5 Mar 2022

Brian Harrington on streaming farms

From Music 101, 5:30 pm on 5 March 2022

Streaming farms are entities that play music - stream it - from existing online platforms.

They massively multiply the number of times a song is streamed by creating listening bots to stream songs as many as 1000 times a minute - meaning that in 10 minutes they could provide a musician or band with a tally of more than 10,000 fake streams of their song.  

LA-based sound engineer Brian Harrington has written about the phenomena and talked to Music 101 about it.

Streaming Farms

Click farms or streaming farms are set up to provide fake audience tallies online. Photo: supplied

Harrington, a self-confessed music nerd, said he began to take notice when Rolling Stone launched a new chart. This chart took the streaming plays of songs into account more compared to traditional charts weighted heavily on radio play.

"One of the tools they had was you could see the top cities that each song was streamed in, and I was looking at the charts - a lot of the top cities didn't really make sense to me - a lot of very small and random cities across the US were the top cities for top charting songs across the country, and that just made me curious."

Harrington said small artists might use fake streams to demonstrate how much (fake) attention their songs have generated, hoping that will translate into real attention and more listeners that find them. But there's also evidence that more established artists use it to boost their audience numbers.

Some industry figures have claimed as many as 3 or 4 percent of global streams could be fake, which could be costing artists around $300 million each year.

Brian Harrington

Brian Harrington Photo: supplied

Streaming platforms like Spotify don't lose money from this, Harrington said, because the streaming bots have to either be signed up to a paid subscription or use their free service which plays ads and generates advertising revenue.

But the practice does effectively steal money away from other artists on the platforms.

"There's the pool of money that [the streaming platforms] distribute out to the rights holders for the songs. So when the artist is faking with bot-streams they're taking chunks out of the pool that could be getting distributed to artists that are legitimately streaming with legitimate fan bases.

"And [the pool of money is] already diluted so small that it doesn't make a massive difference, but over time that can account for lost money."

Streaming-bots are set up en masse, with some operating in click farm warehouses; "With more computers and more devices, the more numbers you can get."

Speculation and rumour also point toward record labels sometimes making use of the practice, Harrington said.

Fake streams make use of new technology, but it's just a new iteration of an old idea, he said. In the 18th century people were sometimes paid to applaud loudly for certain artists, and the term payola was coined for songs given more airplay on the radio because of hidden payments.

Streaming platforms do have some options to help them weed out fake streams, but it's likely not economically practical to try to spot every instance, Harrington said.  

For music fans there's probably not a lot they can do, except to be aware of the practice and try to be selective about the way they support artists.  

"There are plenty ways of that you can support your favourite artist financially outside of streaming - even regardless of bot-streaming artists are just barely getting paid out to begin with, from these streaming services..."

As a music fan Harrington listens to a streaming service, but: "When I find albums I like I always try to buy a copy.

"It's always better to try and buy a physical copy, buy digital on iTunes or on BandCamp, or go out see a show and buy merch, and and you'll be putting way more money in artists pocket than you ever would from streaming."