'Costly, Unethical, Improper': Record Industry Rallies Against Manipulation Of Music Streams

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Coalition of labels, publishers and streaming services release 21-point "Code of Best Practice," aimed at preventing and detecting stream manipulation.

An industry-wide coalition of record labels, publishers and collecting societies has come together to try and stamp out so-called music streaming manipulation, whereby bots or human means are used to artificially inflate streaming numbers. 

All three major record labels, publishers Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt, Concord and streaming services Spotify, Deezer and Amazon are among the 24 companies and trade bodies backing the global campaign.

Other signatories include IFPI, IMPALA, the American Association of Independent Music, Merlin, WIN, International Confederation of Music Publishers, National Music Publishers' Association and Recording Industry Association of America.  

At the heart of the initiative is a 21-point "Code of Best Practice," aimed at preventing and detecting stream manipulation on audio and audio-visual streaming services.

The code specifically targets against "industrial scale" impersonation of genuine music streaming listening by automated processes, inauthentic accounts, or human 'pay-for-play' 'troll farm’ methods.

By signing the code, rights holders agree to undertake "reasonable investigations" to identify stream manipulation and take proportionate action where it is detected. Streaming services are required to implement controls to prevent the practice, which is becoming a significant issue for the music industry as streaming has grown to become the dominant distribution platform.

Among the potential rewards for someone looking to manipulate streaming metrics is the ability to artificially boost an artist or release’s chart positioning, grow market share and increase royalty payments.

Last year, Norwegian collection society Tono filed an official police complaint against Tidal, following allegations denied by the streaming service that it deliberately faked its play counts.
Tono filed the complaint after a Norwegian newspaper – using data passed to it from an anonymous source – claimed that Tidal had used genuine user accounts to significantly beef up streams of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo and Beyoncé's Lemonade albums with more than 320 million false plays. Tidal dismissed the allegations as "a smear campaign" made up of "lies and falsehoods." The matter is currently being investigated by the Norwegian economic and environmental crimes unit.

"Stream manipulation has the potential not only to cause economic harm to streaming service providers, rights holders, artists, and advertisers, but also to distort the media's and fans' impressions and understanding of the popularity of particular recordings… by influencing algorithmic playback results," reads the newly-published code of conduct. 

"In addition to economic damage, it also hurts artists by providing them with potentially misleading and artificial data and leaving them to either compete with artificially inflated stream counts or to consider engaging in these costly, unethical, and improper practices themselves," it goes on to state. 

The code notes that "plays resulting from marketing or promotional campaigns which merely encourage consumers to engage in sessions of genuine listening to particular artists or recordings" will be deemed legitimate consumption.

IMPALA chief executive Helen Smith said streaming manipulation is costing independent labels "a fortune" and that the code of conduct sends a clear message that it will not be tolerated. 

At an industry level, moves are already underway to tackle the spread of streaming manipulation. Earlier this month, Sony Music introduced its own policy prohibiting stream manipulation by its employees or third parties acting on the company’s behalf. 

"Manipulating streamed music causes economic harm to streaming services, right holders and musicians alike. Any such manipulation distorts data and affects royalty streams for those who invest in, create and distribute music," said John Phelan, director general of the International Confederation of Music Publishers. He called the zero tolerance approach outlined by the code of conduct "a signal from across the industry of our determination to tackle it where it arises."


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