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When Numbers Lie: How to Spot Fake Data in Music and Why It Matters – Complex

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Brian Harrington is an audio engineer and mixer that has worked in sessions across various recording studios in Los Angeles. He also runs his own music blog, Death By Algorithm.
You may be internet savvy enough to spot when your latest Twitter follower is a bot, or recognize warning signs on a fake dating profile. But would you be able to recognize when an artist racking up streams is doing so fraudulently? It’s more common than you think.
Rolling Stone sources estimate that approximately three to four percent of all global streams are illegitimate, which would account for $300 million in lost revenue every year. While most digital streaming platforms have some form of fraud detection, there isn’t enough incentive to eliminate the problem entirely. Eric Drott, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the paper Fake Streams, Listening Bots, and Click Farms: Counterfeiting Attention in the Streaming Music Economy, found this in his research.
“There’s an economic rationality to allowing a certain amount of fraud to exist in any kind of economic system, because the costs of verifying every transaction would be so prohibitive,” Drott told me over Zoom. “Lost revenue” to bot streaming is only lost on the artists’ side, not on that of the streaming platforms. The DSPs will be making the same amount of money off of the subscription plan the bots use—or the ad space if they’re on a free tier—but it leaves less money on the table to pay out artists with a legitimate streaming base. “[Fraudulent Streaming] redistributes how the pot of money is getting divided, but it doesn’t change the size of the pot of money that Spotify is paying out to rights holders,” Drott explains.
Landing a high stream count or massive social media following can be very lucrative for jumpstarting an artist’s career—it can lead directly to label attention, playlist inclusion, press coverage, sync placements, and more. But for the fans, media, and others on the outskirts of the music industry, it can be a challenge to decipher if and how these numbers translate to actual offline interest.
“We see artists doing huge numbers on social media, hanging with Kardashians and whatnot, then they go on tour and struggle to fill a 200 capacity room in major markets,” says John O’Connor, booking agent for Songbyrd Music House in Washington DC. “I’d rather book an act that’s sold a room out on $10 tickets versus a new act with two million followers.” Many of the best shows O’Connor has booked have featured artists that had no major numbers behind their name yet, but knew how to rock a room and make those IRL connections. 
T-Pain had an epiphany when he realized that most of the numbers he was chasing weren’t real. “I just love music again… I’m not chasing any numbers. I know these streams can be bought. I’m not getting that depression from Instagram anymore to where I’m like, ‘How the fuck are these little n****s doing this shit?’ I found out how they were doing it. Now you can see it every time,” T-Pain told Jessica McKinney for Complex. This understanding can also help fans identify what’s real and what’s artificial when looking at the numbers.
The truth can be difficult to spot and it’s nearly impossible to be 100% certain about anything, but there are some red flags and warning signs to look out for.
Pigeons & Planes is all about music discovery, supporting new artists, and delivering the best music curation online and IRL. Follow us on and .
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