Furiously writing emails wasn’t how Callie Young wanted to start her 2021. But that’s what happened in the late hours of January 2nd when a fan frantically messaged the Los Angeles-based pop singer to ask why her song “Problematic” had vanished from Spotify the day before.
Young reached out to the streaming service, but to no avail. Her distributor DistroKid emailed later that day to confirm the track was removed, with no explanation as to why.
“[DistroKid] didn’t give me a warning or reach out to me to ask about the issue,” she says. “They just did it, and I freaked out.”
She contacted her producer. He explained Spotify often performs a sweep of songs they suspect have fake streaming activity — a.k.a. when a paid marketing service, manager, or agency uses bots to artificially boost play numbers and increase an artist’s revenue, which is a practice banned under Spotify’s terms of service. But Young says she has never paid for third-party streaming boosts.
“Problematic” was one of a plethora of tracks quietly purged from the service on January 1st, 2021. There’s no official tally, but music attorney Wallace Collins wrote in a widely circulated blog post that, based on discussions with his clients, it seems as many as 750,000 tracks may’ve been wiped. Many of the artists affected were taken by surprise, alerted to the news by fans instead of by Spotify or their business teams — and it was yet another problem to deal with on top of a brutal pandemic year that halted nearly all touring revenue. And while the income that middle-tier musicians receive from Spotify is paltry, it’s still crucial for fledgling artists to have their music available on the world’s foremost music streaming service. “Fans aren’t going to download another app just to listen to a song,” says Young. “We have no other choice. They don’t do a lot for indie artists.”
Several artists, including Young, made frustrated tweets about the wrongful deletions, tagging Spotify and using the hashtags #spotifytakedown and #restoreourmusic. Some shared extensive screenshots of their efforts to get their songs back on the service. A petition asking for Spotify to restore the music garnered 7,000 signatures — but Spotify has not made a public move besides writing in its FAQ that “paid third-party promotional services that advertise streams in return for payment violate our terms and conditions, and using them could result in your music being removed from Spotify.” Spotify did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.
Young suspects the particular track of “Problematic,” though it was not her biggest song, was flagged as suspicious because she had asked her friends, fans, and family — many of who reside in the Phoenix, Arizona area, miles out of her Californian demographic — to stream it overnight.
But if that’s the case, then the abrupt removal exposes a double standard in Spotify’s policy. Young points out that in a now-deleted Instagram post Justin Bieber made in January 2020, the mega-hit singer directly asked fans to help boost the streaming numbers of his single “Yummy” by putting it on loop or downloading VPNs. “Yummy” wasn’t removed from streaming — and other fan groups of acts like Harry Styles and BTS have encouraged the practice, egging one another on to help get their favorite stars better chart placement.
Lee Mann, the bassist of the Manchester, U.K., psychedelic rock trio Heavy Salad, has a mirror-image story of frustration. “Who fucked up?” he demanded of his bandmates when Spotify removed his band’s 2020 debut Cult Casual. Mann says no one in Heavy Salad used a paid service to boost the band’s streams. He found DistroKid wasn’t helpful, sending only one email to say that it wasn’t involved in the takedown and that it has “not been given any additional information from Spotify.”
DistroKid also recommended that Mann “reach out to any fans/friends/family who have played releases an inordinate number of times to let them know they’re actually causing stores to remove your releases.” It warned Mann that if any of the band’s “other releases are flagged, it could ultimately result in the closure” of their DistroKid account and “the removal of all [the band’s] releases from stores.” DistroKid also wrote that all its peer distributors were affected, and that they “have no way to help or appeal Spotify’s decision.” Spotify told Mann it understood the situation was “frustrating” and that it takes “the integrity of our platform very seriously.”
On DistroKid’s part, founder Philip Kaplan wrote a post on Medium that explains how fake streams work and why Spotify possibly flagged some tracks as suspicious. He also shared how indie artists can avoid the issue in the future and added a link to a Google Form that artists can fill out if they believe Spotify removed their track in error. Kaplan and DistroKid did not respond to to interview requests from Rolling Stone across a number of communication channels. Young says that getting a hold of someone at the company is “one of the hardest things,” and Mann says he feels DistroKid still “doesn’t seem like they have a complete handle” on the situation.
In May, the distributor boasted that it puts out nearly 40 percent of the world’s new music — but its continued opacity over the Spotify situation has left independent artists trying to get a foothold in the difficult industry feeling rattled.
“All DistroKid did was let me know it was happening and gave me possible reasons why it was taken down,” says Young. ”Because I’m an independent artist, I don’t have that control over Spotify, so they’ll just take it down.”
Other distributors outside of Distrokid are grappling with how to handle bot-related takedowns, too. Dimitri Alary, a distribution product analyst at LANDR, says his Montréal-based company regularly receives reports from Spotify telling LANDR which releases seem to be based on fake streams. But he’s in the dark about how the streamer tracks this, because it doesn’t tell distributors how it looks for them.
Spotify doesn’t want to deal with fraudulent streams because it’s the distributor’s role, he says. When LANDR, which started distributing music in 2017, receives a list from Spotify of what tracks to take down, he says it legally has to comply.
LANDR also has its own dedicated team that searches for suspicious behavior, such as “if a track is streamed but only for 30 seconds with the same IP address from the same little town in Germany.” If the team suspects an artist is using fake streams, it reaches out to them for an explanation and, in some cases, gives them a second chance if it was an honest mistake.
“We made the choice at LANDR to work for independent artists,” says Alary. “It can have a negative impact on distributors if you aren’t careful with suspicious behavior.”
In May, Heavy Salad’s album eventually was restored on Spotify. But Mann is in the dark on why it took Spotify and DistroKid five months to put Cult Casual back online. And while there are reports that Spotify implemented measures to crack down further on the bots that caused this problem in the first place, Mann would like to see Spotify do more to protect independent artists. “I don’t think Spotify gives a crap about smaller artists until they can be of some service to them,” he says. “I think that’s why there’s been a real division this year. Bandcamp knows that the independent community is getting pissed off, but we still have to work with the bigger services.”
Some other artists who saw their music go missing in January eventually had their music restored. But Young is not one of them: “Problematic” is still unavailable on Spotify, and she feels powerless and ignored, still having not heard a peep from the company.
Recently, she decided to start fresh. She had already been considering changing her artist name to reflect the new direction of her work, so she’s taken the opportunity to reinvent herself under a new name, Cali Mesa. “My songs are getting a little more playlisting than they did before, and I haven’t had any issues with dropped listeners,” she says. “It was all for the better — but the fact that it happened was absurd.”