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Ex-Stream Measures: Spotify Clamps Down On ‘artificial Plays’

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at October 1, 2021

Spotify is taking new and tougher measures to clamp down on the problem of artificial streams that has dogged it for a number of years. 

Its new focus is on educating musicians, via its Spotify for Artists arm, to not fall victim to unscrupulous third-party companies who offer to boost their streams in exchange for a fee. Such companies are primarily targeting new artists – often those who are self-releasing and do not have a label or distributor working with them – who might naively see this as a quick way to have an impact on the streaming service and then, hopefully, get picked up by editors for inclusion on key playlists that can boost their career even further. 

The streaming company has posted an educational video on its Spotify for Artists YouTube channel outlining the issues, alerting acts to some of the warning signs and explaining that it has processes in place to spot, and then disqualify, streams that appear to have been manipulated.

“We want artists to be aware of what’s going on so they can combat and avoid scams too,” explains Regina Escamilla, senior creator product marketing manager, international at Spotify, in the video. “For an artist, a stream represents a listener connecting with their music, which is what it’s all about. It’s what we want. But sometimes, third-party services, try to manipulate Spotify by using bots or other automated ways to create what we call artificial streams […] This kind of stream manipulation affects the entire music industry, fans included.”

The company says that it tracks “unusual listening patterns” and sends up red flags if it spots suspicious play activity. 

“We want to make sure that artists and rights holders are paid fairly for their work,” adds Sarah Shields, head of promotional programs and commercial partnerships at Spotify. “If artificial streams were left undetected, it would take royalties away from hardworking artists with legitimate streams, which isn’t OK.”

The company also warns artists against working with external companies that claim they can get their music on key Spotify-run playlists, stressing these placements cannot be bought and are entirely down to editorial decisions. Acts caught engaging in such manipulation could have royalty payments frozen or even see their entire catalogue of music removed from the service. 

This issue of streaming manipulation has been brewing for a number of years. Back in 2018, Music Business Worldwide exposed how a playlist maker in Bulgaria may have scammed upwards of $1 million from the Spotify pool of royalties (from which all music plays are paid) through a complicated process of manipulating streams on an enormous scale. 

There are, concurrent with this, growing industry criticisms of how sleep playlists are able to clock up staggering numbers of streams by bending Spotify’s streaming rules to their advantage. 

Rolling Stone recently wrote about Sleep Fruits Music which has a number of Spotify playlists made up of rain sounds and other ambient noises for people to leave playing all night as a sleep aid. 

Its playlists are made up of tracks that are often only 31 or 32 seconds in length, only just crossing the 30-second threshold that Spotify requires a song to be played for in order to qualify for a royalty payment.

One concern in the music industry is that this is diluting the pool of available money that could go to musicians rather than those dealing in white noise and nature sounds.

Chart manipulation and “creatively” adapting the rules has been a constant in the record industry since the 1950s when payola was a heavy presence in radio, a scandal which brought down DJ Alan Freed. It resurfaced in the 1980s on a more industrialised scale as covered in Frederic Dannen’s 1991 book Hit Men: Power Brokers & Fast Money Inside the Music Business

In the days of physical singles, teams of buyers would target chart-return shops and buy up multiple copies of singles to propel them into the charts. This all cost the record companies behind them money, but the belief was that they would reap the benefits further down the line if the act became established from their breakthrough “hit”.

Chart manipulation merely adapts to new technologies but the move into streaming could, however, see a darker side emerge – one where it is less about raising your profile and more about undermining the profiles of your nearest rivals. 

“We heard recently about an artist beef that escalated into buying artificial streams for one another’s music as unsubtly as possible, in the hope of getting the rivals punished,” wrote Music Ally in September

If unscrupulous operators are either gaming the system to drain the pool of payable royalties or are exploiting new acts’ desperation to make an impact on streaming services, the PR war and the policing activities Spotify has to engage with are going to become incrementally harder to navigate. 

It is already fighting fires with acts complaining about how little they get paid as well as how hard it is to build a sustainable career from streaming

The argument from Spotify that artificial plays and snake oil-trading third-parties offering to hype tracks up Spotify playlists is only taking food off the table of genuine (and honest) artists is a strong one. Yet some critics will point to what Spotify is already doing with its own Discovery Mode offering, where it can boost certain tracks for artists if they accept a lower royalty rate for those boosted tracks, as simply making a bad situation even worse. 

A number of DIY acts seem pleased with this optional marketing and promotional tool, but key independent labels, represented by European trade body Impala and its US counterpart A2IM, are far from overjoyed about what it represents. 

The harshest critics of Discovery Mode will parallel it with the damaging impact of artificial plays: it is, they will argue, arriving at the same problem but just from a different starting point. 

It all means that more artists trying to make a living are going to be left scratching their heads at it all in an attempt to figure out if the “cons” are outweighed by the “pros”.


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