Beyoncé's Lemonade and Kanye West's The Life of Pablo were always bound to be overwhelmingly successful albums — returns after relatively long absences from two of the world's most well-known artists. But Tidal, the streaming service purchased by Jay-Z in January 2015 and introduced to the public just two months later in a celebrity-stacked event, has been accused of artificially inflating the play counts of both, according to a lengthy investigation by the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Nærengsliv. Both artists are "artist-owners" of the company.
In its piece, Dagens Nærengsliv says it was surreptitiously given a hard drive containing internal company play data, billions of lines of it, spread across dozens of files, ostensibly covering 65 days of streaming on the platform. The data is said to have covered streams between two periods: Jan. 21 through Mar. 3, 2016, and Apr. 18 through May 9, 2018.
The paper found evidence of certain users having streamed the two albums a surprising amount — 15 plays of Lemonade, in full, in one one day, by one person. The paper interviewed that person, a 34-year-old Washington, D.C., law student, to ask if she could verify that the plays were hers. "I love Beyoncé — but 11 hours? No," she told Dagens Nærengsliv.
An announcement by Tidal last year claimed The Life of Pablo was streamed 250 million times in the first 10 days it was available. It also claimed last year to have 3 million subscribers, meaning each user played the record 83 times. Before those numbers were released, West was said to have requested his streaming numbers from the platform be withheld. A different investigative piece published by the paper last year also accused Tidal of inflating its subscriber numbers in public statements.
In total, it accuses Tidal of fabricating 320 million "false" streams. Because of the way streaming revenues are distributed, the effect of drastically inflating two albums' listen counts is to apportion more revenue toward those albums and away from others, in what's called a "pro rata" (in proportion) distribution system. This means smaller artists are, in a way, pitted against the most successful artists in the world for pieces of a finite pie — and the large artists, for the most part, receive a disproportionate cut of the revenue. (For a more detailed explanation, several Finnish music organizations conducted a study of the model used.)
All of this means that if the data were manipulated — whether Tidal itself or the intermediary who gave it to them — wanted Beyoncé and Kanye to actually receive, or appear to receive, an outsized portion of the service's revenues. Despite that, Tidal says it provides "the highest compensation to artists and are consistent in our approach regardless of whether an artist is on a major label or independent."
The stakes are higher than ever, now that streaming is the dominant source of revenue for the recording industry.
Sony Music and Universal Music Group, which either released or distributed the albums, declined requests for comment on the report. Tidal issued a strongly worded statement on the situation:
This is a smear campaign from a publication that once referred to our employee as an "Israeli Intelligence officer" and our owner as a "crack dealer."
We expect nothing less from them than this ridiculous story, lies and falsehoods. The information was stolen and manipulated and we will fight these claims vigorously.
A request for Dagens Nærengsliv's response to Tidal's accusations was not returned.
The paper also gave the data, after anonymizing it, to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to look for anomalous behavior by Tidal's users. Its report says that, after analyzing the data in nine separate ways for strange, non-human listening patterns, "there has in fact been a manipulation of the data at particular times. The manipulation appears targeted towards a very specific set of track IDs, related to two distinct albums." The school's investigators found that the data was manipulated in a way that is "hard to detect." It found that over 90 percent of the platform's users were affected by the manipulation.
In an email to NPR, NTNU maintained the data had been manipulated, but "cannot, based on the data provided to us, determine the source of the manipulation."
"It speaks to the broader industry-wide issue with streaming — when it's dependent on data, its vulnerable to fraud or accusations of fraud," Kevin Erickson, a director of artist advocacy group the Future of Music Coalition, tells NPR. "When we're shifting towards an economy where the allocation of revenue is dependent on the quality of the data, this incredible volume of data, at the same time that individualized data is a commodity — listener data for advertising, for example — it incentivizes bad behavior."
Examples of people manipulating the opaque, and often misunderstood economy of music streaming aren't hard to find. This year, a group of clever Bulgarians reportedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars through a byzantine, and technically legal, manipulation of Spotify's payout system. (That scam reignited a debate around the structure of these systems.) It's been common knowledge for years that artists or labels can purchase slots on playlists — another technically legal practice — in what's referred to as "playola," a reference to the practice of music promoters paying radio DJs to spin singles (which is illegal).
"We support full transparency to better educate consumers and stakeholders, and encourage all music industry stakeholders to embrace open communication about the cost of their services," Tidal's mission statement reads, in part.
"Transparency can help with all of this," Kevin Erickson says. "We need a baseline transparency to understand what's going on, but what we really need is regulatory oversight."