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  • Writer's pictureTobi

The Pay for Placement Pandemic

Be it Golden Ticket or Fools Gold, ‘Pay for Placement’ is rife across the Independent Scene and, on the face of it, largely unchecked.

Spotify’s terms of use are clear, it is not permitted to artificially increase play counts or otherwise manipulate the Service by providing or accepting any form of compensation (financial or otherwise)*. And yet, all across the Indie Web, Artists are paying curators for placement on their playlists, in the mistaken belief, it will advance their careers. ‘Pay for Placement’ is rife and, on the face of it, largely unchecked.

* “The following is not permitted (..) artificially increasing play counts, follow counts, or otherwise manipulating the Service by (i) using any bot, script, or other automated process; (ii) providing or accepting any form of compensation (financial or otherwise), or (iii) any other means; ” - Spotify Terms and Conditions of Use; 9.8 User Guidelines

A Day Late & a Dollar Short: Spotify Needs to Do More

In making streaming numbers ‘front and center’ on Artist’s profiles, coupled with the relative ease of setting up free user accounts en masse, Spotify has unwittingly given rise to a new revenue stream; one that is fraudulent, and therefore unregulated, and by its very nature, highly exploitative.

And while Spotify has made considerable efforts, in recent years, to tackle the problem, by investing tens of millions of euros in new applications designed to identify fake accounts and fake playlists; and by shutting down websites found guilty of actively encouraging or turning a blind eye to the practice, the platform’s stance has not always been so clear cut. Spotify did not even take an official position on ‘pay for placement’ until the summer of 2015, when they updated their Terms and Conditions of Use, to categorically prohibit the practice*; and so, must bear a large part of the blame and, in turn, responsibility for finding a lasting and effective solution.

*Source: “How 'Playola' Is Infiltrating Streaming Services: Pay for Play Is 'Definitely Happening”, (19th August 2015)

Anyone who has done the rounds contacting curators will know, all too well, that the vast majority reply by demanding money in return for placement.

It’s the dirty, (not so) little (not really) secret of the Industry.

But while the reporting of content, copyright, and trademark violations on Spotify’s platform are, to their credit, straightforward and easily accessible, there is, at the time of writing this article, no similar mechanism to report curators for ‘pay for placement’.

With ‘Spotify Bashing’ the sport of choice for many in the Music Industry (particularly those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo), it would be all too easy, and indeed popular, to blame Spotify entirely for the problem. It would also, of course, be incorrect, and in spite of the obvious and pertinent fact; there can be no revenue without customers.

Whether or not the major labels engage in a highly lucrative and clandestine ‘pay for placement’ deals with top tire influencers/curators, exchanging thousands of dollars in return for thousands of listeners, is outside the experience and, frankly, interest of this author; this article is concerned with the ‘pay for placement’ accessible, and, by that I mean, affordable, to Independent Artists; one that trades in hundreds of dollars, not thousands; and yet, somehow provides tens of thousands of listeners in return.

Fake It Until You Break It: Why Pay for Placement Hurts Your Career

With the bewildering cacophony of playlists, blogs, podcasts, and radio shows, the 24/7 demands of social media, not to mention the costs of recording, touring, merchandise, and legitimate promotion, it is small wonder that so many Independent Artists find themselves browbeaten by the sheer indifference of streaming media, and in desperation turn to the apparent golden ticket of ‘pay for placement’.

In truth though, given the way Spotify actually works, ‘pay for placement’ is no golden ticket at all, but rather a poison chalice.

It’s no secret that the vast majority of Spotify’s playlist ecosystem is auto-curated by AI; and what is not, is heavily influenced by it. Once you have a sufficient number of listeners, the AI will begin to tag your music according to their habits/tastes; and, in turn, use that data to pair your music with potential listeners. You can see this process at work in the ‘FANS ALSO LIKE’ section of your Spotify Artist Profile. If everything is working as intended, you should see artists of similar or complementary genres to your own.

If, on the other hand, the majority of your plays come from fake accounts controlled by bots; not only would the AI be unable to extrapolate any useful data, the ‘bot-data’ would drown out any genuine data derived from real listeners. And, in all likelihood, the ‘pay for placement’ playlists are, for all intents and purposes, entirely dependent on bots/fake accounts for their so-called ‘listeners’.

Building a successful playlist takes time, keen attention to the likes/dislikes of your listeners, and an uncompromising attitude to song placement in regard to genre and above all else, quality. Given that ‘pay for placement’ playlists accept tracks based entirely upon whoever is willing to pay, it can be no surprise that they fall woefully short in fulfilling any of these prerequisites.

Many ‘pay for placement’ curators claim to attract followers via social media and marketing, but rarely have any social media presence to speak of; and, realistically, when your revenue is derived from Artists paying to be on your playlists, your marketing budget, if you even have one, is going to be focused on attracting more Artists, not listeners (these same arguments invalidate the ‘pay for play’ radio stations that infest the Indie Web).

And yet by some miracle, ’pay for placement’ playlists offer 1,000s to 10,000s of individual listeners a month; a success rate that is only bettered by the top tire playlists run by the major labels* or by Spotify themselves; and one that far exceeds that of the average legitimate independent playlist, which typically earns Artists, at best, 100s of listeners a month.

*The top three ‘so-called’ Independent playlist curators on Spotify are, in fact, owned by the three major labels (UMG - Digster; Sony - Fitre, WMG - Topsify).

A curious set of numbers, made all the more dubious, when you consider that very few ‘pay for placement’ playlists have any presence whatsoever on Apple Music. It beggars belief that they would not be interested in deriving revenue from Apple playlists, nor is credible that they’d be unable to afford the 9.99 euro per month subscription fee.

A much more likely and simple explanation is that ‘pay for placement’ curators are unable to afford the 1,000s of euros per month, it would cost them in subscription fees, to setup the slew of fake accounts needed to achieve their mythological listener numbers; fake accounts that can set up on Spotify for free.

Mostly Harmless: Pay for Placement Is Not a Victimless Crime

It would be tempting to see Artist who engage in ‘pay for placement’ as hapless victims; naive dreamers exploited by conmen, or perhaps as modern-day although wrong-headed, Robin Hood, stealing from the rich corporations and giving to the poor (and by poor, I mean themselves). Aside from the fact, they are very much giving to themselves and not to others, they are also not, in truth, stealing from Spotify.

Spotify calculates Artist earnings by pooling together the revenue it has derived from subscription and advertising; and, once it has extracted its own cut, creates, in effect, a gigantic cake. The cake is then split into slices. Each slice represents 1 stream; and, therefore, determines how much that 1 stream will earn. More streams mean more slices. And, as we all know, as a cake is cut into more slices, the slices get smaller.

*Source: ‘Is Spotify’s Model Wiping Out Music’s Middle Class?’ The Ringer (January 16th, 2019)

In other words, the more streams, the less each individual stream is worth in terms of dollar/euro return.

Artist who engage ‘Pay for Placement’, are not modern-day Robin Hoods. Spotify makes its money selling subscriptions and advertising, not streams. Artists who engage in ‘Pay for Placement’ are not stealing from a faceless corporation; they are, if anything, stealing from other Artists.

‘A Beginning is a Delicate Time*’: 'Pay for Placement' and The New Independent Scene

*Quote from the ‘Princess Irulan Monologue’ and the opening lines of the David Lynch 1984 motion picture of Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’.

It can be argued that the damage done to streaming royalties, by one Artist paying for placement, is little more than a drop in the ocean; and therefore, limited to that of a point of principle; but principles do matter, and, given how common place ‘pay for placement’ is amongst Independent Artists, the combined damage goes far beyond that of principle, and will amount to a significant reduction in income for those working hard to attract real listeners.

Independent Artists who work every bit as hard as the 'pay for placement artists', if not harder, face the same insane odds, and suffer the same disappointments and heartbreak. Artists who struggle day to day to grind out a real fanbase, with precious little encouragement, watching their streams creep upwards at a painfully slow pace; while all around them, ‘pay for placement’ Artists gleefully celebrate the metronomic rise of their fake streams.

Whether you actively engage in ‘pay for placement’ or not, we all know Artists who do. And although many of us do not condone the activity, we almost always turn a blind eye; and often go as far as congratulating ‘pay for placement’ artists, when they celebrate their fake streams.

Given the damage it is doing to their own careers and to the earnings of their fellow Artists, lest we even discuss the criminal enterprises, oft purported to be profiting from ‘pay for placement’ scams; isn’t it time we, at the very least, stopped indulging ‘pay for placement’ artists with fake wishes of congratulations to match their fake streams, and, if anything, resolved to call them out?

‘A beginning is a very delicate time’. And right now, in these early years of streaming, the new Independent scene is forming. A scene that will help shape the careers of Independent Artists and the music they create for the next two to three decades. Ask yourself, what kind of Independent Scene do you want to be apart of?

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