Inside the ‘Black Market’ Where Artists Can Pay for Millions of Streams
Digital marketer Joshua Mack brags on call with high-powered management company about the ability to “manipulate” streaming systems to “hit astronomical numbers”
The music industry is famous for being hyper-competitive, but in the summer of 2019, the biggest companies — from major labels to streaming services — briefly united around a common cause: signing a code of conduct condemning streaming manipulation, a practice that inflates artists’ numbers on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music and potentially reduces payouts for smaller acts.
“Streaming manipulation has been an unfortunate blight on the industry over the past few years,” declared John Phelan, director general of the International Confederation of Music Publishers. “There is a black market for pay-for-play.”
Not long after the code of conduct was signed, various members of the Blueprint Group — a high-powered management and distribution company that works with multiple Grammy-winning artists — hopped on a conference call with a digital marketer named Joshua Mack, according to an audio recording obtained by Rolling Stone. Two of Blueprint’s CEOs, Gee Roberson and Jean Nelson, the head of digital strategy, Bryan Calhoun, and the chief marketing officer, Al Branch, explored options for boosting an upcoming release from rapper G-Eazy, an artist they manage. “I want this to be big,” one member of G-Eazy’s team says on the call.
Mack tells Blueprint he can jack up artists’ streams — for a price. A salesman operating in an industry that treats hype as standard operating procedure, Mack claims to Blueprint that his “network” can generate “200 million streams a month” spread across its various music clients, a group that he alleges has included nearly a dozen well-known acts and prominent labels. The recording offers a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of third-party companies operating in the music industry, attempting to seduce artists, managers, or labels by promising to manufacture millions of streams.
Mack freely admits to Blueprint that Spotify has punished him for his stream-boosting activities in the past, but he claims that artists continue to use his services anyway. Why?
“We basically cracked the code,” Mack says, “and understand how to manipulate the system and hit astronomical numbers.”
Attempts by artists and record labels to “manipulate” sales numbers are as old as the music industry itself. And as streaming has become the music industry’s primary driver, many of the manipulation efforts have moved to the digital sphere, where Mack focuses his services. In a sales deck obtained by Rolling Stone, Mack’s company 3BMD says it helps with “streaming playlist PR,” “social media PR,” and “music audio PR,” among other things.
To the uninitiated, people who work in streaming promotion might as well speak another language. They praise “save rates” (a valuable sign of listener investment that occurs when a user hears a song and adds it to their personal library or playlist) and “premium” plays (these come from paying subscribers and are weighted more heavily in the charts than clicks from free users), and often use terms like “activate the algorithm.”
But despite the new vocabulary, digital marketers say that some streaming manipulation resembles old-school radio payola: Third parties build or gain control of playlists or networks of playlists on a platform like Spotify and then accept payment from artists or their teams for placing songs in those lists. (Though unlike payola, there is no FCC regulation of streaming manipulation.)
Other number-fudging techniques are more advanced. Digital marketers say that some companies set up programs to automatically generate thousands of new, bot-like accounts that repeatedly play a song or playlist. This activity doesn’t just lead to artificial inflation of streams (and egos). Due to the way streaming services shell out money — divvying up their pools of cash according to each rightsholder’s portion of total streams — manipulations also lead to lower payouts for some acts that do not engage in this behavior.
Artists can be penalized in other ways when their tracks are connected to streaming manipulation. This activity goes against the terms of service for prominent streaming companies, which have systems in place to flag plays they believe to be the result of manipulation. In January, Spotify pulled tens of thousands of releases off its platform, claiming that they had racked up “artificial streams.” “Engaging in any way with artificial streams can result in the withholding of manipulated streams from streaming numbers, withholding of royalties, and, where necessary, removal of tracks from our service — so it ultimately hurts an artist’s long-term prospects,” a Spotify spokesperson says in a statement.
At least one of the major labels, Sony Music Entertainment, has instructed staff< that it “prohibits stream manipulation by its employees or any third parties acting on the company’s behalf.” But in some cases, artists or managers may be pulled into manipulation activity unwittingly, handing money to a digital marketing company that claims its techniques for boosting streams are legitimate — by running Facebook ads, for example, or placing songs on playlists that don’t demand payment — only to have their music pulled down by Spotify. “It’s important for artists and managers to know that some promotional services use stream manipulation methods without informing them, leaving artists to suffer the consequences,” Spotify’s spokesperson adds.
“Everybody’s trying to get on playlists; everybody’s trying to get a leg up,” says Chris Anokute, a former major-label A&R who is now a manager and founder of the entertainment company Young Forever Inc. “Most labels hire independent third-party playlisting companies. And it turned out that some of these companies ended up being bad actors.”
But under immense pressure to show streaming growth, even experienced players can decide to look for outside help to manipulate play counts, according to multiple sources in the music industry.
“There are a few third-party companies out there running this for a lot of the major companies,” says one A&R at a prominent label who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “We use them too for some of our artists. We agree to a certain amount of money for a certain amount of streams, and we can spread that out among [our] artists. It’s like, we’re good; we just need performance-enhancing steroids to be a little bit better.”
During Mack’s call to discuss boosting G-Eazy’s first-week numbers, Blueprint Group executives — veteran managers with a stable of high-profile acts — directly asked the marketer about his methods for increasing streams.