The Billboard charts have long been the gold standard by which musicians measure their success, but as recent tantrums by the likes of Nicki Minaj have highlighted, the rising influence of streaming services is upending that model — and giving die-hard fans a way to manipulate the data.
A recent release by the Korean pop group BTS prompted its superfandom, millions strong across the globe, to do just that by launching a sophisticated campaign to make sure the boy band reached No. 1.
The strategy employed by the so-called BTS Army went largely like this: Fans in the US created accounts on music streaming services to play BTS’s music and distributed the account logins to fans in other countries via Twitter, email, or the instant messaging platform Slack. The recipients then streamed BTS’s music continuously, often on multiple devices and sometimes with a virtual private network (VPN), which can fake, or “spoof,” locations by rerouting a user’s traffic through several different servers across the world. Some fans will even organize donation drives so other fans can pay for premium streaming accounts.
“Superfans of pop acts have long been doing this sort of thing,” said Mark Mulligan, managing director of the digital media analysis company MIDIA Research. “But if a superfan has decided to listen nonstop to a track, is that fake? If so, how many times do they have to listen to a track continuously before it is deemed ‘fake’?”
One BTS fan group claimed it distributed more than 1,000 Spotify logins, all to make it appear as though more people in the US were streaming BTS’s music and nudge their album Love Yourself: Tear up the Spotify chart, which in turn factors into Billboard’s metrics.
Billboard began incorporating streaming music into chart rankings in 2012 and announced in May that it had finalized changes to how streams are weighted for the Hot 100 (for singles) and Billboard 200 (albums). For streams on a paid service like Spotify Premium or Apple Music, about 1,250 song plays equal one album sale, but on free services, it typically takes around 3,750 streams.
The band reached its self-proclaimed chart-topping goal in May when Love Yourself: Tear debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 200. Love Yourself: Answer did the same in September.
While manipulating streaming plays is becoming a more widely used tactic, it’s unclear just how much of an impact it can have on Drake-level artists. But even if it’s just a drop in the bucket, the fraud could erode the veracity of the widely respected Billboard chart metrics, especially since the fan campaigns appear to be getting more sophisticated. Harry Styles fans weaponized Tumblr accounts and VPNs to promote his first solo single and album in 2017, but BTS fans took the blueprint further, creating tests for wannabe helpers to verify their devotion.
It’s not just the US, either: Rampant allegations of chart manipulation in South Korea recently triggered an investigation by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
After BuzzFeed News reached out to several people about the tactics, one tweet warning the community not to speak to this reporter racked up more than 8,000 retweets, another over 2,000.
Fans also deleted tweets about sharing Spotify accounts, and dozens sent direct messages defending themselves.
Spotify didn’t answer questions about what safeguards are in place, but its user agreement does prohibit “circumventing any territorial restrictions applied by Spotify or its licensors” (free accounts streaming from locations other than their original ones will be deactivated after two weeks), as well as “providing your password to any other person or using any other person’s username and password.” Doing so could lead to suspension or termination of the account.
Apple Music and representatives for BTS did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did the three biggest music labels and distributors in the world: Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music.
But experts say that unless there are truly effective safeguards in place, the ability to set up flash accounts to continually stream an artist’s music — and artificially boost its performance — exposes the Billboard system to fraud.
“The standardized, readily available numbers from Spotify are putting the Billboard charts out of business,” said Peter Fader, a University of Pennsylvania professor of marketing who testified as an expert witness in the 1999 Napster trials and who has extensively researched the industry. “Music lovers are coming to look to Spotify for everything — not only for metrics, but for guidance on which artist we should be listening to, trends in the industry.”
Without detailed data from the major industry players, it’s unclear how many fans are using deceptive tactics to boost musicians and whether they have the power to materially affect the Billboard charts.
Billboard declined to comment to BuzzFeed News, but speaking to the Washington Post in July, senior vice president of charts and data development Silvio Pietroluongo said the company reacts “to the marketplace around us.”
“I think we were fairly nimble on downloading, and even more so on streaming, to make sure we’re reflecting where the music consumer is going,” he said. “Where that will end up, though, I don’t know.”
Sales tracking services Nielsen and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) claim to have safeguards, but neither group would describe their methods. And accounting firm Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman, which for 35 years has audited sales figures for the RIAA, did not answer multiple requests for comment.
“Anytime you have a metric, people will come up with a way to manipulate it,” Fader said. “It invites gameplay.”
While that gameplay does not conclusively prove chart rankings and streaming numbers have been compromised, the industry’s silence raises questions, said journalist Markus Tobiassen, who broke the story on how Tidal inflated the number of times people had streamed famous artists’ albums, falsely boosting the counts by hundreds of millions of plays.
“While we were reporting on Tidal, we went to Billboard and the Norwegian charts and asked them if they counted the hundreds of millions of extra Kanye and Beyoncé plays,” he said. “They said they had safeguards in place, but they couldn’t give us a conclusive answer on whether they had identified them and discounted the extra plays.”
Based on his reporting and a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Tobiassen said it’s “highly unlikely” Billboard did.
The question is not so much whether these companies have safeguards, he said, but whether those protective measures have independent oversight. Royalties from companies like Spotify and Apple Music made up two-thirds of the music industry’s revenue in 2017. And Spotify metrics are now so important that they factor into album releases, touring schedules, promotion, and even artist collaborations.
“[Billboard] couldn’t give us a conclusive answer on whether they had identified them and discounted the extra plays.”
“It’s understandable that these companies don’t want to disclose their systems. Someone will then game them and adapt,” Tobiassen said. “On the other hand, there is a lack of third-party verification we know about, someone rubber-stamping this, as in other businesses. In the digital economy, that is lacking.”
Reports like Tobiassen’s pressure trackers like Billboard to justify their counts as the streaming universe continues to expand, posting double-digit percentage growth year over year. In the first half of 2018, overall on-demand streaming increased 41.7% in the US, hitting 403.5 billion streams, according to Nielsen Music.
“Billboard is still groping in the dark to balance the data inputs, and they haven’t found the right ones,” Fader said. “When you start changing it so that you can’t compare today’s numbers with last year’s, that’s a problem.”
But streaming companies with subscriber bases in the millions ultimately can’t police everything, Mulligan said. And so as traditional “hard” metrics like downloads and purchases wane, the digital streaming cat-and-mouse game with fans may be an inevitable part of the future.
“A series of computers auto-generating repeated plays of a track is clearly a case of fake plays,” he said. “The audio streaming services have thus far been effective at nipping them in the bud. The bottom line, though, is that hardcore fans will always do what they can to help their favorite artists, and some degree of gaming the system will seep through.” ●
Illustrations by Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images