Streaming manipulation – the practice of artificially inflating stream counts to produce false listening data – is the music industry’s hot-button issue at the moment. On Thursday, an assortment of music publishers, record labels, royalty-collection societies and other groups signed a code of conduct condemning fake streams and pledging to work together to eradicate them, marking the industry’s first collective agreement on the issue.
The document was two years in the making, shepherded in part by the International Confederation of Music Publishers (ICMP), a Brussels-based trade group representing dozens of publishers and publishers’ associations. It defines streaming manipulation as the artificial creation of plays — by automated accounts, human “troll farms” and other practices that don’t represent genuine listening — and asks the parties involved to help spot, prevent and reduce streaming manipulation. Signatories include the three major record companies (Sony, Warner, Universal), as well as large publishers like Sony/ATV and Kobalt; streaming services including Amazon, Deezer and Spotify; and other broad industry groups including the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA).
“Streaming manipulation has been an unfortunate blight on the industry over the past few years, leading to entirely distorted revenue streams and entirely distorted listening patterns,” ICMP director general John Phelan tells Rolling Stone. “Something needs to be done about it. There is a black market for pay-for-play. But accurate data is crucial to making sure the digital music marketplace is fair.”
In the last few years, the music industry has increasingly complained of under-the-table companies that offer packages of automated or high-volume streams, and many executives say the usage of such services is proliferating rapidly. According to some label heads, fake streams could be costing artists as much as $300 million a year: Hopeless Records founder Louis Posen told Rolling Stone this week that his colleagues believe “three to four percent of global streams are illegitimate streams,” and pointed to many whispers around the industry of “computerized click farms and bots” artificially inflating stream counts.
“Something needs to be done about it. There is a black market for pay-for-play” – ICMP’s John Phelan
But record labels seeking bigger profits and higher chart positions seem to be as much a part of the problem as rogue artists. “There are third parties offering services that have fallen across some labels’ desks and that’s clearly an illegitimate act, even verging on criminality,” Phelan says. “It’s not up to the music industry to police this kind of activity, so we feel the best way of addressing it is circling the wagons and getting the big players together to say we have to tackle this. I’m glad our colleagues are working together. There’s no excuses left.”
While the code of conduct says signatories agree to work together to exchange best practices against streaming manipulation and will “implement a set of balanced, commercially reasonable measures and controls enabling the prevention and/or reduction of stream manipulation,” the document is not legally binding and does not affect private agreements between streaming services and rights-holders — so it comes down to whether the parties involved will keep their word.