Streaming and Scheming Alina Kulman
Alina: is there a pseudonym you want to go by in particular Tony: You can call me Tony if you like
Narration: My friend Tony spends a lot of time thinking about schemes.
T: It’s a very delicate area, I would say. It’s sort of like where do you draw the line between like pirating music online or like robbing a bank. Like where do you draw the line here. I draw line closer to robbing bank than some people would.
N: He’s always looking for new ways to cheat the system.
T: Okay I can pull out my list. A: there’s a real physical list T: There’s a real physical list. Here we go here’s my list (fade down)
N: In the notes app of Tony’s phone, he has a list on of all his potential schemes – one is this masterplan to create a monopoly on charging all the electric scooters in Providence, another is a service for people to pay to find out who their secret admirers on campus are.
T: I had one for stealing cars en masse, which would have been brilliant. But for the record not going to do any of these FBI. These are past where I draw the line in terms of illegality.
N: Back in high school, his co-conspirator was his friend Pablo.
P: He’s the one who usually comes up with more of the ideas, and then I usually am like that’s a terrible idea, or let’s do it.
N: They were involved in various small-scale hijinks, some really highbrow stuff. One time, when a friend of theirs came back from a family wedding with custom gold-colored m&ms, Tony and Pablo spread a rumor that these m&ms were actually some new crazy drug called Melvin. They nearly convinced their classmates to buy them. No one actually did. But senior year, they decided to go big – with another scheme they called Operation Miami.
T: The spotify scheme is probably my first long-term big scheme. You know, everyone’s gotta have their first time if you will. Very emotional and powerful experience for me personally just because it really helped me identify like what I love in life. Which is schemes. .
N: Pablo is a musician and a rapper. And by senior year, he already had some of his songs up on Spotify.
P: So I was seeing a little bit of royalties from that, and I was like oh okay, what if we bumped this up. Like what if we made this into a whole operation.
N: They were trying to figure out how they could make some easy cash from Spotify, which pays artists per play of their songs.
T: We knew that terms and conditions of spotify prohibited us from artificially increasing play count using bots. So I guess what you can call it is a creative misinterpretation of their terms and conditions.
N: Tony, Pablo, and a third friend of theirs with a little bit of tech savvy created dozens of free Spotify accounts. They didn’t want to reveal all the technical details of their operation to me, but from what I could figure out, they basically just used the loop function, so these accounts would play the same songs over and over and over again. And then they watched as the checks rolled in from Spotify. They didn’t want to use any of Pablo’s real songs and potentially get him in trouble. So Pablo made some music under a new name – Cocaine Bob. **Fade in Fuck Coca Cola
A: What were your thoughts on cocaine bob’s music? T: Cocaine bob’s music was really bad. It hurt to listen to.
N: Another one of Cocaine Bob’s songs, Montana v. Escobar, is thirty seconds of this beat ** fade up** and then cuts out to thirty seconds of just silence.
A: How long do you spend on these songs? P: Maybe like 2 minutes a song. And really it’s not like to test whether the song sounds good, it’s really just the act of dragging and dropping loops in a way that creates somewhat of a valid song that it has to be like a minute long.
J: We had about 4,000 real fans by the end. From all over the world. It was very interesting. We had a big following in like Austria or something.
N: They hadn’t made a ton of money on it – maybe a couple hundred bucks split between the three of them. But then they flew a little too close to the sun – they had their free accounts play this song “pretty girls love cocaine” 1 million times in one month.
**fade up pretty girls love cocaine.
J: So they sent us an email and they were like hey we think something sketchy is going down. We’re taking down this song, don’t do it again pretty much. So we completely aborted that artist altogether. A: were you scared by email from spotify?
J: not really, breaking the terms of service like. If you break a terms of service, 99% of time just kicked off the platform. We like keep money stored up until we like shut down the artist for good, so even if they were to like sue us, which is unlikely but a possibility, we would immediately just say like alright here’s your money back. We wouldn’t like go to trial or anything we’d probably just settle. I’m not a lawyer, but I feel like that would work.
N: Spotify is not known for treating artists especially well. Each time a song is streamed, Spotify pay a tiny fraction of a cent – less than a tenth of a cent – to the rights holder of that song. That’s less than almost every other streaming service pays. And then by the time the record labels and producers take their cut, there’s almost nothing left for the artist. By one calculation, any artist on Spotify would need over four million streams per month to earn the equivalent of working a minimum wage job. So when Tony and Pablo think about those ethical questions,
P: I also don’t think what we’re doing is unethical because we’re sort of scamming the system that’s scamming artists, because artists have no choice but to put their music on spotify. Like they can’t be like I’m only on Itunes like buy my album like that’s not going to happen.
N: Even though Spotify took down Cocaine Bob, Operation Miami continued.
T: We’re in like beta if you will for something I’m a lot more passionate about which is a way – like a service for small artists, like people who are starting out. We’ve developed a way to get on discover weekly playlists,
N: Discover Weekly is the playlist that spotify creates for each of its users – new music that you haven’t heard yet that they think you’ll like
T: this will get you about 20k real listeners in a week. 20k is a lot if you’re starting from 0. So we’re trying to debut this. We tried this out for three artists. Well one of them we got on discover weekly 2 or 3 times. One of them we did it twice. One of them we tried twice and failed twice. So it depends partially on quality of music. But if you make good music and you use this strategy it could work pretty well.
N: Tony and Pablo carefully plan the speed at which an artist gets popular, and they’ve actually been able to help some real small artists get off the ground. They didn’t want to reveal those artists’ names so their music won’t get taken down. But this is all still a pretty small venture. They’ve made roughly $1500, and most of that went to a computer – a PC that just constantly plays the songs of their new artists in Tony’s dorm room. But they have a big plan in store. Spotify doesn’t verify emails when you make a free account, so —
J: If someone, not me, were to make a bot which could spam accounts and then play a song once and then log out and create a new account and keep going like that, you could get infinite listeners, and if you got infinite listeners, you could then get infinite plays. And so yeah. That’s pretty much like the scheme. One of my friends is working on creating a bot which I will not use. [Alina laughs] But yeah. It would be definitely interesting to see if it could be done.
N: Tony and Pablo go to different colleges, 500 miles apart. This scheme is a fun way for them to stay in touch after high school. And – according to Pablo – it’s a fun way to make money without having an on-campus job. He’s been spending the new money they’ve made like any reasonable college sophomore.
P: Recently I got like a paycheck from one of our newer operations and sort of hosted a pregame and gave free drinks for everybody.
N: Operation Miami is not really a Robin Hood story. Taking money from a multi-billion dollar corporation and then spending it on a college pregame is probably not an act of effective political protest. For Tony, it’s much more of a “Catch Me If You Can.” He just has fun thinking through the scam.
A: how do you define the end of a scheme? When do you know if it’s succeeded J: I know that my schemes succeed when I’m like, you can feel it. You know, that worked. I could have either really made a lot of money here if I wanted to, or you could be like, I could have really scammed these people. Like I had them on the line. Wasn’t gonna do it, but could have if I wanted to. I think that what I’d want to do in the future is like track financial crimes, or like do spotify’s security. Not spotify obviously because I hate spotify, but something like that would be a lot of fun. You get to think in terms of schemes, but do it from the other side.
**fade up Ironic Moose music
N: So maybe Tony will eventually join the ranks of legendary scammers like Frank Abagnale, who who “Catch me if You Can” is based on. After years of Abagnale forging checks, and then pretending to be a pilot, a lawyer, and even a doctor, the FBI eventually caught him. But, they gave him a choice – serve out a long sentence in jail, or join the bank fraud unit, going after people who committed the same kinds of crimes. He chose to stay out of jail. Hopefully for Tony and Pablo, it will never quite reach that point. They’re happy to make more “music,” a term I’m using generously, and bit by bit, pick away at Spotify’s profits.