I'd caught him red-handed committing the worst sin one can be guilty of in the underground: Louie was faking it.
In early January, I received an email from the head of a digital label. In adorably broken English, "Louie" (or so we'll call him, for reasons that will become apparent) asked me how he could submit promos for review by 5 Magazine.
I directed him to our music submission guidelines. We get somewhere between five and six billion promos a month. Nothing about this encounter was extraordinary.
A few hours later, I received his first promo. We didn't review it. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, disposable: a bland, mediocre Deep House track. These things are a dime a dozen these days - again, everything about this encounter was boringly ordinary.
But I noticed something strange when I Googled up the track name. And I bet you've noticed this too. Hitting the label's SoundCloud page, I found that this barely average track - remarkable only in being utterly unremarkable - had somehow gotten more than 37,000 plays on SoundCloud in less than a week. Ignoring the poor quality of the track, this is a staggering number for someone of little reputation. Most of his other tracks had significantly fewer than 1,000 plays.
Even stranger, there were only 117 comments - a very low number for a track with so many plays.
Stranger still, most of the comments - insipid and stupid even by social media standards - came from people who do not appear to exist.
You've seen this before: a track with acclaim far beyond any apparent worth. You've followed a link to a stream and thought, "How is this even possible? Am I missing something? Did I jump the gun? How can so many people like something so ordinary?"
Louie, I believed, was purchasing plays, to gin up some coverage and buy his way into overnight success. He's not alone. Desperate to make an impression in an environment in which hundreds of digital EPs are released every week, labels are increasingly turning toward any method available to make themselves heard above the racket - even the skeezy, slimey, spammy world of buying plays and comments.
I'm not a naif about such things - I've watched several artists (and one artist's significant other) benefit from massive but temporary spikes in their Twitter and Facebook followers within a very compressed time period. "Buying" the appearance of popularity has become something of a low-key epidemic in dance music, like the mysterious appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Uggs and the word "Hella" from the American vocabulary.
But (and here's where I am naive), I didn't think this would extend beyond the reaches of EDM madness into the underground. Nor did I have any idea what a "fake" hit song would look like. Now I do.
THIS IS WHAT A FAKE DANCE HIT LOOKS LIKE
Looking through the tabs of the 30k+ play track, the first thing I noticed was the total anonymity of the people who had favorited it. They have made-up names and stolen pictures, but they rarely match up. These are what SoundCloud bots look like:
The usernames and "real names" don't make sense, but on the surface they seem so ordinary that you wouldn't notice anything amiss if you were casually skimming down a list of them. "Annie French" has a username of "Max-Sherrill". "Bruce-Horne" is "Tracy Lane". A pyromaniac named "Lillian" is better known as "Bernard Harper" to her friends. There are literally thousands of these. And they all like exactly the same tracks (none of the "likes" in the picture are for the track Louie sent me, but I don't feel much need to go out of my way to protect them than with more than a very slight blur):
Most of the comments are hilariously banal, but a few do stand out. You have to wonder what Louie thinks, knowing that comments like "YOU ARE A GOD" come from imaginary fans he's paid for:
Most of them are like this. (Louie deleted this track after I contacted him about this story, so the comments are all gone; all of these were preserved via screenshots. He also renamed his account.)
FAKE PLAYS, REAL DOLLARS
It's pretty obvious what Louie was doing: he'd bought fake plays and fake followers. But why would someone do this? After leafing through hundreds of followers and compiling these screenshots, I contacted Louie by email with my evidence.
His first reply consisted of a sheaf of screenshots of his own - his tracks prominently displayed on the front page of Beatport, Traxsource and other sites, along with charts and reviews. It seemed irrelevant to me at the time - but pay attention. Louie's scrapbook of press clippings is more relevant than you know.
After reiterating my questions, I was surprised when Louie brazenly admitted that everything implied above is, in fact, true. He is paying for plays. His fans are imaginary. Sadly, he is not a god.
You have noticed that I'm not revealing Louie's real name. I'm fairly certain you've never heard of him. I'm hopeful, based upon listening to his music, that you never will. In exchange for omitting all reference to his name and label from this story, he agreed to talk in detail about his strategy of gaming SoundCloud, and then manipulating others - digital stores, DJs, even simple fans - with his fake popularity.
Don't misunderstand me: the temptation to "name and shame" was strong. An early draft of this story (seen by my partner and a few other people) excoriated the label and ripped its fame-hungry owner "Louie" to pieces. I'd caught him red-handed committing the worst sin one can be guilty of in the underground: Louie was faking it.
But when every early reader's response was, "Wait, who is this guy again?" - well, that tells you something. I don't know if the story's "bigger" than a single SoundCloud Superstar or a Beatport One Week Wonder named Louie. But the story is at least different, and with Louie's cooperation, I was able to affix hard numbers to what this kind of ephemeral (but, he would argue, very effective) fake popularity will cost.
This is "Louie's" actual level of popularity - tracks that were put up months before he began gaming the SoundCloud system.
THIS IS WHAT A FAKE DANCE HIT COSTS
People see you're popular, they believe you're popular, and eager as we all are to prop up a winner, you therefore BECOME popular. This also existed before the dawn of the internet - it was called The Emperor's New Clothes.
Louie told me that he artificially generated "20,000 plays" (I believe it was more) by paying for a service which he identifies as Cloud-Dominator. This gives him his alloted number of fake plays and "automatic follow/unfollow" from the bots, thereby inflating his number of followers.
Louie paid $45 for those 20,000 plays; for the comments (purchased separately to make the entire thing look legit to the un-jaundiced eye), Louie paid €40, which is approximately $53.
This puts the price of SoundCloud Deep House dominance at a scant $100 per track.
But why? I mean, I'm sure that's impressive to his mom, but who really cares about Louie and 30,000 fake plays of a track that even real people that listen to it, like me, will immediately forget about? Kristina Weise from SoundCloud told me by email that the company believes that "Illegitimately boosting one's follower numbers offers no long-term benefits."
But to hear Louie tell it: it does.
THIS IS WHAT A FAKE DANCE HIT CAN DO FOR YOU
This is where Louie was most helpful. The first effect of juicing his stats, he claims, nets him approximately "10 [to] 20 real people" per day that begin following his SoundCloud page as a result of artificially inflating his playcount to such a grotesque level.
These are people who see the popularity of his tracks, go through the same process I did in wondering how such a thing was possible, but inevitably shrug and sign on as a follower of Louie, assuming that where there's light, there must be heat as well.
But - and this is the most interesting part of his strategy, for there is a method to his madness - Louie also claims there's a financial dimension. "The track with 37,000 plays today [is] in the Top 100 [on] Beatport" he says, as well as being in "the Top 100 Beatport deep house tracks at #11."
And indeed, many of the tracks that he juiced with fake SoundCloud plays were later featured prominently on the front pages of both Beatport and Traxsource - a highly coveted source of promotion for a digital label.
They've also been reviewed and given notice by multiple websites and publications (hence his fondness for his scrapbook of press clippings he showed me after our initial contact).
Louie didn't pay Traxsource, or Beatport, or any of those blogs or magazines for coverage. He paid Cloud-Dominator. All of these knock-on, indirect benefits likely add up to far more than $100 worth of free advertising - a positive return on his paid-for SoundCloud dominance.
Louie's records on the front page of Traxsource and Beatport, which he attributes to having bought tens of thousands of SoundCloud plays.
So it's all about that mythical social media "magic". People see you're popular, they believe you're popular, and eager as we all are to prop up a winner, you therefore BECOME popular. Louie's $100 for pumping up the stats on his underground House track can probably be scaled up to the thousands or tens of thousands for EDM and other music genres (some of the bots following Louie also follow dubstep and even jazz musicians. Eclectic tastes, these bots have.)
Pay $100 on one end, get $100 (or more) back on the other, and hopefully build toward the biggest payoff of all - the day when your legitimate fans outweigh the legion of robots following you.
This entire technique was manipulated in the early days of MySpace and YouTube, but it also existed before the dawn of the internet. Back then it was called The Emperor's New Clothes.
Of Payola and Steroids
SoundCloud claimed 18 million registered users back in Forbes in August 2012. While bots and the sleazy services that sell access to them plague every online service, some people will view this issue as one which is SoundCloud's responsibility. And they do have a healthy self-interest in ensuring that the little numbers next to the "play", "heart" and "quotebubble" icons mean exactly what they say they mean.
This article is a sterling endorsement for many of the services brokering fake plays and fake followers. They do exactly what they say they will: inflate plays and gain followers in an at least somewhat under-the-radar manner. I've seen it. I've just showed it to you. And that's a problem for SoundCloud and for those in the music industry who ascribe any integrity to those little numbers: it's cheap, and if you can afford it, or expect to make a return on your investment on the backend, as Louie does, there doesn't seem to be any risk to it at all.
For the record, Kristina Weise told me that SoundCloud is
But it's been over 3 months since I first stumbled across Louie's tracks. None of the incredibly obvious bots I identify here have been deleted. In fact, all of them have been used several more times to leave inane comments and favorite tracks by Louie's fellow clients. (Some may worry that I'm listing the names of said shady services here. Rest assured, all of them appear prominently in Google searches for related keywords. They're not hard to find.)
And should SoundCloud develop a more effective counter against botting and what we might as well coin as "playcount fraud", they'd have an unusual ally.
"SoundCloud should close many accounts," Louie says, including "top DJs and producers [with] premium accounts for promoting like this. The visibility in the web jungle is very difficult."
For Louie, this is simply a marketing plan. And truthfully, he has history on his side, though he may not know it. For much of the last sixty years, in form if not procedure, this is exactly how records were promoted. Labels in the mainstream music industry bribed program directors at American radio stations to "break" songs of their choosing. They called it "payola". In the 1950s, there were Congressional hearings; radio DJs found guilty of accepting cash for play were ruined.
Payola was banned but the practice continued to flourish into the last decade. Read for instance, Eric Boehlert's excellent series on the more elegant system of payoffs that flourished after the famous payola hearings of the '50s. All of Boehlert's allegations about "independent record promoters" were proven true, again attracting the attention of Congress.
Payola consists of giving money or benefits to mediators to make songs appear more popular than they are. The songs then become popular through radio's free exposure. Louie's ultra-modern form of payola eliminates any benefit to the operator (in this case, SoundCloud), but the effect is the same: to make you believe that this "boringly ordinary" track is an underground clubland sensation - and thereby make it one.
The acts that benefited from payola in Boehlert's exposé were multiplatinum groups like U2 and Destiny's Child. This isn't Lady Gaga or even the Swedish House Mafia. It's just Louie, a fairly average producer making fairly average underground House Music which probably sells an average of a hundred or so copies per release.
It's sad that people would go to such lengths over such a tiny sip of success. But Louie feels he has little choice. Each week, hundreds of EPs flood digital stores, and he feels certain that many of them are deploying the same sleazy "marketing" tactics I caught him using. There's no way of knowing, of course, how many artists are juicing up their stats the way Louie is, but I'm less interested in verification than I am in understanding. It has some kind of creepy parallel to Lance Armstrong and the steroid debate plaguing cycling and other sports: if you're certain everyone else is doing it, you'd be a fool not to.
I posed that metaphor to Louie, but he didn't seem to get it. Language problems. But I'm pretty sure that he'd agree. As his legitimate SoundCloud followers inch upward, as his tracks break into the absurd sales charts at digital stores that emphasize chart position over the pathetic number of units sold (after all, "#1 Track!" sounds much better than "100 Copies Sold Worldwide!"), he feels vindicated. It's worth it.