The biggest companies in music agree: Streaming manipulation, a practice that falsely inflates artists’ stream counts and reduces payouts for smaller acts, must be stopped.
In the summer of 2019, the industry’s power players united to sign a code of conduct condemning streaming manipulation, a practice that inflates artists’ numbers on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music and potentially reduces payouts for smaller acts. The efforts to combat this “unfortunate blight” — as many refer to it — have largely fallen to the global nonprofit International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a global nonprofit group representing the interests of the music business, and to Melissa Morgia, its acting director of global litigation. IFPI has pursued legal action in Germany and Brazil over the past 18 months, managing to shut down more than a dozen sites that make it as easy to buy artificial streams as it is to order a new T-shirt.
“We’re trying to take a global approach to tackle the platforms that are offering the manipulation services so that it has broader impact,” Morgia says. “People can’t then use those services, and we hope it then has a deterrent effect on people who might be attempting to engage in this business model as well, to get the message out there that this is not legal.”
Attempts by artists and record labels to manipulate sales numbers are pretty much as old as the music industry. As streaming has become the music industry’s primary driver, manipulation efforts have also moved to the digital sphere. Artists or labels pay companies to generate thousands of new, bot accounts that repeatedly play a song or playlist, inflating a song’s play-count through artificial means.
This activity doesn’t just lead to false perceptions of artists’ popularity on platforms like Spotify and YouTube, which make play counts public. Due to the way streaming services shell out money — divvying up their pools of cash according to each rightsholder’s portion of total streams — artificially higher play counts will increase the income of the manipulators at the expense of artists who do not engage in this behavior. “Streaming manipulation diverts revenues away from artists and damages the credibility of digital platforms and charts,” explained Paulo Rosa, Director of IFPI’s Brazilian group, Pro-Música Brasil, last year. “There is a black market for pay-for-play,” declared John Phelan, director general of the International Confederation of Music Publishers.
In a 2019 panel on streaming manipulation at Indie Week, Louis Posen, President of the long-running indie label Hopeless Records, said he believes the practice might be impacting $300 million dollars worth of music revenue. It “is hurting the entire music industry from artists to fans,” Posen tells Rolling Stone.
Morgia, who loves what she calls “the cut and thrust of litigation,” joined IFPI in 2017; while her mandate involves battling a wide range of copyright-infringing services, streaming manipulation has been a recent focus. IFPI started going after services in Germany, one of the largest music markets in the world, both because of “existing case law on a similar issue concerning fake reviews” and because any victories in the country would likely reverberate across the European Union.
Morgia’s team argued — successfully — that sites offering artificial streams for cash are in breach of Germany’s Unfair Competition act, because manipulating play counts creates an artificial impression of popularity and can mislead consumers. German courts ordered six different sites to stop offering these services in 2020. In Brazil, IFPI did not even have to go to court: Just sending a cease & desist letter to one prominent site offering artificial streams was enough to cause it to shut down.
The actions “taken so far in Brazil and Germany are the first part of a global strategy,” Morgia says. “We’ll be looking to take further cases. This benefits the broader music community.”