A very cheeky playlist scam has swindled Spotify out of $1 million

According to a  report last week, a Bulgarian playlist scheme may have scammed upwards of US$1 million (AUS$1.28 million) from Spotify – and all without breaking the law.

The company’s executives began reporting two suspicious playlists, Soulful Music and Music From the Heart, in September 2017.

Both lists had racked up large amounts of plays, which are now believed to have been generated by at least 1,200 fake Spotify accounts playing about 500 tracks on a loop. The playlists quickly rose in Spotify’s global- and US-based rankings, overtaking all the major label owned playlists.

The seeming popularity of both Soulful Music and Music From the Heart then led them to appear on a weekly industry playlist chart emailed out by Spotify. It wasn’t long before people started noticing they were dodgy.

The playlists barely had any followers, the majority of their plays were only 30 seconds long (the minimum time Spotify counts as a play), all the artist were pretty much unheard of, and most importantly, most of the tracks could be traced back with ISRC codes to one operation in Bulgaria.

But by the time anyone noticed, it was already too late. Music Business Worldwide’s sources believe the scam ran for at least four months before it was detected.

The math is fairly clear. Spotify’s per-track payment is around US$0.004 (AUS$0.01) per play. If 1,200 bot accounts were set up to automatically listen to 500 songs for 30 seconds 24 hours a day, then that comes to 72 million plays or US$415,000 (AUS$530,000) a month.

And those numbers are just for one playlist. The other had comparable numbers, and there could be more out there that are still collecting cash.

The crazy thing is the scam didn’t actually break any laws. The playlists were real and so were the premium Spotify accounts listening to them – it doesn’t matter if they were set up by one entity.

Spotify told MBW that they’re “improving methods of detection and removal” for the artificial manipulation of streaming activity. Although you have to wonder if the scammers won’t just start improving too.