Since the advent of the streaming market in music, accusations and proven incidents of paid-for streams, fake artists and songs meant to siphon music from the system, and other instances of deceptive, underhanded, or outright illegal activity have been reported on and well-documented. But recently Saving Country Music stumbled upon a situation that appears unprecedented in scope, uniquely brazen in its activity, and directly affects artists, songwriters, and their original material.
Over 112 artists and counting have been confirmed as victims of a sweeping intellectual property theft by having their recordings directly stolen and repurposed by fake artist accounts operating on all major streaming services, including Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Google Play, YouTube, and others. The theft includes at least 831 total songs, of which 673 Saving Country Music has been able to identify. The stolen songs on the fake accounts have received in excess of 5 millions streams, and are generating an estimated $1,500 a week for the fraudsters.
A total of 24 confirmed fake artist accounts are responsible for the theft, though many more accounts are suspected of being fake, while the system implemented by these fake accounts could be easily replicated under the current streaming model, meaning hundreds, or possibly thousands of similar accounts could exist, funneling money from streaming service subscriptions away from artists to fraudulent third parties.
The vast majority of the tracks and fake accounts are still currently live at the time of posting. To see all the artists affected, all the names of the fake accounts, as well as a statistical breakdown of the stolen tracks, and a catalog of which specific songs were stolen from each artist, check out Sweeping Stream Song Theft: The Data.
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The rash of fake accounts was first discovered when fans of Canadian country & Western performer Colter Wall noticed that a live version of his rendition of the traditional cowboy song “I Ride Old Paint” appeared in their Discovery Weekly playlists around December 16th, 2019. It was clearly Colter Wall singing, but instead of Colter’s name coming up in the playlist, the track was attributed to an artist named Jason Dover.
But that wasn’t the only song from Jason Dover that belonged to Colter Wall. Four songs taken from a Colter Wall Daytrotter session recorded in March 29th, 2018 were included on a record credited to Jason Dover called Never Come Back first posted to streaming platforms on August 6th 2019. Six other unidentified songs were also on Never Come Back. As soon as Colter Wall’s management was notified about the theft of his tracks by the Jason Dover account, they initiated the process to have the album pulled.
But this turned out to just be the beginning. Even with the removal of the Jason Dover Never Come Back album, the fake account was still allowed to remain live with two other albums containing copyrighted material from other artists. An album entitled Big Escape included five original songs taken from albums of the Austin-based Texas music band The Statesboro Revue. Another 13-song album from Jason Dover called New Step consisted entirely of songs from a Texas-based Christian country singer named John Randolph.
This revelation in itself seemed to illustrate one of the most brazen examples of fraud within the streaming market, and an unprecedented instance of intellectual property theft. But again, this was just scratching the surface. Utilizing the “Fans Also Like” feature on the Jason Dover Spotify account, eventually 24 more fake accounts were revealed via universal signifiers contained on each account, and then verified by using the Shazam application to identify songs. Other songs were identified by cross-referencing track information via other sources when the stolen songs were not currently available through streaming services, or when they came from organizations such as Daytrotter, Noisetrade, or Paste Studios (now all under the Paste umbrella).
All of the fake streaming accounts also used the image generation program “Canva” to create the cover art for these records. This aided in their discovery and identification, and corroborates that the fake accounts could all be from the same individual or group of individuals. Also, each fake account released all the albums from the individual artist on the same day, and all the albums and songs were distributed through DistroKid—a self-service platform that allows independent artists to distribute their music online.
Only one of the 24 fake accounts includes just one album. Most include two or three, and a few include four albums of re-purposed songs. Many include the stolen songs of different artist in random order, some switching genres mid album. None of the fake account names have any other internet presence in music, meaning no social media accounts or websites can be located for these artists, no tour dates, or other identifiers that would refute they are fake. Many of the albums were released during the summer of 2019, but some have been uploaded as recently as December.
Each of the 112 artists who’ve been identified as having work stolen had at least two songs taken, but some had many more. Los Angeles-based acoustic pop artist Katrina Stone had 26 songs taken, and Ohio-based folk artist Charlie Mosbrook had 23. And the issue goes well beyond the country and roots world. Though well-known Texas country artist Rich O’Toole is part of the theft, as is the CMA-nominated former Steel Magnolia member and The Voice contestant Meghan Linsey, there are jazz, rock, and pop artists, EDM artists, as well as a full album of instrumental tracks.
And none of this accounts for the songwriters on the stolen songs, or other content creators who contributed to the repurposed tracks. Though most of the songs taken were original studio recordings that were released professionally, there are 47 total songs taken from Daytrotter/Noisetrade/Paste Studios sessions where artists performed live versions of songs, or cover songs from other artists.
There are also some tracks that sound like they were recorded by amateurs on smartphones, or songs that perhaps were demo or scratch tracks. In this specific cross section of stolen tracks, you can find songs originally written or recorded by the likes of Taylor Swift, Adele, Shania Twain, Coldplay, Michelle Branch, Ingrid Michaelson, Sixpence None The Richer, and Vertical Horizon. Considering these tracks are still earning revenue for the fake account holders despite the crude nature of the recordings, this adds an entirely new dimension to the amount of artists affected by the fraud, while upping the ante in the name-recognition of the performers who’ve been injured in the fraud.
And despite the 112 names of artists verified to have songs taken, there are still 158 songs from artists Saving Country Music was unable to identify, meaning there are more victims out there yet to be identified. There are also six accounts of hip-hop songs that also appear to be fake, as well as an acoustic album. If these accounts prove to be fake as well, this would add another 216 stolen songs for a total of 1,047.
Again, to see all the data from the investigation, check out Sweeping Stream Song Theft: The Data.
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Ultimately, the point of stealing the tracks is to generate revenue for an end account holder, which in the instance of these fake accounts, was working through a DistroKid account. Then the tracks received plays through streaming mechanisms or by being loaded into playlists for revenue to be generated. Just from the 24 confirmed fake accounts Saving Country Music discovered, the stolen songs were receiving enough streams to generate and estimated $1,500 a week, or $75,000 a year. All the fake accounts came up in groups through the recommended artist features on services like Spotify and Amazon Unlimited due to the same fake listener accounts playing the same fake artist accounts. So even though the music on the fake accounts was of a wide variety, all the fake accounts were linked in the streaming services as being similar.
When Saving Country Music reached out to songwriter and performer Katrina Stone about the theft of her tracks, she was also currently looking into the fraud. Similar to the experience of country artist Colter Wall, she was tipped off to the stolen songs through fans hearing her music through Spotify’s Discovery Weekly feature, meaning stolen songs are actively being promoted and receiving streams via special features on these streaming services, not just automatically by bots. This is also one of the few ways artists or the public can be tipped off to their existence. Otherwise they would never be found since artists, managers, and labels don’t know how to search for them, and the track names don’t always align with the original song.
“I reached out to Spotify, Apple, and Amazon, and they would not help me. They were just too big,” Katrina Stone says. “I had the burden of proof. To put in 26 copyright claims, one per song per streaming site would take forever. So I just went to the source. I reached out to DistroKid, and they opened an inquiry, discovered that all the music was mine, and then they said it would be down in about a week.”
Katrina Stone successfully had the 26 tracks stolen from her removed earlier this week, but since they were originally posted on June 20th, 2019, it means that revenue had been generated by someone else using her songs for 7 1/2 months before it was resolved. And even though she’s one of the few artists who discovered the theft and the songs have now been taken down, there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.
“There’s nothing really stopping them,” Stone explains. “Even though my stuff was just pulled, they could upload it today under a different name, and I wouldn’t be able to find it. There’s no way for me to search for it. And who does the responsibility fall on? DistroKid makes you click a little box that says, ‘I acknowledge that this work is 100% my own.’ But you can just lie, and then they don’t have any responsibility anymore. Meanwhile streaming services are trusting these distributors. I asked if there was anything DistroKid could do in the future about this, and they said that each streaming platform individually would have to have some sort of algorithm like YouTube has that will screen for preexisting music, and they don’t. So it’s just going to keep happening.”
However most of the stolen tracks are all still being serviced on YouTube as well, which claims to have safeguards in place meant to protect creators and copyright holders.
“I am as independent as you can get. 100%,” Katrina Stone continues. “If I spend all of my time doing this stuff, I can’t make music anymore. Trying to track all this down, it’s just a legal nightmare. And so I just have to have them keep taking it down, and know that my stuff is going to get stolen.”
DistroKid did reach out to the person responsible for the theft. Saving Country Music is currently investigating the legal implications and ramifications of the stolen songs, and will report on that side of the story at a future date. Artists who’ve had their music stolen are encouraged to reach out to DistroKid to try and get the music taken down as opposed to reaching out to the streaming services.
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The brazenness and expansiveness of this theft of songs, along with the difficulty of discovering it, and the ability for thieves to easily replicate the system due to the lack of formal protocols or algorithms in place to verify the ownership of songs is what is so disturbing about this story for both musicians and their fans.
The technology to identify the originator of a given music track already exists. The free Shazam app was the primary way Saving Country Music was able to quickly and easily identifymany of the stolen tracks, and who the original owner was. Algorithmic information from tracks provided through organizations like Daytrotter, Noisetrade, NPR’s Tiny Desk, and other free music providers could also be added to this database to safeguard against these caches of music being redistributed for profit.
But until there is regulation or an industry consensus to work to protect creators and their songwriting collaborators, there is no reason to believe the theft of music won’t continue on a grand scale. It’s also a good bet that the fake accounts and stolen songs discovered by Saving Country Music is just the tip of the iceberg of what is out there on the streaming services already, siphoning revenue away from artists as we speak.
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NOTE: If you are an artist whose music has been affected by the fraud, please feel free to reach out to Saving Country Music via the Contact Forum.