The tale we’re going to reveal today is as old as popular music. “Pluggers” have always been employed to get plays for music, right from the sheet music days of the turn of the 20th century (when they were musicians, literally playing the music they were trying to sell themselves, on pianos in department stores!). Later it was all about getting plays for songs on radio, then bands’ videos on TV.
There are legendary stories from decades gone by of radio pluggers in particular getting stations’ DJs and programmers involved in all flavours of sex and drug-based bribery, just to get the rock’n’noll they were plugging on the radio. Not to mention the illicit passing of cold, hard cash. Whatever got that tune playlisted, basically. It’s wasn’t all underhand – but some was.
Plugging in the EDM age
Fast forward to the EDM age. The record labels are far less important. Now more than ever, the DJ is the new pop star. But here’s where the story starts to sound familiar: To be a successful DJ, you also need to be a “known” producer – and your tunes need to become popular. That need is the same. And, as it turns out, the new battleground for music popularity is social media: Sharing, likes and plays. Get these things, and radio exposure, chart success and global superstardom are far more likely to follow. So you won’t be surprised to hear that – just as back in the 80s and 90s – some pretty shady stuff is going on today to make sure certain tunes, artists and DJs get the kind of unfair boost that can directly mean the difference between their careers succeeding or not.
I have spoken in depth to somebody whose job it was – until recently – to make sure DJs (those with the money to afford his services, of course) could get their profiles online artificially expanded by plays, likes, shares and general attention. My whistleblower wants to remain anonymous, but we’ll call him Victor, he’s from Europe, and here’s some of what he had to say:
“Most people who use the services of people doing the job I once did are normal club DJs trying to expand their reputation on Mixcloud, SoundCloud and any other music platform where sharing is possible. But sometimes, really well-known DJs use these services too.”
“And, it’s not only DJ/producers with their mixes or releases who are doing this. Because many DJs use DJ competitions to get ahead, I’ve seen the same thing happen there, with DJs buying likes and shares to beat the competition. Winning a pair of headphones or a DJ spot at a little festival was never so easy!”
“Whoever you are, the ‘trick’ is to do it in a believable way, because clearly if someone gets 20,000 views on day one of a new YouTube release it’s suspicious. The clever operators have worked out that doing this kind of thing in small proportions, and time-spreading, are both a must. Smart DJs also realise that while plays are permanent (such as on YouTube), likes and follows can be removed. Likes from poor quality spam accounts on your music may disappear any day.”
Tricks to beat the traps
But, I asked Victor, don’t Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud and so on have checks in pace to prevent this stuff from happening?
“Of course, they do, but social medial pluggers use all kinds of sneaky tricks to get around them. To start with, they know how long has to elapse before multiple views count as individual views or plays and not just one. They use proxy networks to make sure the fake views come from different IP addresses. You can even get Windows applications to do this stuff, although to an extent it’s cat and mouse with the services, and such software can do more harm than good. I’ve seen a million plays in a day achieved this way, though!”
“When it comes to comments, likes and followers (rather than just views) – well, they’re achieved using a method which is ultimately why I got out of this game. For just a few dollars, some companies selling these services will get people in third-world countries to type in the Captchas, from where automated scripts create new accounts. They then upload random DJs’ faces from Google Images to give the new accounts a picture profile, and even add a couple of royalty-free songs to the accounts to make them appear more realistic. These accounts are then used to give fake likes to DJs.”
So what do other people think when you tell them all of this, I ask Victor?
“When I tell people, their reactions are varied. Some people get really angry, saying it’s cheating, while others just think it’s all fair game and a good way to get music to stand out in such a saturated market.”
“I have to admit, I got into it for selfish reasons – I wanted a new DJ mixer, but also I wanted to improve my computer programming (obviously you need to know about writing automated scripts etc to make some of this stuff work on ‘autopilot’). But I ended up concluding that it is in fact a dirty business. People do get exploited, as it indirectly supports what is basically slavery. And, of course, it is in conflict with just about every services’ user agreement! I got out of it and I’m not proud of what I did, and that’s when I decided to talk to you about it.”
Is there ever any justification for this?
Having spoken to Victor, the bit that stuck with me was people bothering to rig DJ competitions. In a weird way, that’s the one part of this I can kind of sympathise with. With many such competitions putting their emphasis on how much publicity DJs can get for the competition itself rather than the quality of the submitted mix or track, I can definitely understand the temptation. The rest, though, strikes me personally as invitable, and rather sad.
Obviously, I’m really interested to know what you, our readers, think of this kind of behaviour by big names as well as by those trying to get some success. Do you think it’s fair game? Or is it at best foolish, at worst, downright exploitative?
Please feel free to add your thoughts below – especially if you’re brave enough to admit you’ve taken part in something similar…