Music Business Worldwide has blown the lid on an ingenious Spotify swindle that may have scraped out a seven-figure sum in royalties without breaking any rules.

Remember the Chart Fixer? Back in 2010, some clever/devious kid came up with a plot to manipulate the ARIA charts. It was simple, and dodgy. For a fee, Chart Fixer would crowd-source folks to download copies of a track and essentially buy a berth in the chart. The bigger the fee, the more downloads bought, the higher the chart position.

This Spotify scam is next level.

MBW’s editor Tim Ingram was alerted to a pair of suspicious playlists, Soulful Music and Music From The Heart, which were stuffed with tunes, all of which were attached to ISRC codes that linked back to a base in Bulgaria. Nothing too suspicious there. But the devil, as we’re often reminded, is in the detail.

The playlists were distributed in the industry’s weekly, confidential global playlist chart last year, and started getting traction. Ridiculous traction. By September, Music From The Heart was ranked in the top 100 on Spotify’s global list, and top 30 on its U.S. tally, while Soulful Music climbed into the top 40 globally and possibly cracked the top 10 of the U.S. list. With such lofty numbers, these playlists were outgunning those from Warner Music, Universal and Sony Music.

Something didn’t stack up. Soulful Music had an enormous volume of tracks (467), all recorded by largely anonymous artists. And the playlist counted less than 1,800 “followers” and attracted just 1,200 monthly listeners. Here’s where slope gets out-of-control slippery: the vast majority of these tracks were reportedly just a touch over 30 seconds long, meeting the minimum time required to generated a monetized “play” on the streaming platform.

Putting it all together, there are two likely outcomes. The first, and least likely, is that these playlists were such a huge hit with 1,800 people, they literally couldn’t stop playing them. Or the second, that an individual in Bulgaria set up about 1,200 Spotify accounts, which played these tracks on a loop, on random. And with most tracks cut to just 30 or so seconds, the bots could squeeze out more plays, and more royalties. MBW crunched the numbers and found each of the playlists could have generated some $288,000 each month at the conservative end, and up to $415,000 in the worst-case scenario. Spread those sums across the four months before Spotify took down the playlists (in October 2017), and you’re looking at a whopping payout.

And the outgoings for all this? Just $12,000 per month for Spotify subscriptions.

MBW reached out to a Spotify spokesperson for comment on the rort. “We take the artificial manipulation of streaming activity on our service extremely seriously,” the spokesperson said. “Spotify has multiple detection measures in place monitoring consumption on the service to detect, investigate and deal with such activity. We are continuing to invest heavily in refining those processes and improving methods of detection and removal, and reducing the impact of this unacceptable activity on legitimate creators, rights holders and our users.”

Spotify also told MBW it’s “improving methods of detection and removal,” though industry sources clearly aren’t thrilled that large sums may have been unfairly pulled from the royalty pool.

Read the full story here.