Pump up the volumes

How a Chinese singer’s fans knocked Ariana Grande off the top of the charts


I couldn’t do it without you: Wu thanks his fans

There are ways to turn a bad breakup into a positive experience. Taylor Swift, for instance, has used her catchy tunes to dismantle her ex-boyfriends. Pop singer Ariana Grande also recently released a new single thank u, next as a farewell to her former fiancé Pete Davidson. The two first announced their relationship in May, with a whirlwind engagement in June. Then in the middle of October, they called the whole thing off.

The song was released on November 2 and quickly became the number one track on Apple’s iTunes store. But a few days later, Wu Yifan, a singer who is little known outside of China, suddenly dominated the charts.

The Chinese-Canadian singer (plus actor-model), who also goes by the English name Kris, is a hugely popular rap icon in China with over 45 million followers on Sina Weibo. To celebrate the launch of his new album, which took the 25 year-old singer over two years to make, his record label Universal Music China held back the Chinese release so it would coincide with his birthday on November 6. With 13 of of the 14 tracks in English, the album is Wu’s first attempt to break into the US market. It quickly shot to number one on the music streaming services of Apple and rival Spotify. Three of the songs also took the top three spots on the iTunes store, ahead of Grande’s thank u, next, which dropped to the fourth spot.

Wu’s dramatic success led to controversy. A tweet initially thought to have been penned by Scooter Braun, manager of Grande and Justin Bieber, claimed that Wu and his management might have used an army of bots to manipulate the iTunes sales charts. However, Braun later denied writing the post, saying that it was fake news and that he did not even know Wu. Both tweets have since been deleted.

Universal Music China then quickly issued a statement claiming that Wu’s iTunes chart figures were “genuine and effective”.

The music streaming industry has long been plagued by bots, or algorithms that generate automated clicks to inflate streaming numbers and sales figures.

In China, the practice is called “brushing” – a term for artificially inflating online data ranging from click rates on videos to credit scores for customers on e-commerce platforms (we first discussed the topic in mid-2016).

Was brushing at work here? Not in the conventional sense – i.e. using bots.

Wu’s fans are notorious for being fiercely loyal and protective. Whenever the Chinese rapper has become embroiled in controversy his fans always come to his defence online and savage his accusers.

So when Wu came out with a new record after a two year hiatus, it wasn’t entirely surprising that his more ardent devotees would seek to make it an outsized success.

One of his fan clubs went so far as to provide step-by-step instructions on how to boost the artist’s album sales figures on iTunes, from advice on setting up a US Apple ID, as well how to make multiple purchases by buying and redeeming gift cards. Fans were even reminded to clear the cache in the app before repeating the steps, so that repeated plays got counted and the buying limits were bypassed.

On streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal and Pandora, fans were encouraged to create new playlists and repeatedly play the album to boost streams, the South China Morning Post also reported.

“The fans spent so much time and money, all they wanted was to support Wu Yifan,” Sina Entertainment concluded.

“This whole thing about Wu Yifan showcases the difference between Eastern and Western fan culture… the Chinese fan economy is about turning fan power into money and being a fan in China you have to bring capital to support your idols,” another netizen wrote.

Indeed, the fan economy has become a force to be reckoned with in China. Young fans – cash-rich and impressionable – often go out of their way to show loyalty to their idols. The way they express their affection could be in the form of bulk-buying products the stars endorse, or in Wu’s case, downloading an album repeatedly to make sure it tops the charts.

There are other more extreme examples. In 2015, to celebrate the birthday of Wang Yuan – a member of popular boy band TFboys – his fans paid to blast happy birthday messages on loop from the large LED screen in New York’s Times Square. Admirers of teen idol Yi Yangqianxi also spent over Rmb100,000 ($14,420) on renovations to the singer’s home in Hunan province. Not to be outdone, another fan even gifted Yiyang a mansion in Beijing. Singer Lu Han saw his entire concert tour sell out in just 32 seconds too.

Such groupies have earned a new monicker in China: ‘brain-dead fans’.

To ensure that pop stars are appealing, management companies spend years crafting their images. “Management companies custom-design a public persona that they know will attract fans and cultivate strong attachment. As a result, a lot of fans treat their idols like their ‘dream boyfriend’. So in order to help their ‘boyfriend’ in his career and image, they are willing to spend whatever it takes to send him gifts and dedicate all their time to ‘brushing’ the charts,” reckons Huxiu, a portal.

Wu’s detractors say his groupies, by inflating the sales numbers on iTunes, are doing him more harm than good.

“Dear Wu Yifan’s fans, all this brushing is creating an illusion for the singer. The move is not going to elevate his musical standard or help him improve. If you really want the best for him, stop brushing,” one critic opined.

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