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As a record label, we regularly work with artists who have previously released music on services like Spotify, where fake streaming is far too common. Part of our job, before signing a licensing deal for a specific track is to root out if the traction is genuine (from real fans & listeners) or inflated using things like digital bots, click farms, following gates

To the untrained eye, a stream is a stream, right? But after looking at hundreds of behind-the-scenes tools like the Spotify for Artists Dashboard — there are patterns that usually indicate shady tactics. However, while artists should be cautious of bot activities, it is also crucial to avoid hastily jumping to conclusions about the source or authenticity of streams. Understanding the nuances and complexities of streaming analytics is crucial for maintaining an authentic and engaged online presence.

Hopefully this article will help you spot the patterns, it’s not always obvious if someone has manipulated their stats or not.

Why do people buy fake streams?

Most people who procure fake streams are usually completely unaware of the streams being fraudulent, because the fake streaming is being masked by a seemingly legitimate service such as playlist promotion. So the artist thinks they’re paying for placements on prominent playlists, while in reality — they are getting scammed by the playlister and ends up being featured on playlists riddled with bots and click farms.

This is one of the reasons why our recommendations to artists, including our own — is to never pay for direct playlist placements or buy followers because it’s hard to assess if a stream or follower is legit or not. On top of this, it’s against the Spotify Terms & Conditions to pay or receive payment for placements on playlists.

The second most common reason people get fake streams is essentially the age-old saying “fake it until you make it”

The reasoning behind it usually being something along the lines of; “If I have 1000 followers, or 10 000 monthly listeners or 100 000 streams on my song, this will make me look successful — labels will give my music an honest chance and realise that it’s great, and poof — the real streams will outnumber the fake streams.”

This is of course not true at all, as most labels (including us) will do anything to avoid even engaging with artists at the mere hint of fake streaming — because they fear repercussions from streaming services should the practice be discovered.

On top of that, the core logic is flawed — if there are no real fans listening to the tracks, who’s going to visit your Spotify profile and be impressed by your streams?

Why does it matter if the streams are fake?

Spotify doesn’t like them

Spotify has policies to fight bots. It’s forbidden practice and they can remove your enitre catalogue or a Record Label’s entire catalogue from their service. When we’re talking with employees at Spotify, they really detest bots. They are fighting and removing millions of bots every month, but it’s a up-hill battle because the botters adapt and change their patterns to make them look more like legitimate users.

Spotify bots in general are not super well covered by media and investigative journalism, but parallels can be made with Instagram bots. We recommend this article from Vice on the topic of Instagram bots if you’re interested in learning more.

You won’t get paid for the streams.

Does Spotify pay royalties for fake streams? Of course not. Since Spotify’s streaming royalties are paid as a shared pool model (meaning all artists gets a cut of the total revenue based on streams) rather than a fan-powered model like SoundCloud (where every subscription pays directly to the artists the user is listening to) — this would mean all the legitimate artists are losing out on money because of the botters diluting the stream pool.

You’ll be left out of algorithmic playlists

Bots & fake streams completely destroy your chances at getting featured in Spotify’s sought after algorithmic playlists. Since your streams don’t come from real humans, there are no real engagement and human behaviour to indicate the song is good, meaning it gets disqualified.

No one in the industry will work with you

When we say industry, most people think record labels — which is true. But this goes for all other professionals as well, managers, booking agents, publicist, promoters and other people who could actually help you grow your fanbase and become more successful as an artist won’t even give you the time of day if they think your streams are fake.

What are fake streams?

Fake streams or bot streams are streams on a music service generated by bots. They have been around for a while in other contexts such as on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. A user is purchasing streams, followers or saves from a service which then use computers to let fake accounts follow your artist page or stream your music.

Warning signs:

Before going into details, one single warning sign is not enough to assess you’ve been struck by bot streams, we have seen weird things that still are legit.

You cannot make a blanket rule simply saying if this happens it means there are bots involved. We’ve seen a lot of misinformed articles out there making statements that seem true, but if you scratch below the surface, they could mean other things.

It’s important to notice that bot farms are evolving and trying to emulate human behaviour. If there’s an article saying that the save rate should be within a range. The botter might be making sure to save the song once in a while.

We are going to list a few things you can assess whether streams are legit or not:

Streams/listeners/followers vs time

Typical bot behaviour:

  • A huge peak in streams during a couple of days, then straight back to the normal streaming level
  • A sudden increase in followers then back to the normal growth rate.

However, a huge peak in streams could also mean you’ve been added to a huge playlist or it’s Monday and you got a great boost by Discover Weekly, or that you released a new song or had a major promotion event.

Followers on Spotify usually grow very slow if no extraordinary marketing effort, but you can have peaks for example if releasing a new song and you gathered a lot of pre-saves. All these followers will be added on the release day creating a peak in follower growth.

Streams per listener ratio

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Streaming vs listening ratio is really weird. Such as 100-1000 streams per listener. A normal ratio would be between 1.5 to 3 streams per listener — with fan favorite songs having maybe as much as 4 or 5.

It’s important to notice that these are ranges and not an exact science. A song could be super viral or popular within a typical audience, meaning there’s more streams per listener than on a regular song. Especially if the people involved in the song are influencers.

We’ve seen naive artists creating their own playlists with their own songs 50 times in a row and then playing on repeat. This is more or less bot behavior, but done by real people. Regardless it will most likely be regarded as bots by Spotify and the royalties and streams will be adjusted as soon as it’s flagged by the system. Don’t do it.

Save Rate

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Save Rate is very low. If the save rate (saves/listeners) is below 0.5% this is either a sign of a bad song, added to irrelevant playlists or purchase of bot streams.

Be aware that Spotify has changed how they present saves, and now you don’t have the statistics earlier than 28 days ago in Spotify for Artists, making it very hard to assess correct save rates. Your older songs might already be streaming from people who have already saved your music, making your save rate very low.

We have seen numbers in other articles stating a normal save rate to be around 6%. That might be normal for songs streaming below 10 000 streams because a lot of your followers will save your music, however, if included in larger playlists it’s not unusual that very popular songs receive a save rate of around 2-3%, even though the streams are genuine.

Discover Weekly

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Discover Weekly is non-existent. The presence of Spotify’s Algorithmic playlists is usually a great sign of quality music and that the song has ended up in relevant audiences.

However, just because your song didn’t end up in Discover Weekly doesn’t mean your song is streamed by bots, it could also mean that your song is not promoted to the right audience, your song doesn’t stand out or that Spotify hasn’t figured out the right audience for your song yet. (or that your music actually isn’t resonating with your audience)

Profile / catalogue streams

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Few adds to user-curated playlists and a lot of streams coming from your profile and catalog (such as 90%+). Bots will typically go into your profile and listen on repeat.

But they could also go into playlists and stream from there. Again, if a practice becomes seen as shady, botters will try to change their strategies.

Royalty Rates

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Royalty Rates doesn’t match streaming numbers at all.

This might be the most trustworthy way to see if streams are legit or not. But there are some drawbacks, you can only determine your own streams, and you need to wait for the answers since there’s a delay in reporting royalties from when the streams happen.

Spotify and most distributors will block royalties from shady sources. Don’t mistake this however with getting low rates from Spotify, that’s just how it is. Depending on where your streams come from, you should get somewhere between 0.005 SEK (0.0005 USD) (free users from Latin America) to 0.07 SEK (0.007 USD) (premium users from Norway)

Location of streams

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Singular locations for listeners, for instance, every listener coming from one random city.

Maybe all of your streams comes from a small town in the middle of nowhere where there is no logical connection to why they should be streamed from there.

However, we have seen articles generalizing that streams from Latin America, the Philippines and other countries are a sign fake. Just because you aren’t familiar with those countries doesn’t mean you can’t get streams from there. The streaming market is very international and getting added to a playlist with great search ranking for an English term will make your song stream possibly in any English country. The same logic applies to a playlist ranking for a Spanish term.

Playlists not appearing in search

Typical bot behaviour:

  • Playlists generating a lot of your streams not appearing in search ( i e, you search for a word and the playlist has a high likelihood of popping up at the top spots.)

Not always a sure-fire factor for determining bots. It could be as simple as that playlist having a solid following within their niche — but it could be an indicator of something fishy. If 400,000 real people are following a playlist and engaging with it, why wouldn’t Spotify prioritise it in search results on the platform?

Free vs Preemium Ratio

Typical bot behaviour:

  • A lot of streams comes from free users

It’s cheaper for bot farms to create free accounts than premium users. However, some countries have had Spotify around for a longer time and hence a lot more users with Premium Accounts. For example Sweden. Other countries where Spotify is fresher might have a higher chunk of free users.

Debunking some myths

Fans also like

The myth says that if you have irrelevant related artists on Spotify you have been using bots.

Counterargument: Your related artists could be a factor when determining if bots are being used. But sometimes Spotify’s algorithm for determining Fans also like can be quite crappy. With lower streamed artists weird things can happen.

Playlist following

The myth says: if you get a lot of streams from a playlist with few followers (ratios are given), then there are bot streams. The same logic applies the other way around, a playlist with a large following generating few streams.

Counter argument: This can be true in some cases, but it doesn’t mean it’s always true. For example, we have seen countless examples of a new playlist of high quality getting sudden traction in search results. Hence, not so many followers, but gives a lot of streams.

For the case with a playlist with a lot of followers but fewer streams than expected, usually, the playlist has lost its search ranking to a playlist with higher quality. And no the followers don’t determine the quality of the playlist and is not a great ranking factor either.

It seems like people don’t realize that for user-generated playlists the majority of streams come from people searching for specific terms and keywords and find playlists in that way rather than from the followers.

When assessing how many organic streams you should get from a playlist a much better metric in our experience is to look at the playlist follower growth.

Monthly listeners vs followers

The myth says: if your followers are less than 5% of your monthly listeners something is wrong.

Counter argument: The ones claiming this have certainly not been added to a lot of playlists. If the majority of your plays come from playlists, this statement will not be true and it is certainly context-based. For example, if you are listening to a “Relaxing Spa” Playlist or a playlist in a more passive listening context, you won’t just stand up from the hot tub, reach for your phone and save the song.

Followers not growing even if large streaming numbers

The myth says: If you have a lot of monthly listeners and don’t get as many followers as expected, this means the streams are fake.

Counter argument: Once again, this is heavily context related. Most people are listening to music in a passive mode and in our experience Spotify followers comes more from live shows, engaging social media presence and a strong media presence rather than from playlists.

We’ve seen a lot of examples of an upcoming artist with a solid visual presence, a lot of great songs, in a lot of playlists, making up around 40 000 monthly listeners experiencing a following growth of around 30 followers per month. This is completely normal. Go for a slow and steady growth rather than the bot peaks and you will sooner or later reach a tipping point with more exponential growth.

How to assess playlist companies?

This is a really tough question. Since the effects are potentially catastrophic for an artist or record label (catalogue takedowns) it’s hard to justify the risk of not assessing a company thoroughly.

At Rexius Records, we do all playlist campaigns in-house and work a lot with curating our own playlist brands. Much like Filtr and Sony.

If you don’t know how or don’t have the time to do your own playlist campaigns and need to vet PR firms we would use this procedure:

  • Ask for reference artists or try to research artists they’ve been working with.
  • Go through each one of them and apply the principles in this article. (all information might not available such as royalty data though)
  • Contact the artists and see if they would recommend the service.
  • Remember one warning sign is not enough. You need to get the whole picture.
  • Ask the Playlist company about their policies and how they are working with curators.
  • Are they willing to work for share of royalty profits. If they are, this is a good sign the company have faith in their services. Note that their could be combinations of fees + share of royalties. Determine if the deal make sense or not.

What’s Rexius Records policies on doubtful playlisting?

  • We have a strict policy against doubtful playlisting such as bots, paid placements and other manipulative efforts to boost streams.
  • Rexius Records never pays for playlisting or using bots or any manipulative efforts to boost streams.
  • Rexius Records never hire a third party to do playlisting for us due to the risks involved.
  • Rexius Records or affiliates never accepts money for adding songs to own curated playlists.
  • When signing a contract with us, you guarantee that you have not and accept that we will terminate the contract if using doubtful playlist tactics in order to protect us and all the other artists in our roster.
  • We are working with preventive actions to educate artists about the harm and risks involved with doubtful playlisting. (this article is an example of that)
  • If we rightfully suspect an artist to be associated with doubtful playlisting, we will notify the artist involved to cease and desist and then terminate the contract.