Rolling Stone PODIUM: Battle Against Bots: Curbing Fake Listens and Bulk Streams

, Rolling Stone PODIUM: Battle Against Bots: Curbing Fake Listens and Bulk Streams
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Singapore-based April Tayson from app marketing analytics platform Adjust on how fraud in music streaming can be stopped

 (The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the aforementioned blog writer, and do not represent those of Rolling Stone India as a magazine)

Every morning, millions of people wake up with a cup of coffee while listening to their favorite music — and there is a very good chance that the track was on a music streaming service. The rise of streaming platforms has significantly changed people’s music consumption habits. With nearly 700 million internet users in 2020, India’s growing internet and smartphone penetration have helped accelerate the adoption of digital life. According to Goldman Sachs Global Music Revenue Report, India will secure a 10 percent share of the global streaming subscription by 2030, up from 4 percent in 2019. With the shift to streaming and digital music, India’s music streaming industry will grow at an annual rate of 13.78 percent resulting in a projected market volume of USD 1.149 million by 2025.

The robust and steady growth of music streaming offers long-term opportunities and benefits to the music industry as a whole. However, as bad actors attempt to prey on streaming services and steal revenue from musicians and artists, the music streaming industry must take definitive steps to win the fight against fraudsters using bots for bulk streams and fake listens.

The economics of streaming

The first thing to understand is how the streaming economy operates. When subscribers pay for subscriptions every month, the accumulated amount is added to a pool. Streaming platforms are given a cut, which is a certain percentage taken from the pool. However, the bulk of the earnings goes to labels, distributors, publishers and collecting societies. Musicians are last on the list to get paid based on the terms of their contracts.

There are two main areas of attack that bot fraudsters use to redirect revenue from creatives to their own pockets. The first is to play ‘fake’ tracks owned by non-artists on loop. This allows artists to gain ‘listens’ and to appear more popular with higher rankings and ratings on streaming platforms. Bots allow non-artists to skim millions of dollars away from legitimate artists by creating thousands of fake accounts and playing tracks registered to the fraudster.

On many streaming services, a track needs to be 30 seconds long to be monetizable. With 86,400 seconds in a day, bot outfits can play up to 2,880 tracks a day per device, totaling 2.9 million tracks for 1,000 bots. This comes up to some 86.4 million illegitimate plays in the ballpark of a quarter of a million dollars worth of revenue per month.

Midem’s report about music in Asia ranks India as one of the top four power markets in the region, alongside China, Japan, and South Korea. As local players such as JioSaavn and Gaana, and international music streaming platforms such as Spotify, Amazon, YouTube Music, and Apple offer their services to the Indian market, more users are attracted to try music streaming. Also, independent artists have found a venue to showcase their craft via music streaming, drawing in the young and tech-savvy Indian users to the platform.

Users who are time-pressed and judicious with their attention will often follow top lists and listen to trending music instead of creating their own playlists. Unscrupulous bot vendors offer the ability to circumvent the natural order of things through bulk streaming. For simple upfront payment, fraudsters offer the ability to provide a huge bot farm of devices to listen to tracks thousands of times, which translates to higher placement in searches, the possibility to be featured in hot playlists and most of all — gain listeners’ attention. Through this process, bot vendors found a way to game the system by undermining one of the core tenets of music promotion —  fabricating attention to get attention. While this does not have a direct economic hit on artists, it does shift the goalposts. Those who can afford to pay bot vendors get the attention instead of the artists who truly deserve it.

How to beat the bots

For both record labels and streaming services, validating the integrity of streams is essential to ensuring equitable allocation of streaming revenues to artists and rights holders. However, similar to Gaming and E-Commerce verticals, the threat of bot fraud is ever-present and will continue to be so.

As protection from fraud becomes more sophisticated, so too do the attacks. The key to staying ahead in this game is to stay prepared at an organizational level. Businesses should have a dedicated team to stay on top of the latest innovations in streaming bots and fraud prevention measures.  This way, apps can be ahead of the game with updates and be aware of the latest app prevention software at an early stage. Fraud can significantly put a dent in users’ trust, thus it is vital for businesses to ensure that they take actions to uphold this trust and keep the users informed of the actions taken to combat bot fraud.

However, despite the damage fraudsters can inflict, bots can come and leave apps undetected. Bot detection requires a substantial amount of work and in-house monitoring might take a significant amount of time away from IT teams. For this reason, it is important for businesses to ensure that they adequately equip their I.T. teams with industry-leading tools to detect and eliminate bots. By using machine learning and leveraging the complexity of anonymized sensor data from human-device interactions, bot detection solutions can discern the patterns in behavior and distinguish between humans and bots. From there, it will be easier to weed out the bots and gain control of the streaming economy.

April Tayson is regional vice president INSEA at Adjust, a global app marketing analytics platform. 

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