Whether or not anyone wants to admit to it, fake plays are becoming a constant in mainstream music. Those that have budgets have the power to control social media, and therefore, the ability to control the flow of content. Money and smarts go a long way, and mastery of both allows complete command of the market and the fans that come with it. And while SoundCloud has become the most important platform for today's music industry, sites like BuySoundCloud.com and Cloud-Dominator.com are advertising themselves as services where aspiring artists can purchase plays, follows, and favorites on this popular platform, thus boosting their visibility and market potential. Or, to quote Cloud-Dominator’s sales pitch: “Imagine greatly increasing your exposure—This could lead to freeing up precious studio time, DJ bookings, record signings & the reputation you are striving to achieve—Take Action Today!”
With so many services out there using a variety of increasingly clever methods to boost SoundCloud numbers, it's difficult to grasp what's actually real. And while we've spent time and effort investigating individuals and platforms that might be swaying the system, we've completely overlooked how much influence SoundCloud has over their users, and underestimated their ability to control user activity on their own platform. We've seen countless examples of artists and labels who have suspiciously high stats, and went as far as sending emails to Caked Up and their management with questions about buying results. We reached out with screenshots that showed suspicious users servicing their account, and we were met with unwavering denial of any wrongdoing.
In the time spent going back and forth with Caked Up's management about our potential article, I was forced to take a moment to reassess what exactly was going on here. I revisited these accounts, and continued to see trends on accounts that lead us to believe that Caked Up was genuine in their denial of any knowledge of using SoundCloud bots. To showcase exactly what I'm talking about, I packaged up a few screenshots from accounts that reposted Caked Up and Meaux Green's collaborative record "Thirsty," and found that there were hundreds of accounts that posted only records from Caked Up. Here is a sampling:
Again, I jumped the gun and falsely accused Caked Up of purchasing these plays. Here's why I was incorrect: I found parallel instances between accounts by hand-picking usernames that hadn't been changed from the stock "User" name followed by a number. Continuing the trail, I picked another random song from another artist that shared these suspicious reposts with Caked Up, Kill The Noise. He hosted his collaborative tune "Recess" with Skrillex and Fatman Scoop, and we see a bunch of the same results when grazing through accounts that left comments on that record. Lastly, I did the same with people that liked Flux Pavilion's latest upload, a track called "Exostomp (Jump Up High)." You can download all of the screenshots that I captured and compare for yourself, or check a sampling of the screen shots below:
If you opt to download the .ZIP of images, note that the file name for each screenshot points to that user's URL. You can feel free to dive deeper into these accounts yourself, but trust me when I tell you that this can be tracked incredibly easily thousands of times, and we're wondering how the results on SoundCloud are so far left from what happens across all other social media though that these numbers really should be questioned.
Ninja Tune has been putting out some of the best music in the independent scene, but are below the mainstream radar and only have 75,000 Twitter followers. How have they netted more than two million SoundCloud followers? Seven Lions, who has less than 50,000 Twitter followers and has released only four records in the past year, somehow has more than two million fans on his SoundCloud account. All of these accounts are releasing incredible music, but their activity doesn't mirror that of Twitter, and eclipses Facebook followings. And the deeper you dive, the odder it gets.
Benga looks to have only touched his account once in the past year, and has effectively quit touring, but he somehow skyrocketed to two million followers. Skream and Benga both have similar numbers for followers on Twitter. We're wondering how Skream's SoundCloud account, which is incredibly active with likes and reposts, has less than a quarter of Benga's SoundCloud's fan base. And if you're looking at trends on these suspicious accounts, they're undeniably abnormal. John Legend fans seem to really fuck with A-Trak. Mad Decent fans follow Bad Boy Records. Porter Robinson fans like Demi Lovato and Skrillex. Modestep and Noisia are as popular as The Weekend and Borgore. Something doesn't add up. The icing here is the fan base of Future, who somehow has three million SoundCloud followers with no songs on his page. I'm not sure how anyone can explain that.
It gets more interesting, though. These suspicious accounts lead to others that are just as alarming, and screenshots below will show a number of accounts that are raking in likes, plays, reposts, and followers with content that seems likely that they do not have permission to host. Accounts are hosting content from Wiz Khalifa, Justin Bieber, Drake, and others, and then getting plays and follows from other suspicious accounts. We're not talking about remixes here at all. These are songs that don't appear to belong to the people hosting them, and there are hundreds of accounts that are gaining fans off the back of copyrighted work. It appears to be a classic bait and switch, possibly an effort to create an artificial fan base for accounts that can get swapped and be used to engage with the accounts of artists who are looking to enhance their stats.
We can't see how anyone but SoundCloud is to blame here. These accounts are servicing competing artists, competing labels, and all of these accounts follow the same two patterns; one where accounts are created that follow and repost from one artist, and another where accounts are created to follow a bunch of artists and labels that are similar across the board. It's illogical to think that all of these outlets are using the same paid service to create fake results to compete with each other. The only logical reasoning behind this would be that SoundCloud is leveraging and positioning power users in an attempt to offer marketing packages to users, or fluffing numbers to dupe investors.
This isn't to say that all of the numbers for these artists are fake. Each label and artist seems to have been systematically targeted for their massive popularity, and the accounts actually reel in new, and very real, fans. These are brands that were already successful, and I truly believe that all of these outlets want to win organically. And while the popularity of each artist mentioned is undeniable and warranted, the numbers seem to be fluffed and swayed by SoundCloud without the permission of the accounts that are affected.
The crazy thing here is that these similarities were found manually. In researching, there are hundreds of accounts that I overlooked any accounts that had a username that wasn't generic, and any accounts that had more than a few followers. Any number of those accounts could be fraudulent as well, and we're curious how SoundCloud has yet to figure out an algorithm to detect and remove these accounts. We trust their results to be accurate, and they obviously aren't. Venture capitalists have handed tens of millions of dollars to the company in the past few months, and we're wondering if these fake numbers have anything to do with this influx of funding.
The average person would probably shrug off the similarities between these accounts and say that this looks like nothing more than a bunch of kids that are simply creating accounts to follow popular musicians. The thing here is that we're seeing a trend of these accounts supporting a cluster of records that other accounts support, and no account activity before or after this immediate activity. The results are obviously off base. I reached out to several of the labels and artists mentioned to get some clarity, and all of them declined to speak on the record, but mentioned that they had been contacted directly by SoundCloud at some point in the past 18 months. Most of them said the conversation was casual, and that it didn't cover much more than offering a direct connection or custom backgrounds for audio players, but it seems as if several accounts have been pinpointed by SoundCloud as valuable assets.
While we can’t say with absolute certainty that these accounts are bots, we can say that they don’t seem to exhibit the normal behavior we would expect of a human music fan on SoundCloud. A number of the remaining accounts pictured followed and reposted the same cross-section of records from Seven Lions, Chris Brown, RAC, Zeds Dead, Kid Ink, Lorde, Gold Panda, Chief Keef, John Legend, Crystal Castles, Imagine Dragons, Big Sean, Noisia, RL Grime, Demi Lovato, Modestep, Porter Robinson, Krewella, Kill The Noise, Bondax, Datsik, B.O.B., Pusha T, John Newman, AWOLNATION, Benga, and T. Williams.
There was also similarity between labels and websites that were represented across the board with many of these accounts. Across the board, we see that Fool's Gold, Mad Decent, YMCMB, OWSLA, Atlantic, Def Jam (and Island Def Jam), Spinnin, Sub Pop, Curb Records, DFA, Shady Records, Neon Gold Records, Bad Boy Records, and Interscope have all seen support from these accounts. It raises question of fairness at all levels. If bots are being used to showcase Interscope and Atlantic, why have Warner and Universal not gotten the same treatment? Is there any chance for the independent labels and artists to compete on a platform where people are getting preferential treatment? And while we've seen YouTube removing fake plays from labels, I'm of the opinion that, in this case, the labels in question have no clue that this is happening.
This is just one cluster of artists that cover only a few markets in popular culture, and it makes us incredibly curious how deep these consistencies really are. We continue to hear word that the Berlin-based company is in talks with labels to come to an agreement on revenue streams and licensing, but we don't know how this will work, what the timeline is, or how this will affect fans and the novice user. There are a lot of questions on the table; SoundCloud remains silent, and we're not anticipating an answer anytime soon.
I am working on a similar story for another outlet, and we reached out to SoundCloud to see if anyone could provide any clarity on these suspicious accounts that appear to be bots. We got generic answers, and the excuse that reps for the company were busy with SXSW. I also happened to be there, and let them know that I could make myself available at any time for a 10-minute sit-down. This request was politely declined. We're assuming that SoundCloud will probably sit silently and wait for all of this to blow over while they sort out whatever their next strategic move might be.
The bottom line here is that the people that we trust have a platform that appears to be duping fans of music, and there seems to be a complete lack of regulation within this company. It's increasingly frustrating when we're putting in overtime to push artists and labels that are playing by the rules, and we do so while questioning if their ability to compete is being systematically stripped from them. The only thing that we can't discern here is if these seemingly fake accounts are a move by labels to remain competitive, or if SoundCloud plans on giving favorable positioning to platforms as they rebrand their company. I wish we had the answers. In the end, I wrongly accused Caked Up and their management to get to this result though, and I offer my public and most sincerest apology for the stress and aggravation that this may have caused.