'How Could This Happen?': Spotify Removed These Aussie Artists' Music For Alleged 'Fraudulent Activity'

20 June 2024 | 12:00 pm | Mary Varvaris

"It’s just not okay to automatically remove work and blame artists for it - the burden of proof should be on Spotify."


Spotify (Supplied)

Numerous independent Australian artists have reportedly had their music removed from Spotify, with the vague reasoning of alleged “fraudulent streaming activity” as the service grapples with how to deal with fake streams.

The artists claim they don’t know why or how their music has been subject to those accusations but have been told that their songs have appeared on a fraudulent playlist and have therefore been removed, a heartbreaking and career-damaging situation for an artist to be in, especially if they claim to be collateral damage for these illegitimate companies.

Many so-called ‘promotional companies’ sell fake streams to artists (often claiming that they are legitimate) to boost their numbers and revenue. For artists, it can be tempting to think that the outward appearance of success will enhance their upward journey through the industry, but the unintended consequences can be severe if their music is removed. But what happens when you haven’t manipulated your figures but find yourself accused of doing so?

Spotify implements automated processes and manual reviews to monitor, prevent, and mitigate ‘abnormal activity’ on the streaming service, with the aim of eliminating ‘fake’ streams. The streaming service then investigates potentially fraudulent activity using anomaly detection capabilities and insights into streaming behaviour and takes action accordingly to protect royalty payouts for legitimate artists.

In a statement about streaming fraud earlier this year, Spotify told Variety: “When Spotify identifies and confirms artificial streams, we withhold royalties from those streams and report the activity to the label or distributor.

“Spotify does not tell labels and distributors to remove content from our platform, but they may enforce their own removal policies. We’re working to quickly remove playlists with high levels of artificial streams, as we continue our efforts to minimise the impact of stream manipulation across our platform.”

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Adrian Breakspear, a well-known sound engineer, producer and mixer who’s worked with Gang Of Youths, CLEWS, Pacific Avenue and more, was alerted to the situation of music being removed from Spotify by some of his friends and peers in the music industry.

Breakspear says that he “regularly” reports fraudulent playlists that he finds on Spotify but claims that he receives a stock standard response from the company that says his concerns will be passed on to the right teams.

“Rarely do I see the offenders being removed,” he says. “I appreciate it’s a bit of a game of whack a mole, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is even trying; it’s easier just to blame the artists.”

With the situation at hand, Breakspear shares concern for independent artists. “Whole careers could be wiped with no recourse for the artist,” he adds, stating that Spotify, while not quite a monopoly over the entire music industry, has a large market share and “artists need it at the current time for discovery if not income.

Breakspear also alleges that the fraudulent playlists with 50,000 followers or more are made to look like they have an “air of legitimacy” by having a song next to a Taylor Swift or Drake track. “It makes it a tiny bit more legit looking even if the rest of the list is packed with unrecognisable artists.”

While he works with larger artists, Breakspear also works with numerous independent artists and helps them promote their music.

He says that “without exception,” every independent artist who has been placed on “dodgy” playlists has been on one with names like “Playlist Bros,” “Wavr.AI,” and “Artister”, which he claims operate pay-for-play websites, but that the artists in question have not engaged with. 

“They put a song on, rinse it for 24 hours, then it disappears again from their lists. The idea is that you look into why you got these streams, find their sites and then decide it's a good idea to pay them for more streams.”

“Every single one of these artists is at risk of losing songs for ‘fraudulent streams’, and every single one of them hasn’t done a thing to encourage it because they’re being guided by me, and I know what I’m doing in terms of legitimacy and how to spot a fraud,” Breakspear adds.

“It impacts artists’ income streams; it impacts their presence worldwide; it massively impacts morale. It’s just not okay to automatically remove work and blame artists for it - the burden of proof should be on Spotify.

“No real artist wants fake streams on their profiles; they just want to have their songs out there for the world to hear, but Spotify doesn’t seem interested in helping smaller artists, instead penalising them unfairly.”

An artist who asked to remain anonymous says they first became aware of their music being removed from Spotify after noticing that the revenue from their distributor, DistroKid, “was nowhere near where it should be” for the number of streams their songs were accruing.

When they went to share their most successful song on a Reddit forum earlier this year, they found that it had been removed from Spotify. At the time of writing, the artist doesn’t plan on returning that song or the rest of the album it’s from to Spotify.

The artist made “several” attempts to investigate what was happening but ended up getting “ping-ponged” between DistroKid and Spotify.

It’s a similar story for musician Tom Nunan, from the Geelong heavy metal band Toxicon, whose friend went to share Toxicon’s music with a coworker.

“We had a scan through the band email address and found an email from our distributor DistroKid saying, ‘Spotify has detected that the majority of streams on some of your track(s) were artificially streamed. As a result, Spotify has removed the release(s) containing those track(s) from their streaming service,’” Nunan explains.

Nunan tried to take action by jumping on the DistroKid helpline, in which he was met by a bot service.

“It replied entirely in FAQ page answers, essentially saying, ‘Go talk to Spotify because we can’t do anything and have no information,’” Nunan says. He got on the Spotify For Artists app and discovered which song had specifically been flagged but didn’t have data on where the streams came from.

Nunan adds, “There was no information about which track it was where those streams had come from, only that the album had been removed. I contacted Spotify Customer Service, which was also a bot service, and they said that Spotify could do nothing and that I needed to contact my label or distributor to sort it out.”

Getting back on the DistroKid portal, Nunan tried to get a human reply rather than another bot service. “They opened up a new order, and I inputted a bunch of information with album codes, release info, etc,” he says.

“They took five days to get back to me and asked for all the information I had already supplied again before telling me there was nothing they could do, and the only option was to upload the album again, but they couldn't guarantee that we would get our existing streams back from Spotify. I did some digging on some Reddit servers and re-uploaded the album, hoping we wouldn't get taken down again.”

Nunan alleges that Spotify issued “basically no response at all” after his music was removed from the platform.

Rob Tech also discovered that his music had been removed from Spotify after someone couldn’t find his song on the platform.

“A fan of mine messaged me about a song in their playlists they wanted to hear, but it wasn't showing up,” Tech says. “They reached out to me and asked me if I took down my song/album and asked why.”

Tech contacted DistroKid and asked what was happening, and like Nunan and the anonymous artist, he was directed to speak with Spotify.

He adds, “In reaching out to Spotify, they told me to contact my aggregator as they were in charge of removing my music from their platform. They're just blaming each other and not giving any real answers.”

Tech claims that outside of the companies “blaming each other,” any time he’s tried to make a new ticket on Spotify and share his problem, a person – once he’s passed the bot stage – says, “Hi Rob, going to read through the conversation and read about what your problem is.” Five minutes later, he allegedly received a message that read, “Ticket has been closed”.

To Tech, it feels like Spotify “just don't want to engage in that matter anymore.”

DistroKid didn’t immediately respond to The Music’s requests for comment.

Sydney-based solo artist Lane Sinclair, AKA Lazuli Mood, released the song New World in November 2023 and, just two months later, discovered its removal from Spotify when she attempted to play it as part of a rehearsal for a show.

Sinclair spotted that the song was still listed but wouldn’t play. Assuming it was a technical issue, she checked other devices and found the song missing entirely.

“Upon contacting the band, we were shocked to learn that New World had been taken down without prior warning or support,” Sinclair states. “This happened just weeks after we reached our milestone of over 100,000 streams after being accepted for a Spotify editorial playlist. Months of hard work vanished in an instant. How could this happen? I still don't understand.”

After discovering the song’s removal from Spotify, Sinclair and her bandmates contacted the streaming service in the hopes that it was all a mistake.

She claims that Spotify quickly responded with a message saying, “Your song was taken down by fraudulent activity, and I suggest you reach out to your distributor for this. They will be able to help you out.”

Sinclair turned to Lazuli Mood’s distributor, Ditto, in the hopes that they could help resolve the issue.

“However, after several emails, Ditto directed me back to Spotify, leaving me feeling alone and frustrated,” Sinclair adds. “I asked about artificial streams, something I had never encountered before. How could this happen to our song?”

The singer says the conversations with Ditto lasted for “weeks”.

She continues, “I reached out to Spotify again, providing evidence of our legitimate marketing efforts, but they were unresponsive. Our producer, Adrian Breakspear, was a great support in this challenging time.

“He contacted Ditto and confirmed there were artificial streams, but we couldn't determine how or where they came from, especially since most of our streams were from Spotify's own playlists that we could see from the back end of our Spotify for Artists account.”

At the time of writing, Sinclair, her bandmates and even Breakspear don’t have clear answers.

“Despite losing all the streams and the hours/days/months of work we put into our small business, we are determined to move forward,” Sinclair says. “We plan to re-upload the song with a new International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) code and a different distributor, hoping for a better outcome and to avoid any further issues.

“This experience has been tough but has made us more determined. We remain committed to our music and look forward to sharing New World with our listeners again.”

The Music has reached out to Spotify for comment.

Tech says the most challenging issue since having his music removed from Spotify is not having his music available to fans on the platform and his streams getting down to zero. For Sinclair, the most impactful issue was “the lack of meaningful support” after New World was taken down, leaving her and her bandmates uncertain about the future.

“Re-uploading a song might seem straightforward, but it’s far from simple,” Sinclair explains. “The substantial effort we invested in gaining those streams is lost and irretrievable. The momentum we had built vanished, and I lost my drive. The situation was so overwhelming that I had to take a break from music for a few months.

“Being an independent artist is challenging enough; this experience only added to the difficulty. There is a constant struggle against major industry players, and after 15 years in the business, I found myself contemplating giving up entirely. It might sound dramatic, but these were the genuine thoughts I had.

“I am profoundly grateful for the people who cared and offered support during this tough time. Their encouragement was instrumental in helping me find my way back to music.”

The artist who asked to remain anonymous says they’ve “lost faith” in justice and how to get their music heard again.

“I don't believe that Spotify as a company is looking out for the interests of artists, and I don't trust what they have to say about anything,” they say. “If corporations can punish individuals, withhold income and evidence without recourse, then what hope have we?”

Breakspear finds it “worrying” that there’s a lack of acknowledgement for alleged “bad faith actors” on Spotify.

“Even though I’ve got a couple of behind-the-scenes contacts, Spotify’s response has been woeful,” he says. “They always start off by directing you back to the distributor because they often don’t seem to grasp what has happened. 

“Once I’ve gone back to them and insisted on a proper response, I get a little bit more sense, but the onus always seems to be on putting the blame on the artist and expecting them to prove something impossible.

“You can’t prove that you didn’t approach fraudulent playlisters; I can prove I know what I’m doing regarding legitimate marketing; I can prove I know how to spot a fraudulent playlist— there’s plenty of blogs online teaching you—but I can’t ever prove I didn’t approach one of the fraudsters, and to be expected to is baffling.

“The automatic, slightly patronising response to ‘watch how you market yourself’ is incredibly disheartening to someone who’s just had something they’ve toiled over removed through no fault of their own,” Breakspear adds.

Sinclair says the response from Spotify was “vague, unhelpful and disappointing”.

“As a small artist, navigating issues on major streaming platforms can be incredibly challenging, and the lack of clear, actionable support only adds to the frustration,” she notes.

Sinclair calls for Spotify to develop a better system for supporting smaller artists, stating that emerging artists require guidance and assistance to resolve problems efficiently.

“Emerging artists are the lifeblood of the music industry, bringing fresh sounds and innovation,” she adds. “However, without adequate support from platforms like Spotify, these artists struggle to overcome obstacles that larger, more established artists can navigate more easily.

“When a song is removed due to alleged ‘fraudulent activity’, as in our case, it can be devastating. The current process lacks transparency and responsiveness, leaving artists feeling abandoned and powerless.

“Spotify should implement a support system tailored to the needs of small artists. By enhancing support for emerging artists, Spotify can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment, allowing all artists to thrive and contribute to the platform's diverse musical ecosystem.”

As for what she’s learned from the experience and can offer to other emerging artists, Sinclair recommends getting educated on the business side of releasing music.

“Read, watch, learn, and connect with fellow artists. We're a supportive community, so don't hesitate to ask for help,” Sinclair says.

“Watch out for scams—they're everywhere. If you're flying solo, lean on friends, family, or colleagues for support. And trust your instincts—they're usually right.”

Sinclair hopes no other artists experience the removal of their music from Spotify due to alleged “fraudulent activity,” but adds that having a backup plan for your business—and perseverance—is key.

“This isn't the end. Keep your records straight, stand your ground, and stay positive. Artists are problem solvers—we'll find a way through. They can mess with the numbers, but they can't touch the music.”

Do you know more artists who have been affected by the same issues? Reach out to The Music here.

You can find out more about how Spotify protects against artificial streaming here. Distributors can find more information about the matter here.