The Cheater’s Guide to Spotify

Scammers Are Gaming Spotify by Faking Collaborations With Famous Artists

Users like Wali Da Great are growing infamous for tricking streaming listeners with falsified metadata

Photo illustration. Photo source: SIphotography/Getty Images

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.

If you’ve just discovered rising Dallas rapper Lil Loaded, and want to hear a bunch of his hits in one convenient spot, Spotify has just the feature for you. Like many popular artists, there’s a “This Is” playlist for the MC, a grouping of his “essential tracks” that the platform’s team creates. However, listen to the playlist for a while, and a few songs sound out of place. In fact, though tracks 12, 14, and 16 on “This Is Lil Loaded” list Lil Loaded as a featured artist, he’s not on them at all. Instead, you’ll only hear some truly wince-worthy rhymes from some entirely different artist who goes by the name “Wali Da Great.”

People have gone to some pretty silly lengths to inflate their Spotify streaming numbers, but this is a method that’s largely flown under the radar: fake artist features. Similar to other streaming schemes and Soulja Boy’s scams of yore, which involved mislabeled LimeWire files, the trick is a bait-and-switch. First, the aspiring streaming star uploads a song to Spotify using a third-party site. When filling out the track’s information, they add a popular artist as “featured” (when they are, in fact, not involved with the song at all). If the fabricated metadata sneaks past whatever safeguards the third-party site may have in place, as well the “featured” artist’s team, Spotify’s algorithm will do the rest, placing your duplicitous ditty in prime spots across the platform.

The system takes advantage of the way Spotify handles music uploads and metadata, and exposes a continued challenge for big streaming platforms: vetting their extremely large catalogs for frauds and phonies. Spotify doesn’t allow manual uploads from musicians. Instead, it requires them to use a digital distributor to put songs on the platform, recommending a preferred list of distribution companies that “meet our standards for providing quality metadata and protecting against infringement.” Musicians aren’t required to use a service from the list, though, and it’s apparently not difficult to find an option that doesn’t check metadata rigorously. It’s then up to whoever runs an artist’s Spotify For Artists page to catch the notification that their artist was “featured,” and then opt out. Otherwise, the song is released into the platform as is.

Wali Da Great is apparently trying to make a career out of this particular strategy. He’s been on a brazen fake featuring spree from 2018 into 2020, using the technique dozens and dozens of times, and amassing hundreds of thousands of streams.

Wali’s version of the scam targets hip hop artists in particular. His tracks appear to have well-known rappers as featured artists — big names like Blueface and up-and-comers such as NFL Toon are listed as an “artist” on tracks alongside Wali. However, in the actual songs, you won’t hear fresh verses from these MCs, just Wali’s hurried, grating bars, with the occasional crudely cut-and-pasted “featured” verse from an old track by whichever rapper he’s chosen to rip from.

Scan Wali’s catalog on its own for a few minutes and the general fakery is obvious. But when just a couple of his songs are wedged amongst a popular rapper’s work in an official Spotify-curated playlist or spotlight, the instrumentals can initially sound similar enough to the real thing that a listener easily cedes a stream before they realize what’s going on. Do the trick enough times and this grift eventually adds up to tons of monetizable streams.

Perhaps Wali’s most successful execution of this gambit has been “featuring” the rapper Tay-K, a particularly controversial target for the ploy. Tay-K amassed a significant following online after exploding onto the music scene with viral hit “The Race” in 2017, but has been embroiled in legal troubles his entire career. That includes a conviction on capital murder charges in 2019 and an indictment on a second capital murder charge later that year. He’s likely a prime target due to his wide reach, few songs released (allowing more prominent page positioning), and team’s situation, which is apparently in flux while he’s in prison, thus less likely to be scrutinizing his Spotify presence.

Wali has released at least eight projects on Spotify that claim Tay-K as a collaborator. Though a cursory inspection reveals that none are legit, most lacking Tay-K’s presence entirely, these fakes still showed up atop Tay-K’s official Spotify artist profile in a prominent “Latest Release” module, and amongst his official discography. They also appear in places like the official “This Is Tay-K” playlist, which Spotify won’t explain how it creates. The rips then trickle onto YouTube via auto-generated videos, which leads to more exposure and confusion.

When reached at the phone number listed on his social accounts, Wali Da Great, who says he’s 21 and based in Atlanta, doubled down on the authenticity of his music. In addition to claiming extremely far-fetched connections with Atlanta rap legends like T.I. and the late Shawty Lo, Wali said that he was “good friends” with Tay-K and maintained that he’d been given permission by the rapper to release the music, which he says they’d made together.

When asked which songs specifically featured Tay-K, he pointed me to his 2019 album Live From Cell Blocc. Most songs on the project do, in fact, feature a verse from Tay-K, but each are yoinked from previously released songs from Tay-K and haphazardly inserted into Wali’s version. For instance, listen to how an old verse on an old Tay-K track called “Tom Cruise” is repurposed on Wali’s “In Da News.”

In an interview with OneZero, Tay-K’s manager Ezra Averill didn’t address Wali specifically, but said that the problem of fake features is particularly difficult to deal with because of inconsistent notifications from Spotify.

“It’s hard to tackle because only sometimes are we notified via [our] Spotify For Artists page that a song is coming out,” Averill told OneZero via Twitter DM. “Otherwise they just get uploaded and we have to play catch up.”

Though some of Wali’s attempts at finessing Spotify were quickly removed during the reporting of this piece, hundreds of his hackneyed tunes have gotten exposure at some point via the official platform ecosystem. Certain tracks and projects remained up on official artists’ profiles for weeks or months at a time.

After initially featuring Wali’s Tay-K on the real Tay-K’s artist profile page, Spotify now appears to have separated Wali’s Tay-K into an entirely separate artist profile page, though his fakes remain entrenched in various other corners of the streaming service.

Spotify didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on its procedures for spotting and removing fake featured artists.

This isn’t the first time that muddled Spotify metadata has caused problems for musicians. Metadata is “the biggest little problem plaguing the music industry,” according to The Verge. While artists have been cheated out of an estimated $250 million (earlier estimates appear to put the figure at $2.5 billion) in income due to incorrect information input on streaming platforms, such as missing credits, the issue is about more than money. As Noah Yoo noted in Pitchfork, the relative ease with which people can upload leaks, fakes, and other random b.s. at will on popular streaming services also “has a significant impact on an artist’s sense of ownership over their life’s work.”

DistroKid’s DistroLock audio fingerprint technology, which has a freely available API, is a promising tool that musicians can use to protect their IP. If you choose to upload your music onto its servers, DistroLock’s website says it creates an “acoustic fingerprint” that essentially “makes it harder for anyone (who’s not you) to upload your original music to streaming services.” However, DistroLock doesn’t appear to yet be automatically integrated directly into Spotify. It also wouldn’t solve the problem of fake features where none of the artist’s original work is present.

Right now, even when errors are caught quickly, an FAQ page on “Spotify For Artists” says that Spotify itself is unable to make manual changes to track data — in order to make corrections, artists must apparently reach out to their label or distributor first and ask them to submit a metadata update to the platform. Artists can also report songs for copyright infringement using this form.

For his part, Wali shows no signs of abandoning this strategy. Though people have occasionally warned of Wali’s bizarre efforts at “collaboration” on various online forums, he’s still uploading away.

Released in early May, his latest album Doubt Me Now features two faux guest appearances, this time from rappers JayDaYoungan and OHGEESY of Shoreline Mafia. The latter is still currently featured in Spotify’s official “This Is OHGEESY” playlist.

Audience Development Editor @ OneZero

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