South Korean K-pop band BTS has once again conquered the US charts this week with his fourth number one in just nine months, an achievement behind which hides a strategy to manipulate the measurement system most important in the music industry.
His last song, 'Butter', may not be the most listened to song in the North American country according to his reproductions in 'streaming' or the support of the radios, but fans of the band mobilized to buy the single en masse thanks to discounts sponsored by his label. Since the Jackson 5 in 1970, no other formation had managed to debut at number one so many times in such a short time.
BTS's case is the latest example of the tactics used by artists of the stature of Taylor Swift, Drake or Harry Styles to inflate their statistics, such as including digital copies of their albums in merchandising articles or publishing several videos of the same song.
Sell cheap and buy in droves
At the end of May, BTS put on their new song on sale for 69 cents -very below the usual- and accompanied it by an instrumental version that also had on the Billboard Hot 100, the main list of USA. It was a premeditated maneuver for his mass of fans, known as ARMY, to acquire the song repeatedly and inflate the statistics, which give more points to sales than to listens on 'streaming' or reproductions on radio.
"If you look at the charts, you will have a completely distorted idea of how popular BTS really is," wrote journalist Trom Breihan in a column in the music magazine Stereogum. The article accused BTS fans of turning music charts into a useless mechanism that distorts the lens they were created for: knowing what people are listening to.
Breihan considers these rankings to be a "battleground for the armies of fanatics", but his opinion was widely criticized for using BTS, the first Asian band to achieve mass success in the United States, as a sign of a circumstance of the Anglo-Saxon artists have benefited.
Harry Styles starred in perhaps the least disguised case. Your song 'Watermelon Sugar' reached number one in August 2020 thanks to three reissues on cassette, vinyl and disc, a price reduction on digital copies and two alternative video clips. The song had been published in November 2019, debuted at position 70 and disappeared shortly after, but an aggressive promotional campaign managed to revive it.
Travis Scott and Kid Cudi's took their song 'The Scotts' to the top spot by including a free digital download with all items from a clothing line. It didn't matter whether the buyer heard the song or not. And Taylor Swift did something similar by including a copy of her album 'Folklore' with the items she sold on her website.
These strategies led Billboard, which since 1956 has produced the best-selling album and song charts in the United States, no longer counting these 'bundles' in its records.
But record companies have devised new mechanisms to vitiate statistics: Drake paid 'influencers' to upload videos dancing his nondescript 'Toosie Slide' on TikTok, securing a significant handful of views. More surreal was the case of the British fans of Dua Lipa, who used VPN applications to simulate that they were connecting from the US and uploading the numbers of their compatriot.
"BTS is not tarnishing the credibility of the charts, his case shows how broken his metrics have been for years, "said Forbes analyst Bryan Rolli.
However, before the internet the music industry was already dominated by mischief: Beginning in 1950, the US Congress supported fining record companies that paid radio stations to broadcast their songs, a trap known as "payola."