A recent report into fraudulent purchases of music on streaming services to boost chart positions and revenue estimates that 1 to 3% of listens on the French streaming market in 2021 were false.
The study on fake streams was carried out by the French Centre Nationale de la Musique. The institution's president believes the actual figures are much greater as many ‘streams’ are beyond the current levels of detection. The findings represent 1 to 3 billion streams of more than thirty seconds in length.
Researchers found that online “agencies” are offering packs of fake boosted streams for prices ranging from €150 for a pack of 10,000 to 20,000 streams, to €6,500 euros for a million streams. Some of these streams are accessed by “real listens" where clips are played by bots set up in "streaming farms". Others are falsified by hackers and computer experts working to inflate figures.
A numbers game
Streaming farms help artists and labels artificially increase their streams to create a hit and make more money. A streaming farm mimics fans listening to the same song hundreds of times at a specific period of time.
The study shows that the majority of fake streams come from the hip-hop and rap genres as these are the most-listened genres on streaming services. It even found that some artists and their labels who are looking to earn revenue as quickly as possible will purchase fake streams and exploit the streaming farm model.
Fake streams can have many knock-on effects in the music industry. For example, they can skew the cultural diversity in the music charts. Songs inflated with fake streams will de facto be taken over by the algorithms that will put them at the top of the streaming list and keep them there. As a result, hip-hop, which is already dominant on most platforms, becomes more attractive to radio stations and playlists which look to streaming figures when choosing their content.
Then there is the distorted share of income. Streaming revenues are distributed according to the market shares of record companies and their artists on a total number of streams. In short, a big streamer will get a big slice of the pie; a small streamer will get far less.
Measures are being put in place to combat the practice but how effective these will be is uncertain, especially since "bot farms" are generally overseas, beyond national jurisdiction. The three major record label companies Universal, Sony and Warner have developed a ‘code’ to tackle the problem.
This monitors and cracks down on illegal streaming activity with the label promising to share information when concerns are raised by certain activities. Spotify also tracks unusual listening patterns and flags streams that are potentially suspicious. However, spotting ‘fake’ music is harder than it sounds and as the technology improves to spot fake streaming, so does the know-how to evade detection.