The New Chart Game

The recent emergence of an out-of-nowhere chart-topper offers a great opportunity to talk about the music industry’s new favorite trick for gaming the Hot 100.

By Ernie Smith

Over the years, I have put a lot of focus on attempts to use the Billboard Hot 100 to game chart position, something that has taken on a lot of forms over the years.

The most recent form highlights something troubling: Ideologues have figured out that this strategy works for them, too.

These days, the modern way to game the pop charts for maximum impact is not to set up a thousand streams on your laptop to play all at once. Instead, it involves getting people to pay money for a song on iTunes as a way to emphasize status. You don’t need many to make an impact.

Oliver Anthony’s controversial working-class anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond” has found itself a beneficiary of this strategy, thanks to music download services getting significantly more play in the Billboard charts than streams. First it starts with a viral event that encourages the downloads. That rise in success creates a ripple effect that drives media coverage, then more sales, and then leads an isolated story to become a true mega-success.

This isn’t the first time the iTunes charts have proven an effective shortcut for attention. In the early days of music downloads, artists like Gwen Stefani and Ben Folds scored Hot 100 success largely on the back of downloads that were more heavily weighted by Billboard. Now that track downloads are on the decline, it’s now possible to game the charts like it’s 2005 once again.

The big difference? Now, waves of social media can help fan the flames, making it a great way for provocateurs to get some desired attention. Conservative artists have used this approach heavily—the Canadian rapper Tom MacDonald, for one, has a career thanks to this approach, and a duo of conservative rappers topped the iTunes charts with a song called “Boycott Target,” which certainly neatly doesn’t fit into the grand tradition Anthony is tapping into.

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But so too have smaller-scale musicians. Recently, Flamy Grant, a drag queen who makes Christian music, topped the iTunes Christian Albums charts by leveraging a controversy around a collaboration she did with a Christian rock star (a far-right pastor with ties to Turning Point USA complained, of course) to strong effect.

Taking nothing away from the achievement—sales are sales, of course—the fact of the matter is, you don’t need to sell a lot of records these days to top an iTunes chart, let alone an iTunes chart for Christian music. It’s a niche in a niche. But it won Flamy Grant some hard-to-ignore PR, including profiles in Rolling Stone and and People.

This iTunes-centric strategy has fallen under scrutiny more than a few times—in 2018, for example, the Chinese-Canadian musician Kris Wu saw a surge of download sales that appeared to be artificial in nature, and the reason came down to some odd timing: Essentially, his label intentionally held back release of the album in China to his birthday, and his Chinese fans responded by loading up their VPNs and grabbing the record from the U.S. iTunes Store, breaking the world order.

Generally, these kinds of chart gaming endeavors hit either at the beginning or near the end of a broader vibe shift on the charts. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the music industry stopped selling singles for many of its alternative acts—a nakedly obvious play to juice album sales—just before Napster appeared.

And perhaps that means that we’re going to see Billboard begin to downgrade the performance of the iTunes charts in its mix to ensure all is right in the world.

Oliver Anthony, love or hate his song, has probably transcended the success of this highly inflated chart at this point. People who aren’t terminally online have heard about this simple ode to hard work and people who aren’t obese.

But it is likely that we’re going to see more people like Oliver Anthony emerge into the online world like a hip band from Brooklyn circa 2004. And until Billboard fixes this iTunes loophole, odds are that their trip to the top is going to be easier than it looks.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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