It's Actually Pretty Easy to 'Hack' the Digital Music Industry
We made a terrible song then bought Spotify streams for it as proof.
This article originally appeared on Noisey Denmark
It’s 2017. A lack of musical talent should never keep you from recording a completely terrible song. And it sholdn’t stop you from then buying 10,000 streams of that song for the #clout.
That’s our way of saying that here at Noisey Denmark, we’ve invested effort, work hours and money in making what is probably the worst piece of “music” (we’re sorry, music), only to buy it an unreasonable and entirely undeserved amount of Spotify plays. But to explain why we’ve fostered a track no one should ever listen to and forced it on music listeners everywhere, we’ll start in another place, in another time. With an anecdote about Danish reality TV personality, Mickey Fredie Pedersen.
He was the Hawaiian shirt-wearing father of Gigi and Sonny, two kids who became famous in Denmark in the 90s for appearing in a load of reality shows with their parents. Aside from being early adopters in a TV genre that would go on to become the human race’s favourite thing to love, hate and/or guilt-watch, the celebrity siblings also embarked on an ambitious pop career in the early 00s.
Turns out it was a scam. Their debut album only debuted at number 2 on Danish album charts because Papa Pedersen had bought up so many copies of Sonny vs Gigi that it outsold, among others, the likes of U2 and Mariah Carey. The old game, we learned, still works. And in today’s digital world, where you can basically achieve anything while sat on a coffee-stained IKEA couch, it’s easier than ever before. How? With easy-to-use services like Streamify.
The concept is simple enough. If you have a track that’s not getting enough attention, you can buy plays for it. Streamify charges about £3.50 for 1,000 plays, and you can purchase as many as 2 million at a time (there are naturally package deals available, so your plays get marginally cheaper the more you buy). After you’ve coughed up the cash, all that’s left to do is choose when your rise to Spotify stardom is to begin, and over how long a time period your purchased plays should be spread out. Without the unnecessary hassle of things like promotion and learning to make actual, listenable music, you can now watch your track plays soar into the high thousands. And all without the stress of driving around to whichever HMVs are left and mass-buying CDs.
But as is often the case with good cons, someone usually wins, while someone else inevitably loses. And buying streams is no different. Royalties paid out by services like Spotify depend on how many plays the tracks in question receive. Which means you can potentially steal pieces of the pie from other recording artists by buying your way to streaming glory.
Why should I care if 21 Savage is left with marginally less Ms in his bank account? you may be asking yourself. But there is in fact reason to question this illicit acquisition of plays. If an artist buys their way high enough up the streaming charts, they are more likely to end up on various playlists. And according to most major record labels, playlist placements are a direct path to more streams, because many consumers use playlists as their primary source of new music. This effectively allows anyone with a credit card to buy their way into a spiral of digital plays, and lead anyone with a streaming account listening to a bunch of music that isn’t actually as popular as it seems. Or as good as it seems.
Even though it’s unlikely that you would be able to go from being undiscovered to reaching Drizzy-levels of fame from one month to the next without being busted by Spotify’s fraud squad, smaller local markets such as the Danish one, where a considerably smaller amount of streams separates obscurity from popularity, are far more vulnerable to fake streams. Cheaper to pull off. Harder to register.
“Hey boys, I was messing around with some beats yesterday, and accidentally put something together that sounded whack AF. So I saved that for today.” That was our starting point.
Naturally, proving that specific artists have bought their way to success is unlikely, as you would either need access to their accounts, or for them to confess to it. In other words, it’s hard to determine just how widespread the phenomenon is, and record labels aren’t eager to comment on it, though there is of course a broad consensus that fake plays exists and that the trend should be brought to an end.
Spotify has stated in the past that they are taking steps to stamp out play fraud, using both algorithms and moderators to look for suspicious patterns. As a response to our request for an interview, Noisey received the following statement from the streaming service: “We take fraudulent streaming activity extremely seriously. Spotify has multiple fraud detection measures in place monitoring consumption on the service to detect, investigate and deal with fraudulent activity. We are continuing to invest heavily in refining those processes and improving methods of detection and removal, and reducing the impact of that activity on legitimate creators and rightsholders.”
Which brings us to the song we created. We started by giving the project a name that we felt described what we were all about: Cl1ckba1t. When we met a producer friend in the studio, who in exchange for complete anonymity agreed to help us, he looked at us excitedly and said, “Hey boys, I was messing around with some beats yesterday, and accidentally put something together that sounded whack AF. So I saved that for today.” That was our starting point.
After that, we took turns on the mic, choosing wildly different styles in our roles as shitty MCs. Some added Auto-Tune to off key bars, while others simply said all of the most cringey lines they could think of. With some shoddy production flouishes, we’d created the exact opposite of a cool track. After all, we couldn’t risk actually getting organic plays. A week or so later, the track popped up in our inbox, mastered and ready to greet the world. Then we played it. Once. We have not made eye contact since.
Here’s something you might not know about the digital music industry: it’s considerably easier to buy streams for your music than it is to just get it uploaded to a streaming service. We blindly selected a go-between service, that promised to get out track on Spotify. After days of filling out forms and waiting for approval, it finally happened. We received an email explaining that “Streamz (Klicklyfe)” was now headed for Spotify, and a week after that, was available to the masses.
We chose to blow $40 on 10,000 plays, as we felt anything less would make us look bad. With ultimate Spotify glory within our grasp, we got greedy and tried to get all 10,000 plays in one day. Luckily, this wasn’t Streamify’s first rodeo in the world of buying popularity, and they immediately hit us with a warning, stating that more than 10,000 plays in one day would be “dangerous” for our track.
Instead, the service suggested 60 days. We’re not soft, so we chose to spread our 10,000 purchased plays out over ten days. This is when things really started to kick off.
Every day, our plays and “monthly listeners” rose exponentially. After ten days, we’d hit our target. Yet, even though we were listed as having as many as 5,000 monthly listeners at our peak, we today have 0, while our track has 10,000 plays, as promised. Thanks, Streamify.
Weirdly, it was harder to get our track on Spotify than it was to buy plays for it. Considering how many millions of hours of random, forgotten music lies hidden in Spotify’s dungeons, it still took a surprising amount of effort to get our track uploaded. But after that, five minutes of clicking and some PayPal’ing landed us 10,000 plays for our track on Streamify. And we could’ve bought more.
We’re not saying that all songs that get a lot of plays are bad. But streams equal money. And money equals streams, making translating digital plays into quality a huge potential problem. If we can produce a track and buy streams for it, so can everyone else. And if that’s the case, can the amount of times a track has been played still even be used to measure its popularity? We can't say for sure yet. Welcome to the new digital frontier.