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HomeArts & CultureFate of Vancouver musician's long-lost song highlights growing problem of streaming fraud

Fate of Vancouver musician’s long-lost song highlights growing problem of streaming fraud

Musician Paula Toledo recently learned that one of her songs had found an audience through an unlikely source: pirated Russian DVDs. But she didn’t expect this to lead to a fake version broadcast online.

Toledo engraving How long in the 2000s but never released it commercially. Somehow it ended up on pirated DVDs and caught the attention of a small circle of fans, who spent years trying to determine the song’s provenance.

Some created tribute videos for How long which included images of teddy bears. After 16 years of searching, Reddit fans found Toledo in Vancouver in December.

After the discovery, Toledo rose How long to Bandcamp, a music distribution platform, with all proceeds going to charity. It then added it to music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, using an independent digital music distribution service as a middleman.

But Reddit users soon notified him that there was a duplicate version of How long had appeared on streaming services, he says.

SEE | International search for mystery singer ends in Vancouver

International search for mystery singer ends in Vancouver

About 16 years ago, a mysterious song with no known singer or writer somehow caught the attention of a group of Reddit users. The group’s investigation eventually led them to Paula Toledo of Vancouver. Gloria Macarenko talks to Toledo and the moderator of the Reddit group about the search and the singer.

“So they took my song, the exact song, and put a new piece of art on it with a teddy bear,” Toledo said.

The fake version created confusion, he says, and his version was removed from streaming services.

Toledo suspects his song was a victim of streaming fraud, which experts say is a growing concern for streaming platforms, music distributors and artists.

“It’s not lost on me that the song was pirated and placed on a Russian pirate DVD… Then it was found and literally weeks later it was pirated again,” Toledo said.

“It’s so unfortunate.”

An image of three white men posing in front of a wall of album covers.
Adam Batey, center, is pictured with fellow Beatdapp co-founders Pouria Assadipour, left, and Morgan Hayduk, right. Batey says the company, which recently secured $17 million in funding, uses machine learning to root out fraud in music streaming. (Min Lee)

Andrew Batey, founder and co-CEO of Beatdapp, a Vancouver-based company that uses technology to help streaming services and distributors detect fraud, says most fraud occurs when scammers upload sound files through of digital music distribution services on streaming sites.

They then program robots (or steal other people’s accounts) to play the tracks over and over again and collect royalties.

The files do not have to contain music. They can consist of things like whale noises or environmental sounds, Batey says. Scammers also use music recorded by other artists.

“They upload hundreds of thousands of songs to the platforms as if they were artists,” he said.

“So they make fake labels… they get music from various places and put music on streaming platforms pretending to be artists.”

On the coast9:53Vancouver company tries to crack down on music streaming fraud

CBC journalist Jon Azpiri explains what music streaming fraud is and tells us about Beatdapp, a Vancouver company that helps music industry clients root out streaming fraud.

Fraud dilutes streaming royalty fund

Toledo is concerned that How long was copied by scammers and she is working to unravel what happened.

She says she has reached out to distributors and streaming platforms and hopes the situation will be rectified soon.

“It’s really unfortunate that in the music industry there isn’t more protection to protect artists,” he says. “I’m also very understanding of the fact that (the industry) is dealing with this probably on a very large scale and these bad actors are very smart.”

Batey says fraud affects artists big and small alike.

Most streaming services determine pay using a system called proration, which pools the total amount of money generated by listeners each month and then divides it proportionally by listening time to determine how much each artist should be paid.

Some scams involve artists using bots to “squeeze” their streaming numbers and boost their profiles, Batey says. The vast majority (around 80 percent) choose to quietly accumulate streams to get a bigger slice of the royalty pie.

A study has found that between one and three percent of broadcasts in France in 2021 were fake.

Batey estimates the figure is much higher (in the range of 10 percent), diverting around $2 billion a year from legitimate artists and labels.

He notes that the French study examined the 10,000 most streamed songs in France. Much fraud happens under the radar, he says.

“They want to be in the long tail…which means they only have a handful of streams of each song per day,” he said.

“They don’t want to be the center of attention. They don’t want the sunlight shining on them.”

A smartphone is seen in front of an on-screen projection of the Spotify logo, in this illustration taken April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration - RC1BCDB28F90
Beatdapp’s Andrew Batey says streaming platforms have an incentive to root out fraud. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

There are times, Batey says, when scammers make a splash. He says that he knows a well-known DJ who had one of his songs copied. The scammers timed the release of the pirated version to coincide with the real version. The bootlegging ended up ranking more prominently on the streaming service’s playlist, and scammers cashed in.

Batey says Beatdapp works with the music industry to root out fraud, using machine learning to identify suspicious behaviour. The company says it has a false positive rate of less than 0.001 percent.

Beatdapp recently announced it raised $17 million in funding and has formed partnerships with rights management SoundExchange and file-sharing service Napster, as well as a collaboration with Universal Music Group.

Streaming fraud creates barriers for artists

In a statement, a Spotify spokesperson told CBC News that the company invests heavily in detecting and addressing artificial streaming.

The statement went on to say that less than one percent of its transmissions have been determined to be artificial.

“When we identify stream tampering, we take action that may include removing stream numbers and withholding royalties,” the spokesperson said. “These actions allow us to protect royalty payments to honest, hard-working artists.”

The company said artists can report suspected copyright infringement online and the company will notify the content provider of the claim.

The company added that an artist who is having trouble uploading their content should check with their distributor.

CBC News also reached out to Apple Music for comment but did not receive a response.

Batey says fraud creates a challenging environment for musicians and record labels.

“(Artists) have to do 1,000 things right to really make it. You just add another thing that makes it harder,” Batey said.

“When they finally get through, many of these scammers steal money not just from themselves, but from everyone in the supply chain.”

Toledo says she is grateful that her music has been rediscovered. She wants to take the opportunity to focus on creating new music and building a community, rather than searching through the world of distributors and streaming platforms.

Some of his other music remains on streaming services, but How long, the song at the center of the online mystery, remains offline. He hopes to find out what happened.

“This is another level of mystery to me,” he said.

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