Earlier this week, Nappy, one of my favorite bloggers over at Do Androids Dance published this great article addressing the undeniable presence of bots on SoundCloud and the prevalence of “fake” plays on accounts ranging from touring DJs to bedroom nobodies. While I agree with Nappy‘s sentiment that this is cheating at the most basic level, that a select few are paying to game the system and that people should be held accountable, I feel that its my responsibility to stand up for SoundCloud in this instance. Soundcloud is not inflating artists’ stats. It’s not really their fault.
I know this because I know exactly who is generating those plays and how they’re doing it.
First, its important to understand who profits from these inflated stats. SoundCloud, unlike MOST streaming sites, does not offer advertising on their page so they don’t stand to gain money through content views like YouTube or Pandora. SoundCloud makes their money two ways: through subscriptions and investors. Even if SoundCloud were to offer secret marketing campaigns that increase the stats of pro subscribers, it wouldn’t influence new subscriptions, the bread and butter that keeps the big investor money coming in. What’s more, these “fake” user accounts take up resources that SoundCloud must pay for and, in the face of massive, fatal DMCA takedown demands, pose a substantial threat to the company’s ability to attract capital.
Artists, on the other hand, stand to profit quite a bit from inflated stats. As full-time musician, label owner and occasional blogger I can attest to the power that a sizable social media following can have on getting blog features and gig offers. In a world where money is generated by “pay per click” or “pay per view”, big digital followings can literally translate into cold hard cash (and that’s fucking real). And who gets paid to generate a following for artists? That’s right, PR Firms.
“Fake” stats give PR companies something to point at and tell artists “see? We’re totally worth $800 a week.” It’s a way to guarantee success in world where music marketing is becoming increasingly obsolete. Now of course, these agencies don’t exclusively generate “fake” stats but its naive to believe even for a moment that a single PR company is above engaging in this kind of activity; if one person is doing it, everyone is doing it. Especially with money-making accounts at stake.
Now that we have the “who” figured out, let’s discuss the “how” (This is the part where I’m supposed to offer you a red pill or a blue pill). There are two basic methods to generating “fake” stats on SoundCloud:
Anyone remember Diablo 2? Click farms are essentially computer sweatshops where workers in impoverished areas (sometimes children) sit at computers clicking assigned links and forming accounts based on clients’ needs. These needs can range anywhere from depleting a competitor’s online advertising budget to adding a hundred comments to a track on SoundCloud… as low-tech as this seems, it has become an increasingly bigger problem that violates human rights and threatens the current ecosystem of the internet.
Web Robots aka Bots
Bots have been around since the early days of internet chat rooms and are essentially programs dedicated to performing simple, repetitive internet tasks. Since SoundCloud is 100% web-based, its very easy to program a bot to literally perform any action a regular user can perform. Armed with a list of e-mail address, one could automatically set up hundreds of SoundCloud accounts in a matter of minutes and direct them to follow, like and comment at will. Since plays on SoundCloud are tracked simply by the number of times a song is accessed by a unique IP address, all it takes to generate plays is a list of public proxies and a bot that will play the song once from each proxy.
SoundCloud Fights Back
In an effort to counteract both these methods, SoundCloud has engaged a few security measures:
1) Users are limited in their ability to follow, unfollow, comment and like within a certain time-frame that increases the longer the user stays in good standing with SoundCloud. Suspicious activity leads to that users’ account being flagged and eventually banned.
2) SoundCloud intermittently scans and blocks public proxies being used by flagged accounts
3) SoundCloud scans and deletes inactive accounts that could be hijacked
But like all internet battles, its a war of attrition that SoundCloud will never be able to completely win. The bot-makers and click farms are aware of SoundCloud’s security measures so in an effort to mask their suspicious activity, they will have their accounts add major artists and some random smaller ones too appear more legit. This is actually a major factor in why bigger artists have vast, unexplainable bot followings regardless of whether that artist was a specific target of bot following or not (remember, when you make a SoundCloud account SoundCloud automatically suggests several dozen artists for you to follow organized by genre!) And while its easy to look at sites like YouTube and see how they’ve battled the “proxy play” problem by adding a “time watched” metric to distinguish actual viewers, its important to remember that SoundCloud isn’t making or losing money off the plays.
So in that respect, Nappy is absolutely right, SoundCloud isn’t doing everything they can to discourage the fake stats. But ****, isn’t it really our fault for giving those stats significance in the first place? Isn’t it up to us to use our ears rather than our eyes to determine if a song or artists is “good” or not? This should be a wake-up call to A&Rs and bloggers and promoter and bookers everywhere to be bold and promote artists you actually like and believe in…
But it won’t be… because money is still important. That’s why the most important people in the music industry aren’t the artists or the labels or the promoters, its the listeners… fans keep the big hungry machine in motion.
So in a world where Pandora and Spotify have one hand gripping a wad of cash as the other is shoved elbow deep into the anus of every musician on the planet, I’ll just thank SoundCloud for not shamelessly exploiting my art for profit and for allowing me to control who makes money off my music (although most major record labels would disagree… but that’s a separate issue we’ll cover after SoundCloud has finished their licensing talks… and calm the **** down, mixes aren’t going anywhere).
I’ve given you a very broad, shallow overview of what’s going on but if you care to go #onedeeper (and get jaded by a good ‘ol dose of “industry” bullshit) take a look at this wonderful article by Terry Matthew of 5Chicago.com from a year ago and this telling piece by Clyde Smith of Hypebot from 2012… Remember kids:
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SoundCloud Bots: The Truth Behind Fake Stats