Musician Paula Toledo recently learned one of her songs had found an audience through an unlikely source — bootleg Russian DVDs. But she didn't expect it would lead to a fake version of it streaming online.
Toledo recorded How Long in the 2000s but never released it commercially. It somehow ended up on pirated DVDs, and caught the ears of a small circle of fans, who spent years trying to determine the song's provenance.
Some created tribute videos for How Long that included images of teddy bears. After 16 years of searching, fans on Reddit found Toledo in Vancouver back in December.
Following the discovery, Toledo uploaded How Long to Bandcamp, a music distribution platform, with all proceeds going to charity. She then added it to music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, using an independent digital music distribution service as a middleman.
But Reddit users soon notified her that a duplicate version of How Long had appeared on streaming services, she says.
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"So they took my song, the exact song, and put new artwork on it with a teddy bear," Toledo said.
The bogus version created confusion, she says, and her version was removed from streaming services.
Toledo suspects her song fell victim to streaming fraud, which experts say is a growing concern for streaming platforms, music distributors and artists.
"It's not lost on me that the song was pirated and it was placed in a Russian bootleg DVD … Then it was found and literally weeks after it got pirated again," Toledo said.
"It's so unfortunate."
Andrew Batey, founder and co-CEO of Beatdapp, a Vancouver-based company that uses technology to help streaming services and distributors sniff out fraud, says most fraud occurs when scammers upload sound files through digital music distribution services to streaming sites.
They then program bots — or steal other people's accounts — to play the tracks over and over to collect royalties.
The files don't have to contain music. They can consist of things such as whale noises, or ambient sounds, Batey says. Fraudsters also use music recorded by other artists.
"They load hundreds of thousands of songs on the platforms as if they're artists," he said.
"So they make fake labels ... they get music from various places, and they put music on the streaming platforms pretending to be artists."
Fraud dilutes the streaming royalty pool
Toledo is concerned that How Long was copied by fraudsters and she is working to untangle what happened.
She says she has reached out to distributors and streaming platforms and hopes the situation will be rectified soon.
"It's just really unfortunate that in the music industry that there isn't more protection to protect the artists," she says. "I'm also very empathetic that [the industry] is dealing with it on probably a very large scale and these bad actors are very savvy."
Batey says fraud affects big and small artists alike.
Most streaming services determine pay using a system called pro rata, which gathers the total amount of money generated from listeners each month, then divides it proportionally by listening time in order to determine how much each artist should be paid.
Some fraud involves artists using bots to "juice" their streaming numbers and raise their profiles, Batey says. The vast majority — around 80 per cent — opt to quietly rack up streams to get a bigger slice of the royalty pie.
One study has found that one to three per cent of streams in France in 2021 were fake.
Batey estimates the number is much larger — in the range of 10 per cent — siphoning about $2 billion US annually from legitimate artists and labels.
He notes the French study examined the top 10,000 streamed songs in France. Much of the fraud occurs below the radar, he says.
"They want to be in the long tail ... meaning they only have a handful of streams against each song per day," he said.
"They do not want the limelight. They want no sunlight on them."
There are times, Batey says, when scam artists make a splash. He says he knows of a well-known DJ who had one of his songs copied. Scammers timed the release of the bootlegged version to coincide with the real version. The bootleg ended up getting more prominent placement on streaming service playlist, with fraudsters cashing in.
Batey says Beatdapp works with the music industry to root out fraud, using machine learning to identify suspicious behaviour. The company says it has a false positive rate below 0.001 per cent.
Beatdapp recently announced it raised $17 million US in funding and has formed partnerships with rights management SoundExchange and file-sharing service Napster as well as a collaboration with Universal Music Group.
Streaming fraud creates barriers for artists
In a statement, a Spotify spokesperson told CBC News the company invests heavily in detecting and dealing with artificial streaming.
The statement went on to say less than one per cent of its streams have been determined to be artificial.
"When we identify stream manipulation, we take action that may include removing streaming numbers and withholding royalties," the spokesperson said. "These actions allow us to protect royalty payouts for honest, hardworking artists."
The company said artists can report suspected copyright infringement online and the company will notify the content provider of the claim.
The company added that an artist who is having trouble uploading their content should take it up with their distributor.
CBC News also reached out to Apple Music for comment but has not received a response.
Batey says fraud creates a challenging environment for musicians and music labels.
"[Artists] have to do 1,000 things correctly to truly make it. You're just adding another thing that makes it more difficult," Batey said.
"When they finally do make it, a lot of these fraudsters are stealing money not just from them, but everyone in the supply chain."
Toledo says she's grateful that her music was rediscovered. She wants to use the opportunity to focus on creating new music and building community, rather than sorting through the world of distributors and streaming platforms.
Some of her other music remains on streaming services, but How Long, the song at the centre of the online mystery, remains offline. She hopes she can figure out what happened.
"This is another level of mystery to me," she said.