Online music: what are the techniques for generating fake streams?

“Fake flow, real phenomenon. With this sale title, the National Music Center (CNM) recorded explosive reports of listening manipulation on music platforms.

Therefore, show fake streams, which CNM defines as “a process that makes it possible to artificially inflate the number of plays or views to generate revenue”. And CNM is very clear on this point: it’s a theft issue, because rightsholder remuneration is generated, for each title, from the share it represents in all national markets over the course of a year.

So understand that artists who inflate their listening figures are paid for by those who don’t cheat. Therefore, the first victims of this audience manipulation were his comrades. Then advertisers of these ad-supported music services, both free and paid.

Data analysis yielded three important points.

1. There are many techniques for manipulating wiretapping

It takes 30 seconds of listening to the file to count listens. Studies show that many underhand techniques are used to achieve this result. Robots, humans, fake playlists, addition of titles on the platform is well known to the experts. But new techniques are emerging, such as stream farming and account hacking.

In detail, offers to buy streams are offered by many players:

  • This reference site offers to improve the position of its customers’ products on the platforms where they are distributed.
  • A marketplace that allows individual entrepreneurs to offer their services on many themes.
  • Promotional agencies that offer, as an external promotional service, inclusion of titles in playlists (true or false) to increase stream counts.
  • Check out exchanges that offer deals to increase views on YouTube (free), Spotify, or SoundCloud (paid).

On the technical side, service providers use several tools:

  • Device farms are mobilized via free user accounts and personas, meaning genuine fake accounts are opened using expired, stolen, or virtual credit cards. Premium accounts are also dedicated to manipulation, for example hacked accounts.
  • The good old technique of zombie computers (botnets) is also used to take control of groups of computers through installing viruses. This makes it possible, from a spoofed stream perspective, to launch listening on the platform from a hacked device, or engage in click fraud through the accidental opening of pop-ups.
  • The credential stuffing technique (or credential stuffing) is also used on user accounts, with cyberattacks on accounts, carried out without breaking in but using logins/passwords collected from databases (see example in box at bottom of article). CNM also mentions using artist accounts, to integrate fake titles in artist pages, for example.
  • Lastly, affiliates are still a good way to create fake hearings, by sending malicious links that lead to fake sites.

And this cheating affects all catalogs, both major catalogs, independent labels, French and international repertoires, new releases and back catalogs. The logical consequence: all musical styles are equally affected.

Beyond the top 10,000 titles – this is where we enter the long tail – “over 80% detected fraud”. Why ? To generate low volume artificial income, but over time, while staying under the “radar”. For the most prominent titles, cheating also exists, but the goal is short term. It’s not about generating revenue directly, but about optimizing rankings for better SEO purposes.

When Sébastien M., a credentialing pro, explains how he hacked Spotify

Last November attended a hearing dedicated to this subject before the Paris court in mid-November. “Spotify lasted four or five months. To create a stream: OpenBullet reads my song to build an audience. Even very famous people do it, fake streaming” explains Sébastien, a thirty year old boy who tries to hack into a computer in mid-November 2022 in Paris.

The defendant admitted to compromising Spotify accounts to maliciously increase the viewership of his streams. In this context, OpenBullet is used to test service user login/password credentials. (Read: How hackers attack your loyalty account using credential stuffing)

2. Between 1 and 3% of total play

In France, in 2021, between one and three billion streams are, at least, fake. That’s between 1 and 3% of total listening. That’s important, but these numbers overshadow reality, assures CNM, which judges that “the level of non-detection should be underlined”.

“This is only about the abnormal behavior detected by the platform and not the true reality of stream manipulation, which is of course higher”, noted in this regard the SNEP, the national phonographic publishing union, which specified that “the study was also limited to listenings produced in France , it does not reflect the level of flow manipulation elsewhere in the world.”

Finally, the report notes that some professionals have indicated that they were approached directly by service providers presenting their offerings for artificial flow enhancement.

3. Fake streams jeopardize trust in the ecosystem

Some professionals in the sector indicated that they could no longer rely on artist appearances on the platform to sign artists on labels, schedule them in concerts or on radio, the report noted. So, a lack of trust emerged between the actors.

And on the artist side, fraudulent flows disrupt algorithmic profiling and weaken engagement rates. What reduces artist recommendation capacity because fake users don’t behave like normal fans. But the CNM report doesn’t show who is cheating in this economic growth.

The IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) states that by 2021 streaming revenue will represent 65% of global recorded music revenue. With a turnover of over 500 million euros in France, the share of streaming revenue has even risen to 70%, compared to 10% in 2011.

Deezer, Qobuz and Spotify were among the good students who provided data to CNM to conduct studies on this issue, although their methods of fraud detection differed. A large number of distributors and manufacturers also participated. Amazon Music, Apple Music, and YouTube are not playing the game, assures CNM.

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