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Streaming 'Controversy': Can We Really Trust The Reported Numbers?
It's been another banner year for music streaming services — in fact, Nielsen estimates that 2017 has seen music streaming usage increase 76 percent year-over-year. But what if these robust streaming numbers aren't exactly accurate? Would we even know if the system has been manipulated?
For starters, let's take a look at how the likes of the RIAA and Nielsen and charting services like Billboard calculate streaming numbers. In the modern era of digital music streaming, the dated way of ranking the Billboard 200 by physical album sales alone doesn't really work anymore. By this time of the year in 2014, not one single artist had achieved a platinum-selling album for that year, though both Taylor Swift's 1989 and the soundtrack to Disney's Frozen would both clear 1 million units sold by year's end.
This drop-off in sales prompted Billboard to begin ranking chart placement in late 2014 using Nielsen's new "album equivalent unit" instead of physical record sales alone. With this new methodology, 10 individual track sales, one full album sale, or 1,500 on-demand streams from a single album are all weighted equally when ranking the Billboard 200.
However, with this new era of counting streams come new complications and new concerns from artists and industry professionals alike. In recent months, there have been accusations made by foreign publications and also directly from artists, claiming that streaming counts and subscriber numbers are being artificially inflated or otherwise manipulated.
Speaking to Forbes, Antonis Karalis, product architect and co-founder of tech company HPCmusic, was quick to point out that streaming services do far more than simply track and report the raw streaming numbers.
"They use statistical processes for estimating the relationships among different variables like users’ behavior," Karalis explains. "These models are really accurate … the confidence level that the industry operates on identifying manipulation is above 90%."
However, Jordan Mendler, president and CTO of The Veloz Group, was less confident. "A company like Spotify can track user behavior and user agents to assess if a given user is a real person or a bot," said Mendler. "[But] it would be fairly easy to manipulate the system simply by emulating the behavior of a real user."
So what does this all mean for the industry and the reliability of streaming numbers?
Forbes also spoke to Eric Holt, assistant professor of music business at Belmont University, one of the country's top music schools. Holt instead laid the impetus not on the streaming services themselves to spot fake listeners accounts, but rather at the feet of the charting services like Nielsen and Billboard to acknowledge that streaming is here to stay, and it's time to update their counting algorithms.
"Possible stream manipulation aside," he said, "it only makes sense to me that in order to remain relevant Billboard has to create better-measuring tools to fit the current and future music industry realities rather than running to keep up with them after the fact."