In September 2012, a would-be pop star who goes by BAKER — one word, all caps — was scheduled to play the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip from 8 to 9 p.m. Tickets were available for $10 at eventbrite.com, a do-it-yourself event-ticketing site.
Yet three months later, BAKER was on the verge of superstardom — at least, according to the Internet. The video for the singer's "Not Gonna Wait," a slick dance track, had racked up millions of views on YouTube, catching the attention of the online music press.
"Earning well over 4 million YouTube hits, we are POSITIVE that if it hasn't already, 'Not Gonna Wait' will find its home in da club," MTV's Buzzworthy Blog wrote on Dec. 3. Ten days later, BAKER was the subject of a short write-up on Billboard.com, which similarly focused on the impressive views notched by "Not Gonna Wait." The next day, the O Music Awards blog published a glowing review of BAKER's concert in the basement studio at Webster Hall in New York City: "BAKER looks good, sounds good, gyrates and fist-pumps along to his hits. The only thing missing is an audience."
Despite those millions of views, only 30 people bothered to show up.
Hypebot, another music website, found the discrepancy between the singer's online fan base and his real-life star power to be odd, suggesting the singer had committed one of the music industry's oldest forms of fraud: paying for his fans. "The possibility that BAKER bought social media support is worth further investigation," HypeBot's Clyde Smith wrote.
Musicians have long manipulated their social media numbers, in hopes that the appearance of an online fan base, no matter how artificial, will translate into real fans and big sales. Buying YouTube views became big business about four years ago, reportedly after a former YouTube employee turned rogue. Now, social media manipulation is a multimillion-dollar industry.
It's not just musicians buying in: During the presidential election last year, both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were accused of buying Twitter followers. It's an updated spin on the age-old practice of buying your way to the top — you fake your popularity until, maybe, all those make-believe fans attract real ones.
So music industry insiders' inboxes are flooded with pitches from sites promising to help juke their stats. While YouTube cracks down on so-called "black hat" services that make use of spambots such as YouLikeHits and AddMeFast, it seems to be OK with other services. Companies such as Vagex.com and Virool claim to offer customers "real YouTube views" for a small fee. On Vagex, users download a social exchange software that gives people credits for watching others' YouTube videos, which they then "spend" to boost their own views. Virool, an online marketing company and "the most affordable source of real YouTube views," will work on an advertising campaign with artists who deposit just $10.
Musicians say the so-called real-views sites work — but only if your goal is gaming YouTube.
Joshua Smotherman, a PR consultant who founded the Middle Tennessee Music blog and admits to using exchange sites for his band, BUNKS, says: "Our album sales didn't increase, our downloads didn't increase, our mailing list sign-ups didn't increase, and that's really what we care about."
Indeed, inflated stats are so prevalent that music industry insiders say that millions of YouTube views don't mean all that much anymore. In fact, having an unreasonably large social media following could backfire.
"That they work and they're touring and they're actually doing their part of the deal, that's way more important to me than if they have 100,000 YouTube views," says Erv Karwelis, president and founder of Dallas-based indie label Idol Records. "For the most part, that doesn't translate to sales anyway."
Karwelis spent 20 years working for major labels, back when they still had offices in Dallas. Before the Internet, he acknowledges, the majors inflated their stats the old-fashioned way — by bribing radio DJs. That practice dates back to the 1950s and remains pervasive. "Major labels will do absolutely anything to trick people into buying their music," Karwelis says. "I mean they will do absolutely anything — there's nothing that they won't do, especially if it's shady."
That includes juking online stats.
In December, YouTube stripped Universal and Sony of a combined 2 billion views, saying it was "an enforcement of our view-count policies." No one has nailed down what service the labels used to game their states, but the Daily Dot, a website that broke the news of the crackdown, drew a connection between YouTube's enforcement action and an online marketer known only as Tapangoldy. (During the crackdown, Tapangoldy went offline "to fix all issue thanks.")
The availability of cheap YouTube views means that even D.I.Y. artists can participate in payola.
Michelle McDevitt, president of Audible Treats, a small entertainment PR company, has been approached by so many young artists with bogus views that she has become expert in catching phonies. If someone gets, say, 150,000 SoundCloud listens in a week, she'll research their previous projects. If the previous one got a mere 2,000 listens, it's a red flag: "Unless that person has done something significant between the projects or has blown up to [A$AP] Rocky status or something like that, there's no explanation for that sudden increase in listens and views."
It's also a bad investment. "If you're a new artist with nothing, you have no fans, no followers, you're an idiot if you go and buy 10,000 views for your first music video," PR consultant Smotherman says.
The same is true of buying a Facebook ad to attract new "likes." Even if the band is operating with good intentions, hoping to find actual fans, casting too wide a net can be wildly problematic.
Eugene, Ore., metal band Black Hare learned that lesson earlier this year. After Facebook introduced its controversial new "promoted posts," Black Hare bought a few. Suddenly, the band had more than 65,000 fans, up from an estimated 4,000.
The problem is that the fans seemed to come out of nowhere — or, more precisely, Egypt. "We were trying to push out show details," Black Hare's Tracy Daken says, but the band's Egyptian fan base had no interest in seeing shows in Oregon. Show info is buried by what Daken estimates are at least 45,000 fake fans. Facebook won't allow the band to delete individual likes, putting Black Hare in a trap: Thanks to the site's complicated algorithms, which allow only a percentage of fans to see any given post on their newsfeed, fewer legitimate Black Hare supporters will see the band's posts unless the band keep paying Facebook to promote them.
Black Hare have refused to do so. "We are probably going to get a new page by the end of the year to solve it," Daken says.
Red Seas Fire, a British prog-rock band, had similar problems after purchasing a promoted post, guitarist Peter Graves says.
"We ended up having to block the countries where the 'likes' seemed to be coming from, and once we did that for one country, they started appearing from other countries," he says in an email. Eventually the fake "likes" stopped flowing in — after his band blocked 112 countries.
As of press time, BAKER still hasn't lost any views on his "Not Gonna Wait" video. It has close to 7 million viewers — much more than the singer's next most popular video, which has 1.1 million. (Other videos on his channel range from 70,000 to 700,000.) He has an EP available on iTunes now but can't say how the sales are. "I haven't checked actually. I really don't know," he says.
His YouTube numbers vary, he says, because he hired ClearMetrics, an advertising company, to promote the "Not Gonna Wait" video. He didn't bother with the others after seeing that online views didn't translate into real-world sales. For the kind of music he makes — traditional pop — "the big labels and big radio money are still what counts," he says. "And that was never something that we had, so we tried to do the best we could with the resources available to us."
Now based in L.A. and still making music, BAKER maintains that his online fan base is legitimate. He responded to Hypebot's allegation last year in a statement: "My management did what we could to get the word out, including sending emails, broadening search terms, and a Google AdWords campaign for the first six weeks. ... It just so happened that the spike (and my now growing fan base) are on the other side of the world."