Unauthorized leaks on Spotify and Apple Music reveal the holes in music streaming

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Evidence shows that the problem of streaming fraud is still a major issue on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.

While the advent of music streaming has undoubtedly had benefits as various services grow, more cracks are appearing in the system. As they appear, there are more opportunities for people to exploit them. One example of this is the appearance of unauthorized leaks on Spotify and Apple Music. 

The Good and Bad of Leaks

Historically, when an album or song leaked, fans would find it through social media and random online forums. While most would think that unauthorized leaks are bad, in a lot of cases they are far more complex. On the negative side, a leak presents music in a way that the artist didn’t intend or that is unfinished. This can ruin songs and disrupt the creative process. On the arguably good side, a leaked song can serve as a warped promotional tool and as a barometer for an artist’s current popularity. 

Earlier this summer, Playboi Carti experienced all of that. While fans anxiously waited for the follow-up to 2018’s “Die Lit,” several Playboi Carti songs leaked onto Apple Music and Spotify. In May, “Pissy Pamper/Kid Cudi,” a Playboi Carti and Young Nudy song leaked under the name “Kid Carti.” The leaker uploaded the songs under the name Lil Kambo. “Pissy Pamper/Kid Cudi” remained on streaming services to the point that the song hit No. 1 on Spotify’s U.S. Viral 50 Chart before Spotify took it down. 

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The Music Supply Chain

Carti isn’t the only artist that has experienced leaks by fake-named accounts. Beyoncé, SZA, and Rihanna have all had unfinished or unreleased old songs uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music under different artist names. In most of these cases, none of the artists are getting paid. Payments do go out, though.

After the Carti songs leaked onto streaming services, a fan named DJ EightBit claimed that he was behind them. While he says that he was not paid, a different anonymous leaker told Pitchfork that they leaked Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert songs for “eager fans” and was paid up to $60,000 by music distribution companies DistroKid and TuneCore. While leakers might paint themselves as music Robin Hoods, the process exposes the faults of the music supply chain.

Independent music distribution companies exist to help musicians get their music on streaming services. These companies also pay out royalties to artists for the number of streams their music receives. Digital music distribution is a challenging game, though. Most of the time, distributing music means handling reams of data. This provides opportunities for errors to occur—and for data to go missing. These errors add up to artists, songwriters, and producers losing out on money or being responsible for leaks appearing on streaming services. 

Though independent distribution companies have fraud and error prevention, their low barrier to entry makes uploading music under different names and song titles relatively easy. This ultimately means that there is no easy answer or solution to the problem of leaks and streaming fraud. Spotify attempted to bypass third-party distribution by allowing artists to upload music directly to the platform but shuttered the feature in July. The company says it wants to “focus on developing tools in areas where Spotify can uniquely benefit [artists].” 

Too Much of a Good Thing

While independent distribution chains foster an environment that might encourage illegitimate uploads, at the end of the day, the streaming companies themselves hold most of the power. For distribution companies, the rate at which artists release music is almost too much to handle. Spotify vets major artist releases to ensure accuracy. However, the company doesn’t provide, and can’t afford to give, the same oversight to all of the music that appears on its platform. 

In the end, it’s a problem of scale. It’s possible that there’s simply too much music. The music supply chain, with its incomplete glut of metadata and lack of resources, is a perfect storm allowing imposters to thrive. Perhaps the only way to fend off streaming fraud is for companies to combat each case individually. The chances of that happening, though, are remote.