One Man’s Army of Streaming Bots Reveals a Whole Industry’s Problem

A man in Denmark was sentenced to 18 months in prison today for using fake accounts to trick music streaming services into paying him 2 million Danish kroner ($290,000) in royalties. The unusual case reveals a weak spot in the business model behind the world’s biggest music platforms.

The 53-year-old consultant, who had pleaded not guilty, was convicted of data fraud and copyright infringement after using bots to listen to his own music through fake profiles on both Spotify and Apple Music, collecting royalties in the process. The data fraud took place between 2013 and 2019.

Fake or “artificial” streams are a big problem for the streaming industry. Between 1 and 3 billion fake streams took place on popular music platforms in 2021, according to a study by France’s National Music Center. Fake streams are a problem, according to the music industry, because they divert royalty payments away from real artists and pollute streaming platforms’ data.

“This is an example of a problem that’s becoming a liability within the music industry,” says Rasmus Rex Pedersen, an associate professor in communication at Roskilde University in Denmark, who researches music streaming. “The streaming services have had several years to develop tools to combat this type of fraud and apparently they haven’t been doing a very good job.” There are still services advertising sales of fake streams, he adds.

In February, a court in the Danish city of Aarhus heard how the man, whose name was withheld, was accused of using bots to generate a suspiciously high number of plays on 689 tracks, which he had registered as his own music. In one week, 244 music tracks were listened to 5.5 million times, with 20 accounts responsible for the majority of the streams. The defendant had previously argued these playbacks were linked to his job in the music industry. He plans to appeal, his lawyer Henrik Garlik Jensen told WIRED.

The man created software that played the music automatically, claims Maria Fredenslund, CEO of the Danish Rights Alliance, which protects copyright on the internet and first reported the case to the police. “So he didn’t really listen to the music. No one really listened to the music.” According to the Danish Rights Alliance, the defendant had 69 accounts with music streaming services, including 20 with Spotify alone. Due to his network of accounts, he was at one point the 46th highest-earning musician in Denmark.

While the defendant created much of the music himself, 37 tracks were altered versions of Danish folk music, where the tempo and pitch had been changed, adds Fredenslund, who attended court.

Starting in 2016, Danish artists noticed altered versions of their tracks circulating on streaming platforms. They reported the suspicious activity to Koda, a Danish organization that collects and distributes fees for songwriters and composers when their music is played online. In an investigation, Koda uncovered how amounts paid to the consultant went from zero to substantial sums in a short time. Koda then reported the case to the Danish Rights Alliance, which investigates fraudulent behavior. “It’s not just immoral, but blatantly unfair to manipulate payments that should rightfully go to dedicated and hardworking music creators,” says Jakob Hüttel, legal chief at Koda.

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