Some of this is just hip-hop trash talk. But a 3,000-euro payment to one of dozens of online services can buy 1 million Spotify streams, say some in the rap business — that's about how much the service pays an artist for that number of streams. "Fake streams are like doping; it's not cool," said Kontra K in a 2019 interview with a German radio station. "The more fake streams get generated, the less money there is for each artist."
As the accusations have flown — especially within hip-hop, where streaming has grown most — the German labels trade association, BVMI, has stepped up its legal efforts to fight fraud. In June 2019, IFPI, music groups and the big streaming platforms all signed a code of best practices to detect and prevent stream manipulation. Since last March, IFPI has cracked down on companies selling fake streams — often bundled with social media "likes" and "follows" — through court injunctions and other legal tactics. So far, 21 companies in Germany and Brazil have stopped selling music plays, and IFPI lawyers are looking into entities in other countries, executives there say.
At a time when Spotify is rapidly expanding globally, the proliferation of fake streams threatens the credibility of music charts and — more importantly — royalty accounting. The music associations say the streaming platforms are better positioned to secure their systems and should lead the fight. "Since we are not running the servers, we really don't know what is going on [there]," says Florian Drücke, BVMI's managing director. "But when we see a service trying to make money with fraudulent acts, we can attack this service." To combat websites such as likeservice24.de, which received an injunction in January, the BVMI has shifted from trying to prove copyright infringement to relying on competition law, arguing that streaming manipulation is not only fraudulent but deceptive, misleading and unfair to the music business.
The streaming services, for their part, have been unwilling to discuss the scale of the problem of artificially generated streams. "It's a continual arms race," says Mark Mulligan, managing director at MIDiA Research in London.
Some German rappers allege that criminals are using fake streams to launder money in the country, where suspected cases of money laundering and terrorist financing jumped by 50% in 2019, according to Germany's Financial Intelligence Unit. "There are four or five people who are big players right now who are filling their pockets through [international money transfer service] Western Union," rapper Kool Savas tweeted in September, referring to hackers. "To spell it out clearly — money is laundered using streaming." If that's true, says German entertainment and media lawyer Ramón Glassl, it would be relatively easy: Someone would pay ill-gotten money to a stream manipulator and receive in return artificial streams and the royalties that follow — in "clean" currency. (Neither BVMI nor IFPI said they were aware of investigations involving allegations of money laundering.)
Hackers can also play a key role in manipulation schemes. In a May 2019 report on German public TV, journalist Ilhan Coskun featured an anonymous masked hacker named "Kai" who detailed how he creates playlists with thousands of followers by obtaining login data from Spotify users. Kai rotates the tracks he wants to promote in a continuous loop and deflects attention by filling the playlists with other, legitimate artists.
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Coskun, with no prior music experience, adopted the rap alias ERROR281 and produced a song and video, "8K," to demonstrate how fake streams affect the hip-hop market. He had Kai help him generate 150,000 streams on Spotify. Coskun's TV report, "Der Rap Hack" (The Rap Hack), has more than 3.2 million views on YouTube, while the song's video has over 1 million.
Some artists are unwitting beneficiaries of this fraud. Last March, German rapper Apache 207 angrily posted on Instagram that someone in Hong Kong had streamed his song "Matrix" 14,000 times, helping drive it to No. 2 on Spotify's Hong Kong charts. "Someone is clearly trying to piss on my leg with these dubious Hong Kong chart placements," he said.
Spotify says it is working to strengthen its fraud-detection systems. The streamer employs teams that focus on detecting, investigating and mitigating fraudulent activity, while different teams work to ensure the "downstream effects of detected artificial streaming activity are minimized as much as possible," the company said in a court filing in Florida last year involving an alleged fake streamer there.
"Those who engage in this activity threaten the livelihood of hard-working artists and rights holders, and we are continuously working to reduce its impact by detecting and mitigating such activity on our platform," says a Spotify representative.
German hip-hop artists say buying artificially generated streams is both cheap and easy, and that labels and artist managers are in on some of the schemes. "Labels buy the programs ready-made," Richter wrote on Twitter. "I got two nerd buddies who developed one. I declined their help…but the technology behind it was fascinating. The bots go to sleep and change their listening habits."
As BVMI and IFPI have learned, outfits offering fake music streams often bundle artificial plays on Spotify, YouTube, Deezer and Soundcloud in packages with social media likes and follows. The fake streamers have argued in German courts that their services are not expressly illegal, but rather constitute highly effective advertising techniques.
"The purchase of followers and responses is in a gray zone for companies, neither illegal nor 100% legal," LikesAndMore GbR, a company based outside of Frankfurt, said on its website. A court in Darmstadt last year nevertheless issued a temporary injunction against the company, ordering it to stop selling artificial music plays, based on anti-competitive grounds.
Germany is hardly alone. A quick search for "Spotify" at Fiverr.com — an Israeli marketplace for freelance services — turns up dozens of services pitching music-streaming promotion, many using the word "organic" to imply legal. One asks $40 for 300 hours of streaming from eight unique accounts and boasts a five-star rating. Another wants $20 for 6,000 streams.
"Ultimately, this kind of fraud and manipulation will always be part of the model," says Mulligan. "Streaming services' most realistic ambition should be to ensure it remains at the margins, much like high-street retailers keep shoplifting to the margins while understanding they will never fully eradicate it."
Glassl says the industry is waking up to the threat that fake streams pose to trust in the digital marketplace. "The artists have a severe interest in taking down the manipulators," he says. "Otherwise, it would be a race for the best streaming manipulator. And this is not what artists and associations are looking for."
A version of this article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.