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Bulk Streaming and Fake Listens: How Bots Are Impacting the Music Streaming Industry

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Every morning millions of people wake up with a cup of coffee and some of their favorite music—and there's a very good chance that the track is on a music streaming service. The U.S. Nielsen Music/MRC Mid-year Report found that audio streaming platforms served 79% of music listened to by American consumers in the first half of 2020 (video streaming came in second). But behind this normal scene, there are bad actors attempting to prey on streaming services and record labels—and stealing revenue from your favorite artists. Fake streams could be costing artists $300 million a year. And—a lot of the time—they are doing this with bots.

The Economics of Streaming 

The first thing to understand is how the streaming economy operates. When you pay your subscription every month or listen to an ad between tracks on your free account, this money is added to a pool. 

The streaming platform takes a cut, which comes at a certain percentage of the pool, but the lion's share pays labels, distributors, publishers, and collecting societies. These groups then pay musicians based on the terms of their individual contracts.

How this label and distributor money is allocated is pro rata; so if we imagine that Enya gets 2% of the total streams on a streaming platform that month, Enya's record company get 2% of the total revenue pool allocated to rights holders that month, to then be distributed to Enya based on the terms of her contract with the record label.

Treasure Island Discs

There are two main areas of attack that bot fraudsters use to redirect revenue from creatives to their own pockets. The first is to play "fake" tracks owned by the non-artists on loop. This video of a set-up with thousands of devices playing songs on loop gives an idea of the scale.

Bots allow non-artists to skim millions of dollars away from legitimate artists by creating thousands of fake accounts and having them play tracks registered to the fraudster. But how do you generate the revenue? 

MusicBusinessWorldwide (MBW) explains how they turn these fake listens into cold hard cash. Let's imagine you create 1,000 accounts at $9.99-per-month. That would mean an outlay of around $10,000 monthly. But in terms of income? To calculate the monthly revenue you need to consider that on many streaming services, a track needs to be 30 seconds long to be monetizable. There are 86,400 seconds in a day. 

With bots to provide a superhuman ability to listen to tracks, this enables the bot outfit to listen to 2,880 tracks a day per device—2.9 million for the entire farm of 1,000 devices. When you consider a whole month, that's some 86,400,000 plays total. Even if you're talking a fraction of a cent per play, you're still in the ballpark of a quarter of a million dollars per month. All for the cost of 1,000 subscriptions, plus overheads. And it's not difficult to get one of these operations off the ground. This Vice article gives a run through of just how simple it is to establish a "musical click fraud" operation.

The Hype Machine

The second way bot vendors can game the system is by undermining one of the core tenets of music promotion: it takes attention to get attention. With actual living people time-pressed and judicious with their attention, they often follow the crowd and check what's popular.

Unscrupulous bot vendors offer artists the ability to circumvent the natural order of things, and buy streams in bulk. For a simple up-front payment, the fraudsters offer the ability to provide a huge botfarm of devices to listen to your track thousands of times, meaning better placement in searches, the possibility to be featured in hot playlists, and most of all, attention. While this isn't a direct economic hit to artists, it does shift the goalposts so that attention isn't earned by those who deserve it, but instead by those who can afford to pay bot vendors.

In the cut-throat world of professional music, it can be a battle that even the fans get involved in, understanding that streams and rankings are the currency of popularity. K-pop fans are infamous for their "stop at nothing" philosophy towards boosting their favorites, including deploying bot farms to ensure they top the charts. There's even a word for it in Korean, sajaegi.

How To Beat the Bots

For both record labels and streaming services, validating the integrity of streams is essential to ensuring equitable allocation of streaming revenues to artists and rights holders. However, just like in verticals like gaming and e-commerce, the threat of bot fraud is ever-present and will continue to be so.

As protection becomes more sophisticated, so too do the attacks. The key to staying ahead in this cat-and-mouse game is to stay prepared at an organizational level: employ people to this exact purpose. Make use of a dedicated team to stay on top of the latest innovations in both bot fraud and preventative measures.

This way, your app updates can be ahead of the game, and the latest app prevention software can be brought in at an early stage. Letting consumers know you've taken the threat of bot fraud seriously and have taken this positive action can only serve to improve levels of trust in your app. 

However, despite the damage, the digital bread-crumb trail that bots leave can't be detected without a lot of work. It's a huge task to undertake solely in-house. For this reason, it's important to ensure you compliment your in-house team with industry-leading tools to detect and eliminate bots. By using machine learning and leveraging the complexity of anonymized sensor data from human-device interaction, bot detection solutions can discern the patterns in behavior that can distinguish between humans and bots. From there, it's easy to weed out the bots and take back control of the streaming economy.

[Editor's note: This is a contributed article from Unbotify. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]

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