If there’s an angle, a loophole, a technicality, a con or fraud for any situation, someone will discover and exploit it. Whether it be the corner hustler with a shell game or a Madoff-strength Ponzi scheme, the rip-off is as old as humanity itself.
People have been trying to pull fast ones on the music industry from the moment someone used a printing press to illegally copy some sheet music. Today, the biggest music scams are happening online — and some of them aren’t as illegal as you might expect.
Here are seven notable scams.
The iTunes credit card scam (2012)
They thought they had come up with the perfect crime. First, get some completely unknown (and complicit) artists to post songs on iTunes. Second, steal a bunch of credit card numbers and use them to set up phony iTunes accounts. Finally, use those iTunes accounts to buy crazy numbers of downloads from those unknown artists.
The result was a tsunami of royalties paid out by iTunes. When that worked, the same scam was perpetrated on Amazon.
By the time the plot was uncovered, this 11-member gang from Kent, Derby, and Birmingham, England, had netted over $1 million from iTunes and more than $1.5 million from Amazon.
The Spotify algorithm feint (2014)
In his study of how Spotify algorithms worked, Matt Farley discovered that people were often using specific words to search for songs — words that weren’t necessarily included in the titles of the songs. What if he titled his songs with some of those words?
Farley started releasing songs with titles like The Sorry Apology Song and Song About Sydney, New South Wales. He also came up with tracks named after Zooey Deschanel, Jon Hamm and Benedict Cumberbatch. Would the algorithms pick up his tracks for streams?
They did. And because artists are paid on a per-listen, Farley started making some good coin from Spotify, even though his music wasn’t very good. Still, it’s reported that he’s made up to US$23,000 a year for sharing 14,000 songs. Nothing illegal about any of this, either.
The silent song saturation (2014)
Until the band Vulfpeck came along, there was nothing in the rules that said a song uploaded to Spotify had to be anything but a music file. And if there was no actual music encoded in that file, that was okay.
Desperate to crowdfund a tour, Vulfpeck “recorded” an album called Sleepify and released it to Spotify. The album has 10 tracks, all 30 seconds, all completely silent with no audio whatsoever. They then asked fans to put this album on repeat before they go to bed. Each eight-hour sleep period resulted in 960 streams per fan — streams for which Spotify had to pay out. The theoretical payout was around $5 per fan per night.
Vulfpeck vowed to pool all their Spotify earnings (which hit nearly $20,000 as the result of 5.5 million streams) to underwrite a tour, promising to route the road trip through areas where their Spotify streaming plan worked the best. Fantastic.
The 30-second song gambit (2015)
One of the key things about Spotify is that it doesn’t pay royalties for a stream of a song until it’s played for at least 30 seconds. Once that threshold is passed, Spotify pays out as if the whole song was heard.
A British band called The Pocket Gods came to the more-or-less logical conclusion that for streaming purposes, it didn’t just make sense to write a song longer than 30 seconds. The result was an album entitled 100 x 30, a full 100 songs, each about the state of the music industry, none of which were longer than 30 seconds.
The album still lives on Spotify — no laws were broken, you see — but The Pocket Gods have never said how much this gambit netted them.
The sound of silence maneuver (2017)
Every single time I plug my iPhone into my car to listen to some tunes, the music always starts with the same bloody song. Sure, I like About a Girl from Nirvana just fine, but why does that have to be the first song that gets served up every time?
It’s the result of an odd bug that has iPhones automatically start playing songs alphabetically. There was no way to stop that from happening — until now when Samir Mezrahi came up with a simple and elegant solution.
He released a song on iTunes called A a a a a Very Good Song. It’s nothing but 10 minutes of pure silence. The five “a’s” in the title ensures that it always comes up first in any song queue, offering you at least 10 minutes to line up the songs you want to hear.
The genius of it all? Mezrahi was able to sell it on iTunes for 99 cents. And it’s still for sale.
The playbot purchase (2017)
Spotify plays are valued the same as Facebook likes. And just like you can buy likes, Twitter followers, and YouTube views, you can also purchase Spotify plays. Sites like Streambot help users make it look like their songs are more popular than they actually are — for a fee, of course. This clearly violates Spotify’s terms of service so unlike the other manipulations on this list, we can put this one in the “illegal” column.
Take a look at this thing called the Spotify Play Bot. Not cool.
The Bulgarian implementation (2018)
Someone in Bulgaria began by uploading music clips for songs they legally owned via copyright. Totally legit, right?
But then this person(s) created thousands of premium Spotify accounts to continuously play these songs. On repeat, 24/7, for months. It looks like they used bots to automate the whole thing.
Over the course of four months, it appears just two playlists, entitled Soulful Music and Music from the Heart, generated royalties of US$3 million.
The scam would have continued had no one noticed the high volume of plays these playlists were receiving. Why were these songs at the top of the global playlist charts? They were, in fact, charting higher than any playlist ever created by a major label, so something didn’t smell right.
An investigation noted that each playlist featured songs that each ran less than 40 seconds, well over the payout threshold. In total, the two playlists featured 467 songs and were attracting 1,200 monthly users. But remember these “users” were listening to these short songs over and over and over again.
And here’s the weird thing: the scammers didn’t break a single law by doing what they did.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.