Fake streams hurt all players in the music industry. They cause artists, labels, and streaming companies to lose revenue. They also damage the credibility of an industry that measures the success of songs and artists on streaming numbers.

Despite this, fake streams have not attracted as much attention as misinformation and other forms of online manipulation. However, authorities in several countries, including Brazil and Germany, are starting to crack down on the practice of manipulating streaming numbers.

How fake streams reduce artist revenue

Fake streaming involves repeated plays of a track or a playlist on a streaming platform by an automated tool, usually a bot. Depending on the number of plays, these streams can be highly profitable as platforms like Spotify and Apple Music share their revenue with labels and artists based on the number of plays they get. By amassing a large number of plays using bots, fake stream farms shrink the revenue of artists that play by the rules and get legitimate plays from true music fans.

Last month, a regional court in Frankfurt, Germany, targeted Likeservice24.de, a website that provides several dubious services, including fake streams, on music platforms. This is not the first time that authorities in Germany have targeted fake streams. Last year, German courts issued five fake stream providers with injunctions that ordered them to stop selling their services.

Germany is not alone in stepping up the fight against illegitimate streams. In October 2020, an anti-piracy organisation, with the help of the Brazilian police, took down seven illegitimate services based in the country.

Music streaming companies have also taken steps to curb fake streams. Spotify analyses suspicious streaming activity manually and using algorithms. However, this has not been enough to eradicate illegitimate plays. Other players could also do more. Big cloud service providers, like Amazon Web Services, host streaming bots on their servers and have not gone far enough in cracking down on them.

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Focus of enquiry needs to be sharper

In the UK, the spotlight is currently on the share of revenue that songwriters and musicians get from labels and music streaming platforms. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has launched an inquiry into the economics of music streaming. Opinions have been sought from senior executives at major labels, including Sony, Warner, and Universal. British MPs have heard arguments for revising the shared-pool model operated by streaming services, which favours well-known artists and their labels to the detriment of emerging talent.

However, manipulation of streaming numbers, which hurts all industry players, has not been a focus of the inquiry and hardly generates headlines.

The issue of fake streams typically gets lost in the wider picture of misinformation and online manipulation. Humans and bots spread false narratives on the web every day, distorting the information we consume in ways that are bad for us individually and collectively. Misinformation puts democracy and our way of life at risk and has, quite rightly, hogged the headlines in recent years.

Nonetheless, fake streams are a form of manipulation with both material and immaterial costs. Digital media companies, legislators, law enforcement, and the courts must start taking serious action on this issue.