John Smith manages a band with close to three quarters of a million monthly listeners on Spotify. At this point, the group has mostly stopped making music together to pursue other projects, but you might not know that from watching their Spotify page. That’s because other artists periodically release fake collaborations with the band — songs the group has nothing to do with, and probably isn’t even aware of. Smith — not his real name — handles the process of alerting the streaming service about the fakes to get them off his group’s homepage.
This is another strange facet of the contemporary streaming landscape, according to managers like Smith. The sham collaborations appear on a number of platforms, but managers believe there is one in particular that people are focused on: The bogus collaborations allow someone to piggyback off the success of a more established act, thanks primarily to an algorithmic Spotify playlist called Release Radar. Spotify generates personalized Release Radar collections every Friday; each is composed of new music from artists that users follow, artists that users listen to, and a sprinkling of other artists Spotify has a hunch users will like. If you tag Smith’s group as a collaborator, that means you have a chance to be served up to users who follow or listen to that band (again, they have over 700,000 monthly listeners).
The Release Radar hack has animated Reddit threads and TikTok videos recently, with commenters complaining about listening to songs that claim to incorporate contributions from Perfume Genius or Deerhunter, only to find out that those acts aren’t actually involved. “I stopped listening to my Release Radar because I was getting multiple of these fake tracks in there every week,” one Spotify user wrote on Reddit.
Perfume Genius has been tagged as a collaborator on three tracks he had nothing to do with in the last two weeks. “It’s a new phenomenon for us,” says Bryan Ling, who manages Perfume Genius. “In the past, it felt more like human error [when this happened], someone uploaded something wrong. Now it’s like, someone’s doing this on purpose.”
Fans have alerted Perfume Genius to the fakes, and he’s passed the word on to his manager. “We’re trying to figure out what to do here,” Ling adds. “It’s been frustrating.”
The sham collaborations can divert streaming income away from artists who are attempting to follow the rules and send it to those who are comfortable tricking people into playing their music, which may just be white noise, as was the case with a fake Lower Dens collaboration released on Friday. And the fakes also can anger listeners, as evidenced by a number of Reddit comments, since fans click excitedly through the new music on their Release Radar — only to find out they’ve been duped about what’s on there.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Spotify said that “stream manipulation and content misrepresentation are industry-wide issues that Spotify takes seriously and are against our policies.” “We have robust, active mitigation measures in place that identify bad actors, limit their impact and penalize them accordingly,” the spokesperson added. “We are continuously evolving our efforts to limit the impact of such individuals on our service.”
Spotify launched Release Radar almost exactly six years ago, in the summer of 2016. “We’re trying to show that Spotify understands users better than anyone else,” Edward Newett, who served as the feature’s lead engineer, told TechCrunch at the time. “We’re the biggest in terms of [leveraging] streaming data to bring the personalization necessary to make this feature work.”
The following year, Bryan Johnson, director of artists and management at Spotify U.K., said that Release Radar “is becoming a huge driver of streams — more than any of our programmed editorial playlists, which are the ones that everyone pitches for. It’s Release Radar which is driving listens.”
Last fall, Spotify announced that Release Radar “has become a top-three personalized playlist for listeners around the world.” It’s especially popular for Spotify users between the ages of 18 and 29, who account for more than half of the playlist’s audience.
Release Radar’s ability to “drive listens” also makes it a target for those trying to game the system. To do so, people look for distribution companies that allow artists to tag collaborators without their consent, according to managers and label owners. Once the distributor beams that song to streaming services, it shows up as a track featuring two performers, despite the fact that one is oblivious to the music’s existence. Sources say some of the most prominent artists are on a “block list” maintained by labels, so it’s hard for an act to stealthily tap into a superstar’s audience, and Spotify also has teams of people working to flag fake collaborations. But there is a lot of new music being uploaded to streaming services daily, and shams slip through.
Brett Rosenberg, a musician and blogger who has written about the fake collaboration phenomenon, says he started to see it pop up regularly around a year ago. (Some Reddit complaints date back even further, at least to 2020.) “It became more and more of a nuisance on a weekly basis,” Rosenberg says, to the point where a dud duet would appear “three or four times every Friday when my Release Radar resets.”
After Rosenberg wrote about his experience, a number of commenters chimed in with similar stories of their own. “Friday rolls around and I pull up Release Radar and have been getting a lot of these spam songs with artists like PUP and Stars being listed on songs they clearly aren’t attached to,” one person lamented. “I had 4 songs from scam artists on my release radar this week,” another added. “I hate it!” “It’s been the bane of my Fridays for more than a couple months running now,” a third user wrote.
Rosenberg has observed accounts trying to game the system by pretending to collaborate with prominent indie acts like Sharon Van Etten and Bat for Lashes. On Friday (August 5), he spotted new sham collaborations with Neon Indian, Lower Dens, and the Black Lips — all 61-second songs with very similar-looking artwork. (Lower Dens broke up last year; Black Lips’ manager did not respond to a request for a comment. Neon Indian’s manager says she was able to get the fake taken down on Spotify, though it’s still up on Apple Music.)
But the people behind the sham collaborations don’t only rope in well-regarded independent artists. People release fake collaborations with John Smith’s band because it’s dormant but maintains a sizable following. (Not every non-working band has someone like Smith watching their Spotify page.) A manager who recently shepherded a viral act to a plum major-label deal says “people keep putting fake collabs on their page, and we keep swatting them down.” “It happens to every single viral artist,” he adds.
One rap label owner says his artists will be unknowingly tagged as collaborators by trolls. “A lot of underground acts have these online haters, and they just will upload random songs and tag the artist,” he says. But, he continues, pretending to work with a bigger act can help “get a record moving.”
Rosenberg says he’s tracked around 10 fake collaborations in the last month, however, and his trip down the rabbit hole has left him confused, because the accounts trying to leverage other artists’ popularity don’t seem to be moving any place in particular. “The end game of the artists I’ve seen do this is… nothing,” he says. “They’re not trying to create a persona or a social media profile.”
But there is a financial incentive to gaming Release Radar: Another label-owner whose artists are targeted fairly often in this manner estimates that a fake collaboration between an unknown and an established act that has 1 million followers on Spotify can generate between 50,000 and 100,000 streams for the former in 24 hours. If an act is able to ride an established artist’s coattails without being detected, there is money to be made — though this isn’t big bucks, maybe $100 or $200.
Since that’s not a big haul on its own, managers whose artists have been tagged in fake collaborations suspect that the people behind them are releasing them at scale, much in the same way a phishing scam relies on generating small sums from a wide net of dupes. Without access to Spotify’s back end, however, it’s hard to tell what happens after the fake collaboration hits Release Radar.
“I have a million questions,” Rosenberg adds, “that I can’t figure out.”