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Streaming Farms in Nigerian Music: The abominable apple everyone seems to be eating [Pulse Explainer]

This article takes a look at the use of streaming farms in the Nigerian music industry, likely motivations, deployment, biggest users, and reasons for the finger-pointing despite the involvement of a better part of the industry.

Streaming Farms In Nigerian Music: The abominable apple everyone seems to be eating [Pulse Explainer]

One week ago, Nigerians on Twitter split their attention between the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the politics of perhaps the most important presidential election since 1999. However, attention somehow turned to Nigerian music and the phrase "streaming farm" started flying around.

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It's necessary to define the term for those whose first interaction with it happens to be the allegation of its deployment being hurled around by some artists.

A streaming farm is essentially a network that increases a song's streams through the use of robots or multiple phones. It's a grey market used by artists to shore up their numbers and get an (undue) advantage on charts.

To better capture the use of a streaming farm, this writer will attempt to draw a similarity with the use of makeup. Like makeup, streaming farms are used to shore up a song's numbers in an effort to increase its appeal and, to an extent, attract attention. Streaming farms like makeup can be used to prop up an already pretty face or add aesthetics to a rather unattractive one.

Streaming farms are not a Nigerian phenomenon. In fact, they are international grey markets used by some of the biggest labels in the world, and even recently, Atlantic Records were accused of using streaming farms to increase the YouTube numbers of some of their new releases.

A Game of Numbers: “Bad Bunny numbers this is a robbery”....”Harry Styles numbers this is a robbery” - these are lines from rappers Drake and 21 Savage off ‘Major Distribution’ a song off their joint album ‘Her Loss'.

This is Drake, one of the highest-selling artists in the world, comparing his numbers to Bad Bunny’s ridiculously high numbers. This is to say that numbers matter a lot in this digital age of music consumption.

In the Nigerian music industry, numbers play a major role in highlighting an artist's commerciality and followership. Big artists are known to flaunt screenshots of their songs getting to number 1 on the Apple Music Charts.

With this culture of numbers determining who's popping, artists and labels tend to find ways to get to the top echelons of the charts and they don't hesitate to employ dishonesty means like streaming farms.

I spoke to the manager of a major record label about why artists and record labels use streaming platforms and he tells me streaming farms are like paid ads deployed to get more reach to boost a project.

"Streaming farms are basically like paid ads. The idea behind why artists and record labels use streaming farms is to get reach. You know your content is good enough and you need reach to get to the audience and get attention, and a surefire way to get this attention is through charts."

For artists and labels, the primary motivation behind deploying stream farms is to give themselves a better fighting chance in an industry where the numbers shape the narrative.

My source tells me that investors, just like fans, are more likely to pay attention to an artist whose songs are on the chart.

"Show promoters and investors look at charts and this influences how an artist and even the label is perceived."

In such an ecosystem, it would appear to be a case of joining them or losing out, especially since many labels and artists are using it. My source tells me for labels, they are mostly left with little choice but to also dip their hand in the cookie jar.

"From a fan perspective, they don't know who is using streaming farms. They just open the top 10 and check who's on it. It's only those within the industry that might have an idea that this person is using a streaming farm".

Since it's a numbers game, it will follow that the numbers play a role in how artists are booked for shows and even sought after by brands. Big streaming numbers and a large social media following often translate to high interest and for artists and labels, this is very important. I spoke to the Head of Artist Booking at a major record label to get an insight into how numbers influence bookings and demands, and they tell me numbers are very important.

"People use charts to measure success. Brands like to book artists who are being talked about and the charts often shape the conversations. Even though an artist already has big songs with big profiles to match, they also need their latest releases to look good so they do what's necessary to increase the numbers."

How Streaming Farms are used: "360 activations” - this is how two of my sources described what they call the proper use of streaming farms.

I spoke to the Public Relations and Marketing Head of the West African Division of an international record label and he tells me almost everyone is in on it and when it's properly deployed it looks quite organic.

Like paid ads, artists activate streaming farms alongside social media activation that gives the song visibility while streaming farms push it up the charts.

"From a PR standpoint, it's very important for an artist to have good numbers because away from the talent, another metric used for talent acquisition is the numbers. An artist should be able to make effort to reconcile the streaming numbers with social media engagement because when they are far apart, it begins to look off"

My sources talk about the use of a 360 activation to make the streams from these grey markets look as organic as possible. By 360 activation, they mean using social media to generate conversation around the song which will then translate into sufficient organic streams that will help launder the bot streams.

"It's important to have a complete activation. If you wish to activate streaming farms then you should be diligent enough to activate Instagram, Tik Tok, and other social media platforms so it looks as organic as possible."

The legality/morality of streaming farms: While morality is subjective and the use of streaming farms can be described as a necessary evil by those who partake in it, it's not particularly legal. Although there are no extant laws against it, most streaming platforms frown on it. So, this to a large extent makes it illegal either customarily or by body language.

Another of my sources who is a label manager tells me that there are services offered by some streaming platforms that are more or less a form of streaming farm activation. He draws my attention to YouTube Ads that can give an artist up to a million more streams for an investment of up $6,000. There are also built-in ads in streaming platforms that increase song visibility.

However, the status quo is that streaming platforms frown at bot streams and almost all DSPs have software that analyzes streams and tries to identify bot streams. One way bot streams are identified is if a cluster of the streams is coming from a particular location or there is a suspicious pattern to the streams.

I spoke to a music data expert about how streaming platforms handle bot streams and if he thinks they should take it more seriously. He tells me he expects them to take it more seriously as streaming farms are a way to game the system, manipulate charts, and also cheat other artists out of revenue.

Streaming farms are reported to be used by some of the biggest labels and artists in the world and one of my sources who is a celebrated music critic and entertainment consultant tells me streaming farms aren’t for struggling artists.

“I don’t know why everyone is acting like it’s a new issue because it has been a prevalent issue in the industry. It’s a necessity borne out of competition and also a marketing tactic.”

My source tells me it costs upwards of $5,000 to hire a streaming farm to shore up a song so that it gets enough numbers to appear at the highest sections of the charts. Now, this is largely an amount that the majority of up-and-coming artists in Nigeria and even abroad can’t afford. Hence, this makes one curious as to whether the fact that big artists and labels are the main users of streaming farms causes streaming platforms to turn a blind eye. My source who’s an expert in music data tells me the assumption might not be far-fetched because streaming platforms need the biggest labels as they have the largest market share.

“At the end of the day, these labels directly or indirectly account for over 70% of music on DSPs so they can have the leverage.”

Is the use of streaming farms a reflection of the growth in the Nigerian music industry: Streaming is growing in Nigeria and fans are just as invested in the numbers as the artists. Any mainstream artist who’s not popping up on charts and whose numbers can’t be held up by their fans in a debate is at risk of losing respect and patronage. Thus, artists and labels find ways to shore up their numbers and sustain the interest of fans.

I asked one of my sources if he thinks the use of streaming farms is a reflection of the growth in the Nigerian music industry and he tells me that to an extent it is.

“Streaming farms are the price for advancement. It’s used to improve the optics in a highly competitive industry where every Friday, new songs are released and artists are all trying to stand out.”

I spoke to a fast-rising artist about the pressure to use streaming farms in a bid to level up with contemporaries. He tells me the pressure is present and sometimes, it’s as if they have no choice.

“I think the industry right now is a numbers game. Labels A&R, artists, and even fans respect numbers more than any other metric for talent or success. To say there is no pressure will be telling lies. Oftentimes, most people just go to Apple top 100 to listen to music.

The chances of being heard with little to no substantial streams have now become next to nothing. So yes, the pressure to be heard and seen is one that can make anybody consider using streaming farms.”

Another of my sources is of the opinion that it’s human nature to find a way to cheat so there will always be a form of streaming farms and that’s something he thinks nobody can change.

“Before streaming, folks used to buy their own CDs to increase sales. People still run payola on the radio. So whatever the form of music consumption in ten years time, folks will still find a way around it.”

If everyone is doing it, why the finger-pointing?: While it might be slightly presumptuous to say that envy is the primary motivator for this finger-pointing, it's not far from the truth. The sheer cost of hiring a streaming farm puts the services almost in the exclusive use of top artists who either directly or indirectly benefit from it.

One of my sources tells me that labels sometimes take it upon themselves to deploy streaming farms because the numbers of their artists reflects on them and injury to one is an injury to all.

It must be noted that it takes a top artist with a sizable followership to be able to deploy streaming farms without raising suspicion. And it's reasonable to believe most of these artists know this too. Hence why they mostly deploy it within the region that reason dictates. Artists who are not big enough to use streaming farms to get to the top of the charts without drawing suspicion will most likely be envious of those who can.

It's this writer's opinion that they all take a bite of this abominable apple albeit in varying quantities.

The truth of the matter: By and large, streaming farms are used and are increasingly becoming popular due to the growth in Nigerian music that invariably requires artists to keep up appearances. Whether it’s using it as makeup to prop up a pretty face or a case of simply slapping lipstick on a donkey, a lot of artists seem to deploy this form of aesthetics booster.

Essentially, while the use of streaming farms is an undesirable element as it robs the industry of some credibility, fairness, and even revenue, it’s perhaps as one of my sources describes it an inevitable element of music consumption in the digital age. It's the price for advancement.

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