After years of trying to clean up its act and shed its reputation as a major source of pirated music, Russian streaming service VK is allowing users to upload albums released on major record labels that exited Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
A search by Billboard on Dec. 7 found that dozens of albums from major labels were available to all VK users and could be found using the service’s search tool. They included Taylor Swift‘s Midnights, released by Universal Music Group’s Republic Records, and Red Hot Chili Pepper‘s Return of the Dream Canteen, a Warner Records Music release.
VK did not reply to Billboard‘s request for comment.
Global labels body IFPI in London did not immediately condemn the apparent copyright violations, nor confirm if they or its label members had issued takedown orders to VK in recent days. “We’re continuously monitoring the situation in Russia with regard to unauthorized services and will take appropriate action as necessary,” an IFPI spokesperson said.
Sony, Warner and Universal all declined to comment. “It’s disappointing and wrong but comes as no surprise considering [Russia’s] current lack of respect for rights or the rule of law,” one senior industry executive told Billboard.
Launched as VKontakte in 2007 in St. Petersburg, VK offers music and other features of a social media platform. As of last month, it was the sixth most-popular web site in Russia, according Similarweb, a website tracking company. It is the second most-popular platform offering music in Russia after Yandex.Music.
In the first quarter, VK had 73.4 million monthly average users and a global audience of 100.4 million. The platform offers both an ad-sponsored model and a subscription service with 3.5 million subscribers, according to the most-recent data available. (Before pulling out, Spotify reportedly had 600,000 paid subscribers in Russia.)
VK’s history of piracy is well noted. When VK emerged as Russia’s response to Facebook, it had a feature that Facebook didn’t — a tool allowing users to upload music tracks that immediately became available to all other users.
That feature was, arguably, one of the reasons why VK quickly became popular with younger users. However, it also made the social network an archenemy of international major labels who accused it of facilitating online piracy.
A range of lawsuits were brought against VK, but the company stood its ground, claiming it had no technical capability to control user-generated content but was willing to remove any copyrighted content at rights holders’ request. The problem was that if a pirated music track was removed, another copy of it would be almost immediately added by another user.
For a while, courts accepted VK’s argument about its inability to control user-generated content, but an array of lawsuits eventually forced VK to sign licensing deals with the majors and the streaming platform got rid of user-generated pirated music a few years ago.
Then in March, in support of Western sanctions to penalize Russia for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Sony, Warner and Universal said they were suspending operations in Russia, and their new releases were no longer available on VK. That same month, Amazon, Deezer, Spotify and TikTok either closed their Russian offices or stopped trading in what was previously the 13th largest music market. (YouTube, for its part, suspended all monetization programs for users in Russia in March.) Among major global music providers, only Believe, the French music distributor, has continued to operate in Russia, saying in September that it was doing so “to support its artists, labels and protect its people’s safety as well as ensure access to music production and distribution.”
The pullout by the global music industry slowed the legal development of a market that Spotify, in particular, had targeted as a key country in its expansion into Eastern and Central Europe. Russia was the fastest-growing market among the global top 20 both in 2019 and 2020, when it produced $328 million in recorded-music revenue, a 58% increase over 2019, according to IFPI.
Some Russian officials have called for a regulation that would permit the use of music and movies whose rights holders have left Russia. The most popular proposal was that all royalties owed to foreign rights holders who left Russia would be held in a dedicated account in Russian rubles and then distributed at some point in the future. Nothing concrete has been done in that area so far, but the Russian government has authorized imports of products by companies which left Russia. They cannot be technically sold in Russia, but they are imported via third countries.
Under current Russian law, the use of music or movies without permission from rights holders remains illegal.
Additional Reporting By Richard Smirke