Here’s a Kinda Genius, Kinda Evil Way People Are Gaming Spotify Playlists

It’s just the latest trick in a long history of hacking digital music services to promote your own songs

Photo Illustration; Credit: © Warner Bros.; © Spotify

Welcome to The Cheater’s Guide to Spotify, a series about the schemes that rack up streams, money, and infamy on the popular streaming service.

Last week, I couldn’t get the retro song from the Joker’s first teaser trailer out of my head. So I popped “Joker soundtrack” into Spotify’s search box, clicked the top result, and browsed the resulting playlist until I found the track: Jimmy Durante’s version of “Smile,” an absolute banger from 1965.

As I went back to whatever I was doing, I kept the playlist rolling. “Smile” finished, then a cut from Hildur Guðnadóttir’s original Joker soundtrack played. But after that, I heard a song I definitely did not remember from the film. Unless “cash out” by an artist called savesomeone had dropped during my pee break at the movie theater, this Post Malone-sounding record was most certainly not on the Joker soundtrack. Looking at the playlist again, I found several other EDM and EDM-adjacent songs that definitely didn’t belong.

Turns out, I had been bamboozled. Though the playlist I’d clicked on shows up as the large “Top Result” for the search “Joker soundtrack” within Spotify (not to mention the top of Google’s results for the same query), it was almost certainly made for the purpose of cleverly marketing music that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie.

In an era when major labels pump out “streambait pop” and platforms themselves allegedly inflate their numbers, it makes sense that users would also try to game streaming platforms. The formula is pretty simple: Create a playlist, title it with something a lot of people are searching for (which is probably not your song, unfortunately), upload a custom playlist “cover” image that makes it look official, and pray it surfaces at the top of the pile. With Spotify boasting more than 200 million users, winning the competitive battle for top placement on a high-volume search can be a valuable feat. By embedding your song within a highly searched playlist, you’ll expose way more people to it than if you’d set it loose in the wild.

In this case, the playlist “Joker Soundtrack (2019)” was created by verified Spotify user Naeleck, who appears to run an underground dance music label and has released a bunch of EDM music of his own. Looking at his public playlists, I found about a dozen other less-successful attempts at this same strategy. A playlist titled “Call of Duty Modern Warfare Soundtrack” hadn’t gotten a ton of traction — it mostly contained tracks from the video game, with a couple of songs by a group called Fukkk Offf added. “Frozen 2 Soundtrack (2019)” had racked up more than 21,000 followers despite at least several clandestine insertions of up-and-coming EDM artists who weren’t singing about Anna and Elsa letting go or whatever.

Because movies often feature a mix of popular songs as well as tracks scored specifically for the film that may not have been compiled into one official album by a publisher, soundtracks seem to be a particularly popular target for playlist gaming. Though the official release of the A Star Is Born official soundtrack does currently occupy Spotify’s “Top Result” for the query “A Star Is Born soundtrack,” all the top results in the playlist section are user-generated mixes that have random songs sprinkled amid the actual Lady Gaga jams. A playlist titled “A Star is Born Soundtrack // Shallow” boasts more than 165,000 followers, while “A Star Is Born Soundtrack — Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper” has 147,000. The creator of the former, an account called SoundtrackStunners, seems to have tried this trick hundreds of times, with mixed results.

You can find Spotify playlists in every genre that attempt the same trick. Indeed, mislabeling videos or downloads in an attempt to promote them has an extensive lineage on the internet, from misnamed LimeWire files to SoundCloud playlist insertions to YouTube video bait-and-switches where a video titled something like “NEW DRAKE SINGLE 2012” plays a song that ain’t by Aubrey. Hell, this shit is practically what got internet pioneer Soulja Boy famous in the first place.

“There have been different iterations of this strategy used as long as people have been releasing music digitally,” music journalist Grant Rindner told me via email. “I think it works much better today because those mislabeled downloads were isolated songs and it was unclear how exactly you would then become a fan of the artist since it wasn’t always easy to tell who they even were.” If someone actually happens to like a song they stumble upon through Spotify, though, they can easily follow the artist from the same interface.

By embedding your song within a highly searched playlist, you’ll expose way more people to it than if you’d set it loose in the wild.

There’s also an opportunity to make a little money with this strategy in the Spotify age. The songs seeded in Naeleck’s Joker mix ranged anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of plays, not insignificant numbers for most artists. With Spotify paying in the neighborhood of a half-penny per play, playlisters just have to hope their songs are left on by unassuming Spotify listeners for 30 seconds.

“Putting a song in a streaming playlist can lead directly to more discovery of your music with a couple of clicks, provided it’s actually good,” Rindner added. “Plus, because listeners aren’t paying for the song itself, the only crime you’re guilty of is wasting someone’s time. So scam on, I guess.”

Stein Bjelland, a musician, music consultant, and adjunct instructor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, agrees that the strategy can work for your numbers, but doesn’t think the hustle will lead to lasting success in the music industry. He predicted the playlist strategy would only lead to “dry streams,” which music site Music Ally defines as “streams that come without a great deal of interest in the artist themselves.”

“To me, it’s nice for the artist, maybe you’re gonna make a few bucks, but if management and the artist doesn’t know how to use those streams, those streams are kind of useless in many ways,” he told me over the phone.

In his own practice, Bjelland takes a more targeted approach to marketing music. “I think people should relax a little bit more,” he said. “Make good music, identify your audience, and actually see how they react to what you do on a really close scale, and then start to build campaigns off that.”

Naeleck himself wasn’t particularly forthcoming about the strategy. Not long after I reached out to him on Twitter and Instagram asking if he’d be willing to talk to me, all the soundtrack playlists, except the one for the Joker, disappeared from his public playlists tab (though I was still able to find them by using Spotify’s search function). The description for the Joker playlist changed from “Best songs and music from the Joker movie with Joaquin Phoenix | ジョーカー | 小丑 Inc. That’s Life, Rock and Roll Part 2, Send in the Clowns & Smile.” to “My take on the Joker universe with the best songs from the movie with Joaquin Phoenix, my Demon track and dark psychological picks | ジョーカー | 小丑 Inc Rock and Roll Part 2.”

He eventually responded to my Instagram DM, saying he’d “got very lucky” with the Joker playlist, claiming he’d created it years ago but changed the picture recently when the movie came out. He stopped responding to my DMs after I asked him if that was what had also happened with the Frozen 2 and Call of Duty playlists.

Spotify did not respond to my inquiry about whether this practice violates their terms of service. But history shows that even if the platform does eventually crackdown on it, users will surely figure out a workaround, either on Spotify’s platform or whichever digital music service emerges next.

Audience Development Editor @ OneZero

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