Streaming farms play music on existing online platforms, such as Spotify, to massively inflate the number of times people have streamed a song. Listening bots can stream songs around 1,000 times per minute, within minutes providing an artist with thousands of fake streams of their music.
Industry mainstays like Rolling Stone speculate that artists could be losing around $300 million each year due to the high number of fake global streams, an estimated three to four percent. Spotify and other streaming platforms aren’t losing any money from the practice — the bots that stream the music still have to use their service through paid subscriptions or through a free account that generates ad revenue. But streaming farms do effectively steal money away from artists with legitimate streaming numbers.
Brian Harrington, an LA-based sound engineer, has written about music streaming farms and how to identify them. Look at the top cities where a song is streaming — small towns listed as a “top city” is a big red flag. An artist’s Spotify follower-to-listener ratio and social media engagement with fans indicate whether an artist’s following is legitimate or artificially inflated.
“There’s the pool of money that (streaming platforms) distribute out to the rights holders for the songs. So when the artist is faking with bot-streams, they’re taking chunks out of the pool that could be getting distributed to artists that are legitimately streaming with legitimate fan bases,” Harrington tells Radio New Zealand. “And it’s already diluted so small that it doesn’t make a massive difference, but over time that can account for lost money.”
He explains that while the practice keeps money from other artists, it’s more about “getting attention by faking attention until it turns into real attention” than generating revenue.
“In some ways, it’s not that different from Soulja Boy uploading his songs to Limewire disguised as a hit song,” Harrington writes, noting that attention-faking has existed across most forms of entertainment dating back to the 19th century. The first known example, called “Claques,” were people paid to provide raucous applause to performers at the French opera.
According to Harrington, streaming platforms have some options when weeding out fake streams, but it’s likely not economically practical for them to enforce. For music fans, just being aware of the practice and being selective about how they support artists can make a difference.
“There are plenty of ways that you can support your favorite artist financially outside of streaming,” Harrington says. “Even regardless of bot-streaming, artists are just barely getting paid out, to begin with, from these streaming services.”
As a self-proclaimed music nerd, Harrington listens to a streaming service but insists, “When I find albums I like, I always try to buy a copy. It’s always better to try and buy a physical copy, buy digital on iTunes or on Bandcamp, or go out and see a show and buy merch, and you’ll be putting way more money in artists’ pockets than you ever would from streaming.”
Regardless, streaming farms are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Still, if that scares you, Harrington says the best thing to do is “not give these artists your attention, whether that attention is positive or negative.”
“While using bots and scams to generate fake hype may help some artists skip steps on their way to fame, it ultimately takes away attention, streams, and money from artists trying to build a fan base honestly.”