More than 1 billion music streams in France — or between 1% and 3% of all streams in the country — were detected to be fraudulent in 2021, according to a report released this week by a French government organization that analyzed data from Spotify, Deezer and Qobuz.
If the report’s number were to hold true for the worldwide music market — which the IFPI valued at $16.9 billion in 2021 — that would mean approximately $170 million to $510 million of streaming royalties are being misallocated globally. This is roughly in line with a 2019 estimate of $300 million lost to streaming fraud cited during Indie Week.
The Centre national de la musique (CNM), an organization created by the French government in 2020 that operates under the Ministry of Culture, found that fraud is widespread in France, the fifth-largest music market, to a sobering degree: “Irregularities are spotted” on both major-label and independent releases, national and international albums, old catalog and fresh new singles alike, the CMN says in its 56-page study. “The methods used by fraudsters are constantly evolving and improving,” it notes, “and fraud seems to be getting easier and easier to commit.”
The genres which had the highest percentage of fraudulent streams detected in the CNM’s report were background music (4.8% on Deezer) and non-musical titles (3.5%). While the raw number of fraudulent streams detected was highest in rap — the most popular genre in France — that represented just 0.4% of overall plays in the genre on Spotify and 0.7% on Deezer.
CNM’s report appears to be the first country-wide investigation of streaming fraud. “We’re happy with the effort by the CNM and the French government as a whole to look into this and take it seriously,” says Morgan Hayduk, founder and co-CEO of Beatdapp, a Canadian company that provides fraud detection software to streaming services, labels, and distributors. “This issue deserves the weight and attention that they gave to it.”
CNM’s report comes with several caveats, however. The organization’s data does not include information from Apple Music, YouTube and Amazon, who declined to share information about fraud on their platforms. According to a recent estimate from MIDiA Research, those three services account for slightly more than 35% of global streaming subscriptions. (MIDiA did not share country-level figures.)
In addition, Hayduk says, the report only looks at country-level data. This means it does not account for VPN usage that allows fraudsters to mask their country of origin.
Bad actors committing streaming fraud often “rotate through multiple countries redirecting traffic constantly,” says Andrew Batey, Beatdapp’s other co-CEO. “It’s not uncommon when we find fraud cases to see 15 devices spreading plays across 30 countries.” To catch that, he says, “you need a global view.”
Fraudulent streams, once defined by former Napster executive Angel Gambino as “anything which isn’t fans listening to music they love,” have become a major topic of music industry concern in Germany, France and Brazil. That’s because undetected fraudulent streams can impact market share calculations and divert money from honest artists.
The countries have taken different approaches to combat this fraud. The IFPI led a legal effort to shut down German websites that offered streams for cash starting in 2020. The organization made the case that manipulating play counts allows artists to create a false impression of popularity, ultimately misleading consumers and violating Germany’s Unfair Competition act.
In Brazil, law enforcement worked in conjunction with Pro-Música, IFPI’s Brazilian affiliate, to shut down 84 stream-boosting sites in the country in 2021. Prosecutors there argued that sites that offered fraudulent streams were violating Brazil’s Consumer Defense Code and treated the activity as a criminal act.
Brazil’s coordinated effort — dubbed Operation Anti-Doping — determined that the fraudulent streams were actually being generated outside of Brazil, illustrating the limitations of a single-country approach to fraud reduction. “No company in Brazil has the technology to make these fake streams,” Paulo Rosa, Pro-Música’s president, told Billboard in 2021. “This technology comes from websites hosted in Russia.”
The U.S. industry has historically appeared less bothered by streaming fraud — or at least less willing to acknowledge its existence publicly, with executives and streaming services reluctant to discuss the subject. This may be starting to shift, however. At a Music Biz panel in May, SoundCloud vp of strategy Michael Pelczynski noted that the current streaming ecosystem is rife with “very prevalent fraud and abuse,” and that this activity has “cultural ramifications.” When undetected fraudulent streams “start influencing the way we measure the success of music, we are literally supporting inauthenticity,” Pelczynski said.
The CNM appeared heartened by the fact that, since the summer of 2021, it has seen “the growing mobilization of platforms, distributors and producers” worried about fraud, resulting in the creation of “dedicated teams” and the outlay of increased resources to battle “manipulation.”
But there remain several key challenges when attempting to tackle fraud. The lack of transparency from some streaming platforms, and the inability to push toward assembling a comprehensive global data set, means that the scale of the problem is still unknown.
What’s more, as the CNM points out, it’s nearly impossible to punish those engaged in fraud because they are rarely identified. The penultimate section of the report lays out potential legal remedies that could be used to fight fake streams in France — if authorities were able to prove that bad actors violated laws related to illegal hacking or unfair business practices. They include fines of up to 300,000 euros ($324,000) and prison sentences of up to five years for perpetrators.
The CNM pledged to release a follow-up report in 2024.