In the torrent of year-end listening reviews and holiday carols on repeat last month, a curious incident on music streaming didn’t draw as much alarm as it should have: Global superstar Beyoncé dropped two new albums under a secret name, which turned out to be full of not new music but demos and old releases, which then turned out to not have been released — or condoned to be released — by Beyoncé at all.
The two albums, released under the name “Queen Carter,” were on Spotify and Apple Music for around a day, long enough to generate furious traction from Beyoncé fans on social media, before being taken down. And the albums came out shortly after R&B star SZA also “released” music under a fake name (“Sister Solana”) that turned out to be stolen demos as well. Soundrop, an independent DIY distribution service through which both Beyoncé and SZA’s tracks were apparently uploaded via different accounts, says it is working with authorities in an investigation into the “potential intellectual property theft” and that it took down the music as soon as it was aware that it breached the company’s terms of service.
There is no new SZA album out. Old songs were stolen and leaked. We are currently fixing the issue. Please feel free to continue enjoying Ctrl until the next album is ready.
-Punchino from TDE
— Punch TDE (@iamstillpunch) December 21, 2018
“We’ve identified who it is and how they abused our system to get it through,” Zach “Pony” Domer, Soundrop’s brand manager, tells Rolling Stone, adding that he can’t share other specifics on the leaker because of the ongoing investigation. “We don’t know how the content was obtained originally before it hit our system, but from what I understand these old audio recordings had been floating around on forums and had been shared previously, and because they weren’t official recordings, they couldn’t be identified. The user used fake metadata, obscured information and lied.”
While stealing demos is one thing — and there’s been no word yet on who might’ve been behind them, though figures in the industry say the two drops seem likely to have been orchestrated by the same person — the fraudulent music making it to end-users on Spotify and Apple Music is another thing entirely.
“This sort of thing happens all the time,” says Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Music. “People just don’t hear about it because it just doesn’t happen all the time with the biggest artist in the world. Due to the changes in music distribution and the technology of distribution and consumption, these kinds of leaks, whether secret or not, are far more more likely to happen than ever.”
“The fake Beyoncé albums show things are really falling through the cracks,” says one music licensing expert
Fake music is a byproduct of music’s chaotic back-end, which has only gotten messier with the advent of streaming. Spotify gets its tracks from distributors, which can be major labels or smaller indie services. But it can’t possibly vet every single one of the millions of new songs that comes through its system. At the same time, the company is trying to bulk up its Spotify for Artists program, which currently offers direct distribution deals with indie artists and direct uploading capabilities to be more accessible for more musicians. Meanwhile, labels, publishers and other parts of the industry are struggling to keep up with the sheer unprecedented pace of things now — production, distribution and royalty collection alike — meaning that some tracks are inevitably mistagged, misidentified or unvetted in the rush to deliver them to fans. “These are devilishly difficult technical problems to solve, especially when the platforms seek to become more open,” Miller says.
Such problems can also hit the music industry where it hurts the most: its wallet. “The various checks that are supposed to be in place are not working or being followed,” says Dae Bogan, a music licensing expert who founded TuneRegistry, a management platform that deals with song metadata. “It’s concerning not only that fake albums are passing, but that they’re presumably affecting the overall value of other streams that day. Because there’s no per-stream rate in royalties — royalties are based on cumulative performance of total music releases — people could assume Beyoncé has released a new project, flock to her account and dramatically affect the royalties for other people’s streams.”
There’s also the other authenticity problem on streaming services of fake streams from users — who may turn out to be not real people, but phones connected to streaming farms or bots set up to whirl through songs 24/7. In February last year, Music Business Worldwide reported that a scam operation based out of Bulgaria swindled as much as $1 million in royalties from Spotify after it not only uploaded fake music but set up 1,200 paying Spotify accounts to continuously loop those songs, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Streaming services have responded to such incidents of “click fraud” by noting that they have teams of people in place to comb through suspicious activity. Yet those teams can only do so much, leaving us with a situation where one of the biggest pop stars in the world can help museums break attendance records but can’t regulate her own music releases.
“The fake Beyoncé albums show things are really falling through the cracks,” Bogan says. Click fraud wants money; the motivations behind the Beyoncé and SZA leaks are less clear, which makes them more troubling to industry experts. “If this were a smaller artist, it could’ve been a break-through-the-noise tactic for getting someone into headlines and having them start gaining SEO around their name ahead of a bigger release. It would have worked,” Bogan says.
The main thing that the fake Beyoncé albums accomplished was prove how easily it can be to deliver fake Beyoncé albums, and we’ll likely see more of the same in the new year ahead. “When you have metadata problems coupled with actors in the system that are trying to game the system, these things will continue to happen,” Bogan says.
Soundrop’s Domer sees it that way as well: “Indie distribution has opened up career paths for tens of thousands of musicians who didn’t have that avenue before, but unfortunately there’s content just like this coming through all different distributors,” he says. “This is an industry-wide problem that we’re heavily invested in tackling head-on. It requires human beings to figure this stuff out. We have a team of people to help, but not every distributor has those kinds of resources.”