Co-written by Julie Knibbe and Dmitry Pastukhov

So, you're a DIY artist trying to get your project off the ground and generate that initial traction on streaming platforms. You try playlist pitching, fork out for an Instagram ad campaign, and post relentlessly on TikTok, hoping to get in favor with the algorithm. But cutting through the clutter of the post-streaming music market is not easy, and your monthly listeners count remains stuck at a few thousand — if not a few hundred. Then, you see a comment under one of your posts, prompting you to check out a Spotify promotion service that promises to get your next single to 100,000 streams on release week, guaranteed. Sounds tempting, doesn't it?

However, the fake stream "promotion services" leeching off DIY artists are only a part of the issue. Unfortunately, music businesses representing professional artists also sometimes engage with fake streaming — knowingly and on a much broader scale. Artists and their teams end up purchasing fake streams for many reasons. To name just a few:

Showcasing high streaming numbers to develop "initial social proof". 

Sometimes, the artist team will consider that promoting a "blank" track is less efficient than a track that already has some weight to it, and fake streams become a very convenient shortcut to get the track to that initial 10/20/50/100k streams figure. Besides, when it comes to other prominent platforms like YouTube or Instagram, such initial "social proof" can be easily generated completely "above board" by throwing a bit of cash at their respective ad cabinets. For example, a few thousand likes on an Instagram post will run you about $20 in an "engagement" budget, and getting a YouTube video to 100k views on YouTube is a matter of a few hundred dollars spent on a discovery campaign. Or, even cheaper if you go with pre-rolls. 

In digital advertising, the line between low-engagement ad traffic and straight-up fraudulent activity can get very thin. So sometimes, buying up fake streams is not viewed as a fraud but as one of the building blocks of a genuine marketing effort. First, "boost" the track to 50k streams, release a post on socials to celebrate the milestone, and then use it to spearhead the actual campaign. Unfortunately, such "hacky" marketing techniques are not all that uncommon.

Projecting a successful release trajectory to potential partners and industry gatekeepers

That said, fake stream tactics won't always target the end music consumer. Sometimes, artist teams engage with fake streaming to project the desired career trajectory to potential partners or gatekeepers such as music media, playlist curators, and so forth. Success in music is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, as no one likes missing out on a breakout success story. So, a release that does really well will usually get more industry support than the one that did "okay" — simply put, pitching a track that did a million streams on release week is much easier than the one that did 100k. 

Throughout the years, there have been at least a few scandals around artists & labels racking up fake streams to break into platform charts. Despite what some of the new generation music pros might think, charts do still matter — and breaking into the Top 50 US is likely to provide a track with a substantial boost in radio airplay, playlist reach, and general awareness. So, while the actual size of the fake stream problem is hard to size, for each public story of chart manipulation, there are probably ten that go unnoticed. Though, with DSPs increasingly cracking down on streaming fraud and arming fake stream detection systems, there's hope that such techniques are much less widespread — at least with established artists.

Passing alleged popularity/stream volumes thresholds to increase algorithmic reach

A quick search on YouTube can lead you to a plethora of clickbait-y videos showcasing that artists reaching particular popularity or stream thresholds are set out to get a bump in their algorithmic performance through features like Discovery Weekly or Release Radar. By this point, "20,000 streams to be eligible for Discover Weekly" has become a bit of a music industry's urban legend. Everyone probably heard the figure — yet there's no objective evidence of such a clearcut threshold. And the fact that the figure is featured on the blogs of respected music companies doesn't help. 

Even if these statements might be statistically valid — correlation doesn't mean causation. Unfortunately, misleading interpretations of such statistics prompt developing artists to take the "fake streams" shortcut instead of actually building their audiences and developing an engaged listener base.

Money laundering

Yes, you heard us right. It's hard to assess the size of that issue precisely, but the industry experts we've talked to when preparing this piece highlight how much suggest that it is a problem — and a much bigger one than it might seem at first glance. Of course, "promotion services" offering artists 100k streams for a few hundred dollars won't serve such a "use case". The ROI of that operation would hardly make sense, and so money laundering streaming schemes would require an in-house bot farm. 

But if you were to set it up, the massive scale of the streaming economy provides a near-perfect environment for turning dirty money into taxable, legal cash flow. Hosting a random mp3 on Spotify through an open distribution platform is a matter of days, and if you manage to evade the fake stream tracking system, it's pretty much impossible to connect the streaming royalties to the cash injections spread across thousands of fake streaming accounts. 

The bad news for the industry? Royalty running through such money laundering operations is revenue that won't go to real artists and music business supporting their careers. And the reality of the pro-rata royalty attribution models is that an efficient bot farm would direct a portion of the regular consumer's streaming subscription fee towards fake artists amassing fake streams — even if they've never interacted with fake catalogs on the platform.

The negative impact of fake streams on the artist's algorithmic performance 

Perhaps, the section above might give the impression that we're advocating for fake streaming rather than against it. However, let us make ourselves clear: buying artificial streams will always penalize the artist more than helping them (even if you don't take into consideration the risks of having parts of your catalog, or your entire artist profile, taken off streaming platforms)

First, if you're looking to convince a key partner to come on board by projecting fake stream-fueled success, music industry professionals now have a trained eye to spot such inorganic activity. Most of the time, a label would instead sign an artist showcasing smaller but authentic fan engagement. Second, when it comes to algorithmic traffic, buying fake streams is a sure way to mess up your artists' algorithmic profiles and ruin their long-term algorithmic potential.

Low engagement rates of fake streams are ruining the artist's algorithmic potential

By definition, fake streams are inauthentic. Most of the time, it's a one-time stream, playlist addition, or a follow. Even if your bot farm is very advanced, mimicking authentic user behavior by generating repeat listens from a single user ID — evading fake stream detection systems is an uphill battle your "fake stream provider" will never win. 

Recommender systems are educated by user behavior. They look at user retention and engagement metrics to serve relevant recommendations to audiences likely to enjoy your music. So, what matters are the listeners who love you, stream you repeatedly, save your songs to library and playlists, and share them with their friends. Any one-off streaming activity doesn't show love — it shows short-lived interest, signaling to the algorithm that your music doesn't stick with your audience, making your catalog less likely to surface on algorithmic features.

Inauthentic fake audiences are messing up the artist's similarity profiles

The fake streams won't only damage your algorithmic potential through low engagement rates. They will also "confuse" the recommendation algorithms by feeding misleading information about who your audience is and what other artists they're listening to. Fake users won't ever behave like your real fans, and the algorithms will have difficulties understanding who the artist's proper audience is with artificial streams in the mix. In extreme cases, the fraudulent streams will outweigh the listenership generated by your real fans and lead the recommender to believe that you're similar to — you've guessed it — other artists you share the bot farm with. Congratulations, you've successfully sabotaged your algorithmic profile for months (if not years) to come.

Fake streams can drastically decrease long-term marketing ROI

Furthermore, any future marketing investment driving traffic to streaming platforms will see next to no algorithmic return if you ruin your algorithmic profile through fake streaming. The adverse effects of fake streaming on digital marketing ROI will surely outweigh the marginal improvements to your direct marketing costs you'll get from generating that "fake initial social proof".  

Let's say you invest $500 on an Instagram campaign advertising your latest release, driving traffic directly to your release page on Spotify. You get about 3000 clicks, and 300 saves from your targeted "New French Pop" audience. Not the worst campaign in terms of CPC, but a single stream is still super expensive, and the short-term ROI of the campaign is very low. However, if your campaign and your music can convert that traffic into passionate fans who will save the song and generate multiple repeat listens, things start looking up a bit. Furthermore, these great engagement rates will likely boost your algorithmic profile and signal to the algorithms that your music resonates with "New French Pop" audiences, leading Spotify to recommend you to a broader audience of French Pop fans. 

If you've done everything right and your music is truly a good fit for these audiences, this first round of algorithmic traffic will also score high in engagement and lead the recommender to serve you to an even wider audience. The reality of the streaming economy is such that successful to-streaming marketing campaigns almost always rely on such algorithmic snowball effect to get to any sort of positive ROI. However, if you purchased fake streams before running that campaign, the algorithm will have trouble kickstarting that virtuous cycle.

First, the positive signals of genuine engagement you've generated will be dissolved in a pool of low-engagement fake streams. Secondly, the fake streams will make it less likely for your song to be qualified within that target "New French Pop" niche. This means that even if the authentic engagement cuts through the noise of fake streams, the first round of Release Radars / Discover Weeklies is likely to be misaligned: served to irrelevant audiences, scoring low in engagement and breaking up the algorithmic circle.  

Case Study: How to sabotage the artist's algorithmic profile with fake streams

To ground ourselves in reality, let's take a look at a real-life example of an artist who ended up with such a "fake stream" algorithmic penalty:

Spotify Monthly Listeners, retrieved via Chartmetric

Right off the bat, we can see monthly listeners spikes uncorrelated to song release activity — a red flag to any data-savvy music professional. Digging a bit deeper through the artist profile, we find:

  • A single song across the artist catalog has more than 100K streams, while the rest are yet to break a 1k threshold.
  • This top song appears on many third-party playlists, but stream counts are inconsistent with followers / ML figures. If this streaming activity had been organic, followers and monthly listeners counts would've been much higher.

While discussing the artist's algorithmic profile as a part of an RSO consultancy, the team verified a fake stream purchase on that top track, confirming our suspicions.

Now, what about the algorithmic potential? To this day, Spotify haven't assigned any genre to the artist — nor any "fans also like" similar artists. This is a strong sign that they won't get recommended to audiences of any other artist on the platform — simply because Spotify penalized that fake activity, either directly (by detecting fake streams) or indirectly (by not being able to qualify their releases).

Furthermore, their "artist radio" doesn't feature relevant artists from their actual artistic ecosystem — generating additional polluted signals if real listeners stream their radio playlist. Once you start going down the path of a misaligned algorithmic profile, it's almost impossible to recover, at least without extensive (and expensive) organic traffic infusions that would drown out that compromised listening activity. Ultimately, we advised the artist to start from scratch and create a brand-new artist profile. 

So, if, for whatever reason, you're considering purchasing fake streams — don't. This shortcut comes with a very hefty price to pay.

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