The orders are detailed and easily located on X, the app formerly known as Twitter: “We need to tackle Amazon, iTunes and [the French music service] Qobuz expeditiously.” For each platform, instructions describe a strict purchase regimen. “One copy per version with new card/payment method/new email, new IP address.” Anyone hoping to execute this plan properly must plan ahead. “You will need to have multiple new emails, prepaid debit cards like the Cash App card… eGift cards you can buy at different Wifi locations, cafes, gym[s], friends’ and neighbor[‘s] homes.”
Rotating through multiple burner emails, cards and IP addresses — this sounds like the stuff of an elaborate digital scam. In fact, it’s a plan to maximize sales of a recent single (that wasn’t named in the thread). Blueprints like this one, itemized and exacting, are increasingly common on social media and in fan forums, disseminated over the years by fans devoted to BTS, Nicki Minaj, Blackpink, Harry Styles, and more.
Their popularity demonstrates a fundamental shift in the role that charts play in the modern music landscape. Before the advent of social media, “the charts were primarily an industry concern,” says Adam White, who served as the Billboard editor in chief for a time in the 1980s. “And the industry — retailers, record companies, radio stations — were in a position to shape and influence those charts.”
But in recent years, superfans have commandeered efforts to boost their favorite acts’ chart performance. “Fans have become very savvy about how the industry is creating these metrics,” says Michelle Cho, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who studies fandom and Korean culture. “They will take the time to try to figure out what they need to do to protect their artists from losing some of the visibility that they think their artists deserve.”
That impulse often sets passionate fandoms on a collision course with any music industry body charged with measuring listener activity. In recent months, zealous fans have individually bought a great many digital downloads of the same song — a splurge that actually doesn’t count towards the chart, because there is a limit on the number of purchases from a single consumer that are eligible each week. Still, the strategy in part prompted Billboard to change its chart rules earlier this summer: The rankings now exclude downloads from artists’ web stores, which usually operate with far less limitations than iTunes or Amazon.
Devout listeners also sometimes play their favorite artists’ songs in ways that run afoul of the streaming platforms’ rules. Last summer, for example, an internal SoundCloud email reviewed by Billboard noted that “Bad Decisions,” BTS‘ collaboration with Benny Blanco and Snoop Dogg, was the most popular track in the U.S. that week on the platform. But the same email noted that the song “exhibits suspect play patterns suggestive of abuse.” (SoundCloud declined to comment.)
“The DSPs have to regulate their platforms, cap streams per user, and it creates these battles with the fanbases,” says one former Spotify employee. “Various K-pop fanbases, for example, at most moments hate Spotify, because they think that Spotify is scrubbing too many streams off of the overall stream counts.” (Spotify did not respond to a request for comment. Luminate, the independent data provider to the Billboard charts, declined to comment.)
Coming up with creative ways to manipulate listening platforms — and the charts they report to — used to be the specialty of record companies. Before 1991, Billboard‘s sales charts were compiled by calling up a panel of retailers and simply asking what titles were selling. “Record labels and distributors routinely used strong-arm tactics and bribery to sway the process in their favor,” The New York Times reported in 2001. Geoff Mayfield, then director of charts at Billboard, told the paper that “one distribution company president complained that some of his employees spent two and a half work days per week trying to influence how stores reported.”
The Soundscan system — now known as Luminate — was implemented in 1991, bringing a new level of rigor to chart-data collection by tracking the bar codes of CD sales. But that didn’t stop labels from attempting to tilt the charts in favor of their acts. “You build a better mousetrap and all of a sudden the mouse starts finding ways to get around your trap,” SoundScan co-founder Michael Shalett said in 1996.
At the time, fervent fans did what they could to impact charts, but their means of doing so were limited. They could buy multiple copies of a CD, though that quickly becomes prohibitively expensive. And for charts like the Billboard Hot 100 that combine sales and airplay, they could try to increase spins by calling into a radio station and requesting a song.
Fans’ leverage over the charts has increased exponentially since then. Social media makes it far easier to mobilize a large number of geographically dispersed fans around a common goal. And now that the charts incorporate streaming, everyone with access to a phone or computer can listen during every waking hour — and set a service to keep playing music when they’re asleep, too. “It enables each individual fan to intervene in different ways,” Michelle Cho explains. “You can use your time.”
Many modern fandoms are now doggedly fixated on — and vocally competitive about — commercial statistics. K-pop fans appear especially effective at organizing around achieving specific chart goals. “When K-pop came in, it was like nothing that any chart-juicing machine had ever done before,” according to the former Spotify employee. “Just on a completely different scale and level.”
Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based artist and label services agency, says that, “for many K-pop acts, measuring ‘success’ has become a straight up numbers game.” He compares the “massive mobilization of top tier K-pop fan-clubs” to “the impressive precision of an elite military operation.”
This mobilization process can also resemble a music-industry version of the political action committees (PACs) that draw scrutiny in the U.S. every election year. Fans often raise money online to buy extra copies of albums or singles and then disburse the cash among other fans to make those purchases, usually with the explicitly stated goal of pushing a release up the chart. These groups routinely tweet that they have amassed pools of tens of thousands of dollars at a time.
There’s no way to tell where the funds originate, even when @JiminFunds tweets “we received [an] $18,420 generous donation from Chinese fans.” While there are rules dictating where PACs are allowed to raise cash, there are none governing the use of internationally-raised money for purchases impacting U.S. music charts. Still, using funds from abroad to signal demand domestically makes it hard to accurately judge the popularity of a given track Stateside.
It’s difficult to quantify the effect that the fundraising and donations have on a single’s chart position. However, it’s notable that when artists with passionate, organized fanbases debut high on the chart, they often do so on the strength of download counts that are wildly above the industry average.
While the Hot 100 takes into account downloads, streams, and airplay, downloads have not been the dominant driver of singles’ success since 2014. During the first half of 2023, the average Hot 100 entry owed less than 4% of its chart points to downloads. Nicki Minaj‘s recent top 10 hits, in contrast, generated between 25% and 41% of their chart points from downloads. Beyoncé and Britney Spears have also managed to reach download percentages comparable to Minaj’s within the last year on a release apiece.
These efforts pale when compared to top 10 debuts from K-pop, which routinely rely on downloads to account for more than 50% of chart points. Earlier this year, Jimin drew close to 80% of the chart points for “Like Crazy” from downloads. (In 2021, RM from BTS said that “if there is a conversation inside Billboard about what being No. 1 should represent, then it’s up to them to change the rules and make streaming weigh more on the ranking.”) No one has topped Jimin’s mark in recent history on a top 10 debut, though Jason Aldean came close, earning 76% of his chart points from downloads the week he debuted at No. 2 with the controversial “Try That in a Small Town.”
The music industry’s future appears increasingly wrapped up in those listeners who also happen to be big spenders. The growth of streaming is slowing. Superfans, however, shell out “80% more money on music each month than the average U.S. music listener,” according to Luminate’s recent mid-year report. A recent email from the company cited that 80% statistic again, adding that it “provides excellent opportunities for merch upsell to this valuable group.”
Labels have taken note. Earlier this year, prominent executives — including Michael Nash, Universal Music Group’s executive vp of digital strategy, and Robert Kyncl, Warner Music Group’s CEO — said that they hope a new streaming model will offer more ways to harness superfans’ spending power. In May, for example, Kyncl told analysts that he had assembled a team to focus on four initiatives, one of which was “evolving our products to better monetize the artist and songwriter superfan relationship.”
“It’s one thing to get into certain artists because you like their style,” Michelle Cho says. “It’s another where you feel a responsibility to caretake — your efforts are an act of reciprocal support. That idea, even if in some cases it’s illusory, is a really potent one for motivating more investment, engagement, and commitment on the part of fans.”
This can work out well for labels, especially if they can come up with new ways for fans to signal their allegiance that align with chart rules. It’s common now to see artists release multiple alternative versions of a song — often halfway through a week when they’re looking for a sales boost down the final stretch. A more extreme version of this takes place on the Billboard 200 albums chart, where artists are boosting their performance — and revenue — by releasing numerous variants of elaborate packages designed to encourage multiple purchases.
K-pop leads the way here, though other artists are quickly catching up. Take the group NewJeans, who recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 2nd EP ‘Get Up’. There are more iterations of the Get Up CD — 14, with different packaging individualized to different group members and randomized branded merchandise inside — than there are minutes of music on the disc, which runs 12:13. Fans who feel the urge to “caretake” will happily scoop up multiple copies, stimulating sales.
These developments mean that labels no longer have to spend half of every week trying to influence the charts, as they did in the old days. They just have to give the most hardcore fans more ways to spend money — money that might not even be theirs.