Business News Digital Labels & Publishers

New study says up to 3% of streams in France last year were manipulated

By | Published on Thursday 19 January 2023

Music streaming services

The National Music Center in France has released a study on stream manipulation that reckons that up to 3% of streams serviced in the French market are identifiable as ‘false’. Although, it notes, the actual number could be considerably higher, as that’s the manipulated streams that have been identified, and a key aim of those who are doing the manipulating is, of course, to not be identified.

Stream manipulation has been a talking point in the music industry for some time now, though – some would argue – not a big enough talking point.

It’s basically where people employ sneaky tactics to artificially boost the number of streams of any one track. Often by setting up a load of accounts on a streaming platform and having computers play certain playlists 24/7. Or sometimes actually hacking other people’s accounts and having those accounts listen to specific music when the actual account holder isn’t online.

Some of this manipulation happens within the music community, with artists, labels or managers hiring the services of agents that can game the system and boost the stream count.

Some of the people hiring those agents know exactly what they’re doing, though within the massive community of DIY artists and hobbyist musicians at least some people are likely buying those services – which are pushed heavily at them through search and social feeds – under the impression that that’s just how you’re meant to market music.

Then, of course, there are the outright scammers. Those are the people who make and upload generic music, sign up to a load of premium accounts and set their computers streaming that music.

Whereas those in the music community boosting streaming numbers may be doing so as much for marketing reasons as financial reasons – so that their music looks more popular than it really is – with the outright scammers it’s all about gaming the system so that you pull more money out of the royalty pool each month than you put in buying the subscriptions.

There have been various efforts by the streaming services and the music industry to stop the manipulation – by cancelling the accounts and removing the music of the people doing the manipulating, and also seeking to shut down the websites overtly selling stream manipulation services.

And in 2019, various labels, publishers and services signed up to a code of conduct, formally condemning stream manipulation and setting out what they were respectively doing about it. Though plenty of people reckon much more could and should be done.

Last week’s memo from Universal Music boss Lucian Grainge – in which he talked about the need to stop people ‘gaming the system’ when it comes to how streaming monies are shared out each month – prompted new conversations about stream manipulation and the scammers. Even though that’s not necessarily the gaming of the system that Grainge was really talking about.

And the new study from the National Music Center could also ensure that the conversation about stream manipulation is a little more prolific this year. That study was based on data provided by Spotify, Deezer and Qobuz, and input from labels and distributors.

In his summary of the study, the Center’s President Jean-Philippe Thiellay notes that it’s no secret within the music industry that ‘false’ plays on the streaming services regularly occur, and that the tactics employed by those creating the false plays evolve as the platforms spot and stop the manipulation.

In terms of the scale of the problem, Thiellay writes: “In France, in 2021, between one and three billion streams, at least, are false, ie between 1% and 3% of total listening”. But, he stresses, those figures are based on “the fraudulent streams detected by the platforms and eliminated from the sharing of revenue. It is certain that the reality of false streams exceeds what is detected”.

Thiellay says that the industry – both platforms and rightsholders – are increasing their efforts to spot and stop manipulation. But, at the same time, it seems likely that the amount of manipulation going on is also increasing.

Thiellay has some proposals for how those attempts to stop stream manipulation and false plays could be more successful. In particular the development of a new charter that would presumably go considerably further than the 2019 code of conduct.

If nothing else, that charter could set up a system via which music distributors could more effectively share information about scammers they’ve spotted using their services, to stop those scammers from simply jumping from distributor to distributor each time they get caught.

Meanwhile, within the DIY distribution space, there is probably more education to be done to stop grassroots artists from signing up to the stream manipulation services that pop up in their social feeds promising a good old streaming boost.

We shall see. You can read Thiellay’s summary of the new study here.