot / Getting they plays from machines? / A lot / I can see behind the smoke and mirrors …" The vulnerability of streaming statistics to manipulation is down to one fact: while computerised systems can register a track being played, there's no way it can know if someone is listening to it. One definition of fake streaming from Angel Gambino, chief commercial officer at Napster is: "anything which isn't fans listening to music they love" – and there's a lot of it happening, not least because money can be made by doing so. 

A report released last year by analysts Music Business Worldwide highlighted a scam operating from Bulgaria, where 1,200 fake Spotify accounts were used to constantly play two playlists of tracks by unknown artists, all around 30 seconds long (the minimum amount of time for Spotify to identify it as a streamed play). One of those playlists rose through the Spotify chart to become the 35th most-streamed in the world. It would have cost the scammers $12,000 a month to run those 1,200 accounts, but the royalty payout to whoever released the tracks could have amounted to as much as $415,000 a month. The scam ran for four months before it was rumbled by Spotify.

Such schemes cause consternation among artists and labels because "fake streaming" royalties eat into everyone else's. Streaming services operate what's called a "shared pool" model, splitting all income according to the number of streams accrued, so if the numbers are being sabotaged, musicians don't get the money they deserve.

Streaming in the digital age

In truth, of course, musicians rarely have. In a pre-­digital era they would be entitled to a percentage of every record sale, but record companies would avoid paying them while spending huge sums on influencing the public perception of an artist through plugging, hype and payola. We shouldn't be surprised to see similar techniques deployed in the digital era, says Patrick Vonderau, a professor at Martin Luther University in Halle-­Wittenberg, Germany, and co-author of the book Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Music Streaming.

“For sceptics who never believed the hype around organic growth,” he says, “or for historians who know how analog worlds have always boosted brands and built reputation, this is hardly new or shocking.”

What has changed is the number of potential influencers, from the vaguely legitimate to the downright dastardly and a large grey area in between. The Bulgarian streaming scam was outrageous, but one could say it played by the rules. Paying to get an act into a popular online streaming playlist may be morally dubious, but it’s an everyday occurrence. Fans campaigning to propel their favourite artists into streaming charts is also normal – although in the case of BTS it’s been done on an industrial scale, with fans creating streaming accounts, sharing logins across social media and urging other fans to use them.

From fans' use of streaming services to the companies themselves, there's little transparency. Tidal, owned by musician Jay-Z, has been accused by Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv of manipulating streaming numbers (and royalty payments) in favour of its biggest artists, Kanye West and Beyoncé; analysis done in conjunction with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that an alleged 320 million "phantom listens" had been logged for Kanye's The Life Of Pablo and Beyonce's Lemonade across 1.7 million Tidal accounts.

One of those accounts belonged to music critic Geir Rakvaag, whose stats suggested that he had listened to songs from The Life of Pablo 96 times in 24 hours – more than half of them overnight – which he described as "impossible". Tidal has refuted the allegations, but in recent months four former Tidal employees have undergone 25 hours of questioning by Norwegian public prosecutors.

So what can be done to stop this practice?

A good deal of this nefarious activity is driven by the value of a slice of the streaming pie, and the relative ease of grabbing it. Vonderau describes a parallel “engagement industry” where fake streams are bought or sold by hopeful artists seeking recognition, or high-turnover resellers seeking a fast buck. 

You do not need anything, not even computing skills, to set up an online shop and make money. Above the shop level you have so-called panels, [for which] you need a somewhat higher skill level and connections to sources. 

“You do not need anything, not even computing skills, to set up an online shop and make money,” says Vonderau. “Above the shop level you have so-called panels, [for which] you need a somewhat higher skill level and connections to sources. What might be harmful in the long run is that the anonymous entrepreneurs who operate these shops and panels believe in a culture of creative destruction. It grounds culture, and the dissemination of music, books, films, you name it, on a rather problematic business model.”

As with social media companies, streaming services have enormous reach but comparatively few resources to tackle fraud, and this, according to Vonderau, will ensure the problem continues – and new fake streaming methods rely less on bots and more on authentic users.  “An example,” he says, “would be teens in Brazil downloading an app to their phone which asks them to register their preferences in return for a few cents per month. The app acts on their behalf, without them doing much in addition.”

The streaming model should be simple: the artists with more streams make more money. But the multitude of ways in which the system can be gamed will do nothing to help the music industry's reputation, which was so memorably described by Hunter S. Thompson as "a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side".