Written by Camden Cassels
Music Streaming has brought great music to billions of ears throughout the past decade. But some scammers are taking advantage of this technology to artificially pump up numbers and even going as far as stealing artists’ music. What does this mean for the music community? How can streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify cut down on this fraud? Here’s what you need to know:
The modern music industry is more complicated than ever, and a dark side of the streaming world is only beginning to reveal itself. During the chaos of the holiday season, three albums were released by two of music’s biggest stars. Or so we thought.
On December 20th, two 10-track albums attributed to Beyoncé were uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music under the moniker “Queen Carter.” Titled Have Your Way and Back Up, Rewind, the surprise releases sent fans into a frenzy. On the same day, an album credited to SZA under the name “Sister Solana” was posted, titled Comethru. The SZA project featured unheard Kendrick Lamar verses and unreleased songs that were never meant to drop.
All of the fraudulent projects were taken down within 24 hours, but the damage raised awareness within the industry about a serious problem. In the modern streaming world, where platforms are making it increasingly accessible for artists to post music, scammers sneak in and steal streaming royalties meant for the creators. While this problem has existed for some time, this was the first time that two megastars were targeted successfully.
Director the music program at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Music, Larry Miller, says, “This sort of thing happens all the time. People just don’t hear about it because it just doesn’t happen all the time with the biggest artist in the world. Due to the changes in music distribution and the technology of distribution and consumption, these kinds of leaks, whether secret or not, are far more likely to happen than ever.”
The streaming industry works like this: When an artist releases music, either the label or a music distributor will deliver the content to the streaming platform. Between the platform and the label distributor, verification requirements exist to ensure the music is legitimate. Artists are also able to upload music themselves through companies like TuneCore, who act as the label or distributor for unsigned artists. This system, although beneficial for artists through legitimate use, holds the heart of the scamming problem.
Many different uploading services are available to put music on streaming platforms. Millions of songs are added daily, and the computer algorithms to detect copyright infringements or fraud are not perfect. Some illegal music slips through the cracks. With Beyoncé and SZA, scammers compiled various demos and old tracks floating around forums, and in some instances, music was directly stolen from the artists’ private storage of unreleased music.
The songs were uploaded individually and through multiple avenues to thwart computer trackers who would detect a full-length album upload. Once the music entered system, the hackers combined these tracks into album-style collections and uploaded the projects using strategies that have not been publicly explained yet, due to the ongoing investigation.
As fans clamored to hear the new music, the clicks and listens generated revenues that went directly into the scammers’ pockets. What’s even more shocking is that investigators believe it is likely that the same group is responsible for all three fraudulent album uploads. The success of these scammers, even just for one day, highlights a major difficulty facing the industry: this problem can and will affect many artists.
Serious consequences arise from the success of these scammers. First, an artist loses money when millions of people are clicking and listening to songs that are not connected to the artist’s profile. The profit instead goes to the scammers who tricked fans into listening to fraudulent albums.
Dae Bogan, founder of the song data management platform, TuneRegistry, says, “It’s concerning not only that fake albums are passing, but that they’re presumably affecting the overall value of other streams that day. Because there’s no per-stream rate in royalties – royalties are based on cumulative performance of total music releases – people could assume Beyoncé has released a new project, flock to her account and dramatically affect the royalties for other people’s streams.”
Second, in the case of the stolen SZA music, the scammer both deceived the listeners and hacked into storage systems to steal unreleased music. SZA could have featured the stolen songs on future albums to further her career, but all chance of profiting from that work is now lost.
Unfortunately, it seems that this problem will get worse before it gets better. As streaming platforms continue to make it easier for artists to upload music, scammers will also encounter less obstacles. In September, Spotify released the beta version of Spotify for Artists, an avenue for artists to directly upload music to the platform without needing to be signed to a label or use a distributor. This will be a valuable service for many artists around the world, but it makes it harder to identify fraud.
NYU’s Larry Miller remarked, “These are devilishly difficult technical problems to solve, especially when the platforms seek to become more open.” While scammers can attack the world’s biggest artists to steal millions of song stream royalties, most fraud will likely affect the smaller, lesser known artists. Dae Bogan goes on, “The fake Beyoncé albums show things are really falling through the cracks. If this were a smaller artist, it could’ve been a break-through-the-noise tactic for getting someone into headlines and having them start gaining SEO (Search Engine Optimization) around their name ahead of a bigger release. It would have worked.”
Many playlists on Spotify and Apple Music are created by using algorithms to track songs that gain traction quickly. These playlists are created so that fans can find the hottest, newest music. The problem with this lack of human oversight is that scammers can artificially pump thousands of plays into certain songs, then the automated playlist will pick these songs up and expose them to the millions of fans who subscribe to the playlist.
Instead of an artist earning their exposure, “click farms” exist where a room full of thousands of phones are programmed to loop certain songs over and over, click links to increase royalties, and promote music that nobody is actually streaming.
What makes the problem even more frustrating is that these streaming farms are difficult to detect. The plays and clicks are registered as valid, because the songs are being played and clicked. A computer program does all of the clicking and listening instead of a human.
Last February, it was discovered that Bulgarian-based scammers uploaded fake music and then set up 1,200 fake Spotify accounts to play that music 24/7. This process earned the scammers hundreds of thousands of dollars per month before they were eventually shut down.
While the easy access to upload music benefits legitimate artists, this opens the door wider for scammers to take advantage. Brand manager Zach Domer of Soundrop, an independent music distribution service says, “Indie distribution has opened up career paths for tens of thousands of musicians who didn’t have that avenue before, but unfortunately there’s content just like this coming through all different distributors. This is an industry-wide problem that we’re heavily invested in tackling head-on. It requires human beings to figure this stuff out. We have a team of people to help, but not every distributor has those kinds of resources.”
We will likely see scammers take advantage of more big-name artists as fake music continues to infiltrate the streaming world. Streaming services are working hard to prevent these issues, but they are far from perfect. Hopefully, for fans and artists alike, these services and distributors can find a solution so that proper people are compensated for their art, rather than have money and exposure stolen by a room full of phones and computers.