How Streaming Bots Are Ruining Careers of Independent Musicians

Spotify spin counts are the holy grail in the music industry right now. The number of streams on a track gives more validation than any other metric online or in the real world.

The reason? Yes, Spotify is the go to streaming platform for most music fans, but more importantly, the industry collectively agrees Spotify streams are transparent and difficult to manipulate. Thus, streaming promotion has become a focal point for most artist development campaigns in recent years.  

Manipulating Streams with Bots

What’s followed has been a staggering rise in the use of bots that artificially increase spin counts.  

“Bots” are software programs that were created to perform repetitive tasks on the internet. Individuals and companies have used these bots to create all sorts of new services targeted to the music industry.

These bots are programmed to control individual Spotify accounts to play the same song(s) or playlist(s) repeatedly on a loop. Most exchange a fee for a guaranteed number of streams.  

VICE first reported almost 5 years ago on the rise of streaming bots. Now more than ever, artists and their teams are choosing to employ fake streams while in their minds using it as a jumping off point for other important things.  

For a developing artist, there are a few major problems with this strategy:

  1. Spotify doesn’t always know what streams are real or fake. Since many of the accounts used are real accounts and typically hidden behind a VPN, they look like a lot of other users. While this sounds great for algorithmic activation, it's actually quite damaging. Those bots are random accounts with bizarre data that do not engage with your content in a meaningful way. They skip from listening to Brazilian Jazz, to Metal, to Pop Rock. It creates a dizzying array of data for Spotify’s algorithm to sort through. This results in placing your music alongside artists that make very little sense.  
  2. Botting creates a false sense of accomplishment. Part of the value of increased streams is creating industry “buzz”, but I can tell from experience, most of the industry can smell fake plays from a mile away. It’s very obvious if you have 50,000 monthly listeners and your “Discovered On” section on Spotify shows you’re on unbranded playlists, playlist that have random songs in them, or just little consistency in terms of genre. If your goal is to build credibility, botting will damage your reputation.  
  3. Botting is fraud. Both on the side of the botters and the people who knowingly hire them. Whether you realize it or not, use of these services is clearly against Spotify’s terms of service. Spotify and other DSPs (Digital Service Providers) have started altogether deleting tracks and banning users that knowingly use botting services. Now, more than ever, DSPs and distribution teams are cracking down hard on bots.

     “You’re just trying to get a song moving,” adds a second manager speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If [paying for streams] works, it’s like a booster pack.” The digital distribution expert continues, “the idea is to give [a song] a push, get some momentum.”    

— Rolling Stone

Labels & Botting

On the other side of the equation, some labels are validating botting services by hiring them to push their releases further up the charts. These same labels often refuse to consider an independent artist who has done the very same thing.  

Label artists typically have an established audience already, so they don’t have to worry about the negative impact fake streams have on the algorithm. At the end of the day, it really just becomes a numbers game to figure out how many additional streams you need to buy to hit a certain goal. Whether on the Spotify charts or elsewhere.  

The widespread adoption of botting with successful artists has created a major problem for independent artists. These same botters use their work with labels to convince independent artists to hire them. It can be incredibly convincing to trust someone who has worked with a label artist and botters take full advantage of that.  

Beyond that, botters are brazen with their services because there are no consequences for selling their service. When Spotify catches a botted playlist, it's fairly simple for the botter to just start another one. The industry as a whole is also afraid to point out these individuals, as most of the evidence is circumstantial. In an industry where connections are everything, no one wants to piss off the wrong person.  

How to Avoid Bots  

Too many times we see artists innocently buying into playlisting services that claim to offer “organic streams”, the artist is immediately added to playlists filled with bots. We then have to dig that artist out of a hole of bad data in order for Spotify to begin to place the artist algorithmically again.  

Here’s some advice on how to avoid streaming bots:

  1. Avoid companies that make guarantees - As anyone who works in the music industry knows; music marketing doesn’t come with a guarantee. Consumers don’t always react the same way for every piece of content. So how can a playlisting company guarantee streams? Well, there is only one way: bots. This is true even if a playlisting company guarantees you a spot on a playlist until you reach a certain number of streams. Economically, it’s impossible to load up a playlist with enough unknown acts to make a profit while simultaneously keeping the engagement up. Too many unknown acts will drive engagement down, forcing the owner to resort to bots.  
  2. Be cautious of low prices -  An important part to understand about playlisting is that it’s expensive to build a real, engaged playlist network. Whether the playlister owns the network or is paying other curators, you only continue real engagement by maintaining quality over time. Think of it this way: who would listen to a playlist called “New Pop Hits” that features no new artists they know? This means only so many unknown artists can be slotted into a playlist, raising the value of those slots since supply is limited. The only way to offer a cheap playlisting service is to have engagement solely provided by bots.  
  3. Ask to see the playlists - It’s really telling if a company refuses to show you examples of the playlists they say they’ll place you on. Unless the botter is clever, most botted playlists are fairly easy to spot.
  4. Be on the lookout for:  
  5. Mostly unknown acts, especially in the top ten.
  6. Lack of Branding - Most playlists grow and have engagement because they have great branding. If there is no clear branding around the playlist it's likely botted.  
  7. If the account that owns the playlist has multiple playlists with similar follower counts.
  8. Don’t pay for playlist adds - At the end of the day, the best way to avoid bots and bad data is to just not pay for playlist adds at all. Even if the playlists are all on the up and up it's still likely you’ll be placed in playlists that algorithmically don’t make any sense. There are far more superior ways to spend your money marketing your music.
  9. More importantly, it's very unlikely these playlisters are adding your music for free. Also, it’s against Spotify’s TOS to pay for playlist adds.

We know marketing your music can be difficult. Paying for playlists or bots can be very tempting, but we’ve seen first hand how damaging these bots can be. In the long run they will make a negative impact on your career.  

One real person listening to and enjoying your music is worth more than 1,000 botted streams.

Interested in reading more? Check out our interview with Music Consultant on Bots & Third Party Playlists here.

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