Indie Band Gets 79,000 Streams In a Month, Spotify Bans Them for Life

Smokey and the Mirror: Banned from Spotify
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Smokey and the Mirror: Banned from Spotify
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Smokey and the Mirror

Indie folk band Smokey and the Mirror thought 79,000 plays on Spotify was a success.  Spotify thought it was fraud.

Last week, musician Ari Herstand found his album temporarily removed from Spotify after using a stream-boosting service.  But that pales in comparison to the story surrounding folk band Smokey and the Mirror.

This actually dates back to 2015, when the up-and-coming folk duo decided to upload their new album onto Spotify.  Using CD Baby, the band distributed the release — called Thin Black Line — onto the streaming platform.  Then, the band rallied their fanbase to check it out.

The result was a surge of streams.  The band says it all came from real fans, but Spotify disagreed.

Here’s how the band described the situation:

“We are a folk band.  We get by on a shoestring.  We raised just under $5,000 from our fans to help record our last album, Thin Black Line.  We put roughly $5,000 of our own money into the album as well.  It meant the world to us that so many folks cared enough to donate their hard earned money to our artistic endeavors.  We went into the studio and made an album that we are proud of and that we felt honored the investment our fans made in us.

“We released Thin Black Line on April 15th. We put a lot of time and energy into the decision to load our album onto Spotify. We listened to what other artists like Taylor Swift and Jason Isbell had to say against Spotify.  We were with their viewpoint at first, but then we also started to notice fewer and fewer folks buying our CDs at shows.  We even called our distributor, CD Baby, to ask a few questions about whether or not we should be on Spotify.

“We asked our rep, ‘Why should have our music on Spotify?’ She answered with a question, ‘Do you want your music to be heard by anyone under 30?’ We caved. We made a 180 in our thinking about Spotify and got with the times.”

Here’s where the controversy starts.  Smokey and the Mirror says their small fanbase rallied to the cause, listening to the album over and over again.  Bryan Hembree of the band told Digital Music News that a local bookstore had put the album on repeat, possibly triggering an alert.

Spotify called bullshit on that.

“The album came out on April 15th and was released on Spotify around that same time.  We made a big push with our fans. 2,500+ Facebook fans and roughly 4,000 folks on our email list.  We asked them to have a listen.  Many of our fans were not Spotify members.  Some of them wrote to us and told us that they were signing up for Spotify just so they could listen to our album and support our music.

“Even our favorite local bookstore, Nightbird Books, starting playing our album in the store.  We were overwhelmed by the support.  We still are overwhelmed.  It has been so amazing to hear from folks who have truly enjoyed the album and have listened to it multiple times.  Many folks admitted that they wouldn’t have bought the CD but that Spotify gave them a way to listen to and fall in love with the album.

“Today we were notified by our distributor, CD Baby, that Spotify removed our album because they analyze the listening data on our album and felt that it was excessive and that the listening was coming from a small group of listeners and/or the listeners were predominantly listening to our album more than other content on Spotify.”

The group tried to appeal, but the decision was final.

“We were shocked. We inquired and it turns our that Spotify has removed our album and WILL NOT reinstate it. In our option it seems that Spotify is not working for independent artists.”

Two years later, the album remains banned.  “Unfortunately, Thin Black Line remains off Spotify,” Hembree relayed.

Bryan says he can’t recall the exact number of plays that triggered the ban.

But one Spotify community moderator pointed to a suspiciously high play count given the broader number of followers.  Other factors may have triggered alerts, including plays over a short period of time or from a dense geographic concentration.

“What do I think, the artist profile page show 30 followers.  Something is off?  You cannot reach 79,000 plays of a single album without at least having a far larger number of followers.  The math and common sense does not work out.  Something is off here.

“Where did those mysterious 4,000 fans come from, and then listen to the album but then mysteriously did not follow the artist?  Something is not correct.”

“Fraud is fraud.”

The band totally disagreed, and pulled all of their music from the streaming platform.

Disheartened, they also didn’t try to collect a $474  payment.

“Just so you get an idea about the revenue from 79,000 listens it equates to roughly $474.  Is this the financial loss that Spotify is worried about?

“At this point it sounds like Spotify will not be paying the $474 in royalties from our listens.  We can live with this, we will book another gig.  But, it got us thinking, why would they care enough to withhold such a small sum from a small time, independent band? It just doesn’t feel right.

“In the end, we are going to pull our other music from Spotify.  They don’t deserve it.  They won’t care, they have already made what they wanted from us. We spent the last two months trying to get our entire fan base to get interested in Spotify.  Even if 100 of our 4,000 fans signed up as new premium subscribers, that is $12,000 of revenue (annualized) to Spotify, they are also opting to keep the $474 in royalties they would have had to pay out on our album listens.

“They WIN. Independent artists lose.”

But maybe there’s a happy ending here (sort of)…

After two long years, there’s been a break.  The original album remains banned for life.  But the platform is now accepting other releases.  That includes Rag & Bone from 2013, which is a pretty good folk album and is getting thousands of plays.

Check it out — but try not to listen too much!



12 Responses

  1. Jules

    This is exactly what’s fundamentally wrong with streaming. A group of fans who ONLY listen to the band they actually like and not the 30 million songs available? Huh? We are paying for access to music that we have never listened to and never will, and those artists are still getting a cut of what I pay, even if I have never played their music. All of my subscription money should only go to the artists I actually listen to, but the labels are collecting money only for allowing their music to just be there. That’s is just not right. Remember this article?

  2. Tripple Shit Boy

    When you walk into an NFL stadium , you’ve paid to be there. Nine out of ten times there is one player on both teams you never looked at , sat on the bench for the published entirety of a service because through no fault of their own nobody chose them. Do you think it’s prudent not to pay the potential revenue
    performance share with this player ?

  3. Darryl

    First of all the analytics for followers and listeners to corollate with one another why because hitting the follow button is an option not a demand so payments should be based off people who actually play your music.

  4. Tyreal

    Spotify could easily pay out artists based on an algorithm that weights numbers of streams vs number of unique users (and IPs) listening with an auto nerfing mechanism that triggers based on user-stream ratio, instead of waging war against artists based on legitimacy of streams. That would make besting their system with growthhacks significantly more difficult (though would need some thought as to how to avoid nerfing power users who legitimately heavily stream a single track – but with enough tweaking based on data you can achieve a acceptablly low error rate for this). As a backend dev I can confirm you could write, test and deploy a beta version of that in one standard sprint cycle. My guess is that they did all the calculations, extrapolations and modeling and found that the latter was more profitable longterm despite the risks of leaving artists with legitimate activity on the platform exposed. The fact is no system is fool-proof. But consider this anecdote, say you have a cow farm, and your paddock has fences on 3 sides, but the 4th side has a river instead. Some cows try to cross the river and you don’t want that for a reason you have concocted in your head based on your internally derived compass of justice. Do you a) spend your days kicking every cow that tries to cross the river – in which case cows will hate you, everyone who loves and supports cows will hate you, you will hate the cows, and your foot will get extremely sore or b) do you just build a 4th fence.

  5. DavidB

    How many of these ‘fans’ were paying subscribers to Spotify? I would guess: not many.
    Of those who just signed up to Spotify’s free tier, how many were streaming this band’s album on repeat without actually listening to it, or the accompanying adverts? I would guess: quite a lot.
    I can’t prove either of these guesses, but the band can’t disprove them either.
    I’m not blaming the band in this particular case, who may have been entirely well-intentioned. This is a problem inherent in Spotify’s free tier, and any similar service. If it is possible to get money out of a system while putting no money, or significantly less money, into it, the door is wide open to fraud. The victims of the fraud are not Spotify, but the advertisers who are paying for adverts that no-one is hearing, and the artists and labels whose legitimate revenue is diluted. I would give Spotify a little bit of credit for having some checks in place, but this must be set against their stupidity and greed in setting up such a flawed model in the first place.

    • Smokey & The Mirror

      Bryan Hembree with Smokey & The Mirror here. Good observation. We have no way of knowing. Spotify didn’t provide any information about our streaming data to us. We reached out to our fans after the album was kicked off. This is when a local bookstore told us what they had been doing. It turns out that the bookstore had a free account. They put our album on repeat for two months. They had an understanding from their PRO deal that they could stream records they sold in store without incurring a license issue. Unfortunately, they used Spotify instead of the actual CD.

      The scary part of artists being punished is that anyone with a free account or ten could target artists and get them removed. Scary.

      • benjie

        i dont ever follow an artist…just play the music…just found out how to follow lol

      • Spike

        @smokey did your royalties ($474, or whatever it came out to) ever come through in the end?

  6. David

    Yeah, I was gonna say, the Bookstore, also it will nice and well intentioned didn’t do you any favors by streaming your music on Spotify. There is a business that one can obtain which is relatively inexpensive but rules for licensing and royalties are different than what you would have for personal streaming. Your fans are not at fault. Even if they streamed it millions of times, no wrong has been done and the royalty payments are yours, fair and square. What Spotify doesn’t tolerate however, are automated systems (bots) that play songs on repeat to generate revenue. That actually is theft. Well, I’m glad to see you got your album back online.

  7. Douglas Amell

    I am an artist recently banned from Spotify as well. I do meditation-style relaxation music. My father lives in a nursing home and was playing my music nightly to fall asleep. I would also occasionally do the same at home. In 3 months I had accumulated about 4,000 streams total on Spotify, which equated to $10.00 A good 1/4 of those streams likely came from my father and me . I was paying $15 per month for my family premium account. So, of that $45 in my fees, Spotify maybe paid out $3.00 in streams from my father and me. They claimed this streaming fraud and have zero tolerance for it.They pay artists less than half per stream of all the other services, so I was happy to cancel my subscription, and switch to Deezer. However I don’t dare risk listening to my own music on that service, which sucks. I’ve got my father set up to listen to my music on Youtube as I don’t get streaming income from it and he can listen all he wants. Pretty pathetic system overall though. I think streaming fraud guidelines were set up to catch people raking in big bucks, using bots to increase plays. I have been banned from putting any further music on Spotify.