The Streaming Problem: How Spammers, Superstars, and Tech Giants Gamed the Music Industry

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Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

A few weeks after the release of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” the hard-charging lead single on his fourth album Damn., the song landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s streaming chart. It’s been on the chart ever since, never falling below No. 3 as users have played it more than 291 million times on Spotify alone.

And that’s just the streaming total for Lamar’s version. His hit song has also been a boon for Spotify’s parasitic underbelly — the coverbots and ripoff artists who vomit out inferior versions of popular songs every week, flooding the website with dreck that only succeeds when users are misled. No one would willingly listen to King Stitch’s “Sit Down, Be Humble,” a third-rate cover of Lamar’s original, but the track has been streamed more than 300,000 times thanks to Spotify’s broad search results and a clever title designed to confuse those who don’t know the song’s real name.

On a website with more than 100 million active daily users, there are plenty of ways to game the system, be it for attention, or, if the streams pile up enough, profit. And the frauds cashing in on the latest hot single are hardly alone. A bevy of unknown artists have found ways to juice their streaming totals, whether it’s covering songs from artists who don’t allow their songs on Spotify, or uploading an album of silent tracks, each precisely long enough to generate a fraction of a cent for the artist.

Gaming Spotify does not rely strictly on deception. Some artists, a term used very loosely here, are providing people exactly what they want. It just so happens that what they want is ephemeral nonsense. Take, for example, the artist Happy Birthday Library, whose Spotify catalogue consists of hundreds of personalized versions of “Happy Birthday” streamed more than a million times.

The success of this gimmick — obvious by the sheer number of “Happy Birthday” artists — provides a handy illustration of how much on-demand streaming has changed the way we use music. Twenty years ago, finding a personalized version of “Happy Birthday” for your towheaded son Grover required a trip to the novelty-music kiosk at your local mega mall. Now, you just have to ask Alexa and seconds later the song’s blasting throughout the playroom. The seamless integration of streaming music into our daily lives has encouraged the creation of disposable songs that, years ago, no one would have imagined listening to through speakers. But now that a jazz version of the Gilligan’s Island theme is easily available, why not?

Streaming’s impact on the way artists make music goes all the way to the top. Take Chris Brown, whose upcoming album Heartbreak on Full Moon has 40 tracks, and not because he has so much to say. The famously unscrupulous pop star has found a way to boost his streaming numbers, which in turn inflate sale figures, and will, he hopes, send his album shooting up the charts quicker than it otherwise would.

Even Spotify is reportedly gaming the system by paying producers to produce songs that are then placed on the service’s massively popular playlists under the names of unknown, nonexistent artists. This upfront payment saves the company from writing fat streaming checks that come with that plum playlist placement, but tricks listeners into thinking the artists actually exist and limits the opportunities for real music-makers to make money. Spotify did not respond to questions about the accusation*, but this is not the first time Spotify, which pays minuscule streaming fees, has been accused of bilking artists.

A cynic might look at all of this and shrug his shoulders. Craven opportunism has been a part of the music industry since the first concert ticket was sold. But even if the money-grubbing isn’t new, the manner in which it’s grubbed is. And no matter who’s doing it, the effect is the same: Music is devalued.

Never before has a song title or artist name been more important than the actual songs themselves. There are no consequences for deception, either. Every day there’s a new mark searching for “Lucky for You That’s What I Like,” and listening to a song by Franz Horrman before realizing his error. Never before have so many songs existed just so an album can have a 20th, 30th, or 40th track. Now, major artists hoping for quick success on the charts can perfect ten songs, or they can just churn out three dozen. The streaming numbers could be the same either way.

The big loser here is the listener. He’s increasingly having to dodge spammers and imposters to find his favorite artists, and then slogging through endless albums once he does. But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Listeners have long been the primary beneficiaries of free or dirt-cheap streaming services. Now, after years of artists alone coping with the devaluation of music, fans are feeling its effects too. It may not be ideal for anyone, but at least everyone is suffering together.

And now, the most interesting ways artists are gaming Spotify and the one way it is (allegedly!) gaming itself.

The “Happy Birthday” gimmick
Everyday, millions of people celebrate a birthday and every one of those people has a name. The Birthday Crew appears to be on a mission to record a version of “Happy Birthday” for each of them. The group already has the biggies out of the way — “Happy Birthday Matthew” has nearly 400,000 streams — as well as some of the not-so-biggies, including Twyla, Una, and Vada. Once they’ve recorded songs for Frostine, Puck, and Thibault, their work will be complete.

Plenty of other artists on Spotify are racking up royalty checks with this same ploy, including Birthday with Bonzo, whose “Levi Happy Birthday to You” has nearly a million streams, and Special Occasions Library, which has sung “Happy Birthday” to Stevie 941,000 times.

This model is versatile and has been deployed by other clever opportunists, such as the Prom Song Singers and the Wedding Proposal Music Band. Could you imagine anything more romantic?

Writing songs about everything
Before Spotify, before iTunes, and before the democratization of the music industry, Matt Farley was writing songs about, well, everything. The Massachusetts man has used dozens of pseudonyms to write more than 18,500 songs, many with titles designed for people dicking around on Spotify and searching for, say, the name of their home town.

If they happen to be from Radnor Township, Pennsylvania, they’d find the song “Have You Been to Radnor Township?” on the 93-track album Pennsylvania Songs: PA Exiting. Farley is the man singing the ode to the 30,000-person town, but it was released under the name the Guy Who Sings Songs About Cities & Towns. You can guess what his hundreds of other tracks are like.

“I think there should be songs about everything,” Farley told me. The father of two, whose productivity has slowed since his kids were born, has already put out four albums this year. But the spammer label that’s so easy to apply to the others on this list doesn’t so neatly fit here. Not only are his songs originals, some of them are really good. And even if they weren’t, the dedication he has to his schtick is worth respect.

Digging through Farley’s catalogue, one thing immediately becomes clear: He knows the value of personalized songs. He has bands that do nothing but personalize wedding proposals (the Wedding Proposal Music Song Band), declarations of sexiness (the Smokin’ Hot Babe Lovers), and entire songs (the Guy Who Sings Your Name Over and Over).

As Papa Razzi and the Photogs he’s recorded hundreds of odes to celebrities, with songs about Justin Bieber and Supernatural star Jared Padalecki ranking among the most popular. It didn’t take long for Farley to cover the A-, B-, and C-listers, so he broadened his definition of celebrity. Now, all it takes is his seeing a journalist’s name retweeted onto his timeline and Papa Razzi and the Photogs will get to work penning lyrics honoring the likes of Vulture’s own Jesse David Fox and Sam Hockley-Smith. Asked how these less-than-famous subjects respond upon hearing his handiwork, Farley says they typically “say thanks in a way that indicates they’re flattered but confused.”

Among Farley’s most popular pseudonyms is the Toilet Bowl Cleaners, whose “The Poop Song” has been streamed more than 400,000 times. But just because the song’s about poop doesn’t mean it’s shit, as Farley told Vulture. “Take a listen. These are real songs. I know they’re about poop, but I’m proud of them. They’re actually good,” he says.

They’re also earning him some cash. Around $20,000 in 2016, down from previous years as his music is increasingly streamed rather than downloaded, which is more lucrative. The falling revenues haven’t stopped Farley from pursuing his plan to get rich though. In early June, Farley held something he calls World Motern Day, a holiday named after the company he created to release his music, Motern Media. The celebration is an attempt to get one million people to listen to a six-hour, 200-track Spotify playlist, which earns him about a dollar each time it’s played in full. He didn’t hit $1 million in streaming fees this year, but “I’m going to stick with it,” he says.

Releasing a lot of albums with the same songs
With 65 albums, most with more than 50 tracks, Sir Juan Mutant appears at first glance to be among the most prolific artists on Spotify. But dig a little deeper and it quickly becomes clear that something fishy is going on. Several of the albums use the same artwork, while others have many of the same songs. Take, as a representation of his catalogue, the album Cash the System, which has 50 tracks and clocks in at over 11 hours. The first track, “Can’t Pay You,” is just over three minutes of noodling on a distorted guitar. The 10th track, “Did You Distort Their Minds,” is the exact same song, as is the 11th track, “The Same Agreement,” the 12th track “Bubble Gum,” and the 17th track “Did You Put that Man on Fire.”

This is classic keyword spam. By flooding Spotify with song titles, Sir Juan Mutant is increasing his odds that someone will accidentally listen to one. And each time someone does, his bank account grows by a fraction of a cent.

Why Not is another band with a similar gambit. As the streaming-service spam police at the Echo Nest point out, this psych-rock group has an endless number of albums with “the same few hundred songs, repeated in various combinations.” The titles, such as Progressive Rock, Vol. 19, suggest anthologies, not ten songs from a band no one’s ever heard of. Others, such as Rock Over Africa, Rock Over Bulgaria, Rock Over Pakistan, and Rock Over Taiwan, suggest the band is hoping to trick a few curious listeners into earning them a few extra pennies.

The sound of silence
After releasing three EPs of sprawling, throwback funk, the laid-back quartet Vulfpeck took a much more minimalist approach on its 2014 album Sleepify. Unlike prior releases, Sleepify had no drums, bass, piano, or vocals. In fact, it had nothing at all. That was the point.

The completely silent album was both a publicity stunt and a money-making scheme, which relied on fans to press play as they went to sleep. And many did. The album’s ten tracks, each clocking in at a hair over 30 seconds’ long — which happens to be the minimum time a song must stream for Spotify to pay royalties — racked up millions of plays in the wee hours of the night. By the time Spotify took notice and removed the album for violating its terms of service, the songs on Sleepify, which include “Z,” “ZZ,” and ZZZ,” had racked up around 4 million plays. At around half a cent per stream, the band earned $20,000.

The band used the money to give back to fans in the form of a free tour. Of course, those who began listening to Vulfpeck because of Sleepify were no doubt disappointed in the shows, where the band played actual songs. But those who enjoy listening to silence will be happy to know that 4’33”, John Cage’s classic album of “silence,” is still on Spotify. It’s still a banger.

Robot intervention
A year after Spotify put the kibosh on Vulfpeck’s gimmick, a website called Eternify popped up with the promise of Vulfpecking any artist on Spotify. Created by the band Ohm & Sport, the site asked users to plug in the name of a band whose music would then be streamed 30 seconds at a time, racking up revenue-generating streams until the user clicked stop.

“We’re launching Eternify in the wake of numerous false promises of a better future for streaming: not a single one of these announcements or apparent victories have had any meaningful impact on the vast number of small artists on whom these services depend,” Ohm & Sport told the Verge after the site launched. The site didn’t last long. Just days after it launched, Eternify was shut down, but its website remains active. Along with some anti-streaming invective, it includes a call for fans to ask their favorite artists to make 30-second tracks.

Filling the Void
Bob Seger, the bearded grandfather of mainstream radio rock, was not on Spotify until this month. But Bob Segar has been there for years, and the misspelled version of the Detroit rocker racked up 1.2 million streams on a cover of “Turn the Page” in the real Seger’s absence. Tool, the brooding art-rock gods, remain Spotify holdouts. But the DJ TooL is there, and his song with a very Tool-like title, “Anti-Nuclear Bacteria,” has been streamed more than a half-million times.

Even in 2017, a handful of high-profile artists remain absent from the world’s most popular streaming service. For the two creatively named frauds above, that provides an opportunity to trick listeners. But dishonesty isn’t always necessary. The band Brooks Stars Garth knows that. The group has collected millions of streams on its 42 covers of songs by Garth Brooks, who is not on Spotify, and it didn’t have to call itself Girth Brooks to do so. When a song is popular enough, some people don’t care who’s singing it.

That’s why Canadian fuzz rockers We Hunt Buffalo have been able to rack up three times as many streams on a cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” than any of its own singles. And how Ryan Adams, who no doubt has his own fans, was proven a shrewd businessman when he covered Taylor Swift’s 1989, which wasn’t on Spotify until very recently. Adams’s covers of the album’s two biggest singles, “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space,” have nearly 40 million streams alone.

Song-title trickery
Imagine for a moment that you’re not Vulture’s typical reader — a good-looking, hyper-aware, pop-culture maven. Now imagine you want to listen to Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” on Spotify but don’t know the name of the song. What might you search for? If the answer is “Rain Drop, Drop Top,” the phrase from the song that’s become a meme, then you’d find a track by someone called Sleepy Zee, an artist who rerecords popular songs under different names to prey on the uninformed. So for Sleepy Zee, the PnB Rock track “Selfish” becomes “I’m Selfish” and the Lil Uzi Vert track “XO TOUR Llif3,” becomes “Push Me to the Edge.”

Plenty of other imposters are clogging up Spotify with inferior versions of hits and disappointing people who are looking for the real thing. But maybe they’re not disappointing anyone. If you don’t know that Adele’s song is called “Hello,” maybe you won’t be able to tell the difference between the real thing and Jennifer Henderson’s “Hello From the Other Side.”

A sub version of this ruse is to create an “artist” for one ripoff song and use the same name as the original. For example, 1.7 million people looking for “Demons” by Imagine Dragons have instead listened to “Demons” by Imagine Demons. It’s the only track this “band” has on Spotify.

Cover crazy
Not every cover artist on Spotify is trying to trick listeners. Some of them, like Boyce Avenue, a band that rose to fame thanks to covers on YouTube, are transparent about what they’re doing — firing off covers of dozens of popular songs in order to get streams and, ideally, attention for their original music.

It’s not a new tactic. Plenty of artists have used covers over the years to boost their own popularity, but with Spotify there’s an element of deceit. When a group seeds the service with their own version of that month’s most popular hit song, it’s trying to make sure it shows up on searches for dozens of artists across many different genres. The result is artists such as Alex Goot, another YouTube sensation who’s racked seven-digit streaming totals on songs by Taylor Swift, OneRepublic, Katy Perry, and others. These covers require a license, which ensures a cut of the streaming totals goes to the original artist, in addition to the guy singing their song. So for cover artists, Spotify’s already-microscopic streaming payouts are cut in half. But if Goot’s recent releases tell us anything, it’s that it’s still more lucrative than relying on people listening to your original music.

Adding tracks to rack up streams
Small-time artists are not alone in taking advantage of Spotify’s peculiarities. The big guys do it too. Take, for example, Chris Brown, whose most recent album Heartbreak on a Full Moon has 40 tracks. Unlike the spammers, Brown’s primary goal isn’t squeezing revenue out of Spotify — the checks are too little to matter to him. Rather, he’s trying to accumulate streams to help his album go platinum.

A less aggressive version of this strategy worked for Drake, whose 22-track More Life debuted at No. 1 in April with what Billboard called 505,000 “equivalent album units” sold. In Drake’s case, that sales total was split pretty much down the middle. Half of the “equivalent album units” sold in a more traditional sense, meaning someone paid to download it (the CD came out two weeks later). The other half were not sold at all. Instead, the album’s songs were streamed 384.8 million times, and according to the RIAA, 1,500 streams equals one “equivalent album unit” sold, giving Drake 257,000 “albums sold” thanks to streaming services.

Jamming an album with tracks is an easy way to juice this total and help it shoot up the charts, allowing an artists to achieve gold or platinum status a few weeks sooner.

Adding popular singles to a new album
Back in July of 2015, Drake released a track called “Hotline Bling” on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio. It racked up a steady number of streams through his SoundCloud page and Apple’s streaming services, but it didn’t truly blow up until the video hit in October. By the time his long-awaited Views was on the verge of release in April of 2016, “Hotline Bling” was a monster hit that had been out for ten months. So why include it on Views as a bonus track? Because of the streams.

Thanks to the hundreds of millions of streams “Hotline Bling” already had, Views had enough “equivalent album units” sold to be platinum the second it was released. Drake may be the only artist to do this so far, but that’ll no doubt change if anyone else finds themselves in the unique position to pull it off.

Seeding Spotify playlists with fake artists
For Spotify, playlists are king. The prepackaged, human-curated collections, built around artists (“This Is: Pitbull”), genres (“Country Gold”), moods (“Forever Alone”), and activities (“Powerwalk!”), are being listened to by half of the service’s users at any one time. And Spotify is not shy about promoting the playlists, which are one of the few ways for the service to stand apart from the many competitors bringing the same songs to your speakers.

That means that songs on playlists generally get a ton of plays. It’s why there are countless articles providing tips on how a band can get their music on a playlist. It’s also why Spotify is allegedly paying producers to create fake artists whose music can rack up plays without costing the company any more than what they paid up front.

This won’t work for the “Everyday Favorites” playlist, of course. People expect to have heard of the artists on that one. It’s with the many popular instrumental playlists that this strategy succeeds.

Take Ambient Chill, which has 406,000 followers and is grouped with other instrumental playlists as “Focus” music. The first song on the playlist is by composer Max Richter. The second is by an unknown band called Deep Watch, which has two songs on Spotify, each with more than a million streams. The first song on Sleep, a playlist of calming, instrumental tracks with 1.5 million followers, is by Enno Aare, a band with three songs on Spotify and no footprint outside of the streaming service. The band Evolution of the Stars has only two songs on Spotify, but both are on the Deep Focus playlist and they have a combined 15 million streams.

A Spotify spokesperson did not respond to questions about these accusations, which, if true, amount to the company misleading listeners by concocting artists who don’t really exist. The alleged scheme is made even worse by the genre targeted. It’s hard enough for legitimate ambient artists to make money without Spotify denying them lucrative positions on its playlists. The growing popularity of instrumental music as a relaxation or concentration device provides an opportunity for these artists, but that opportunity appears to be limited thanks to Spotify. It’s enough to drive an ambient artist to start recording some “Happy Birthday” tunes.

*In a Billboard piece published on July 7, 2017, Spotify denied allegations, saying, “we do not and have never created fake artists.”

How Spammers, Superstars, and Tech Giants Gamed Music