As the Twittersphere tries to figure out who Kris Wu Yifan is, allegations swirl that the Canadian-Chinese singer – huge in China but little known in the west – encouraged his Asian fan base to use bots to boost the performance of a new album, knocking American pop stars including Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga off the top spots on iTunes in the US.
Wu came under fire after his new album Antares, released last Friday, took up six spots in the top seven songs in the iTunes’ US chart over the weekend, blocking Grande’s new single, which came out a day later in the fourth spot.
On Monday Grande’s Thank U, Next managed to move up to the second spot, trailing Wu’s November Rain.
Known in China and Asia as a pop-rap phenomenon and an ex-member of the hugely popular Korean-Chinese boy band Exo, Wu has 45 million followers on Weibo, China’s social media platform, but only 158,000 followers on Twitter whose service is banned in China. However, western music fans on Twitter, some of whom have never heard of Wu, accused the artist of using bots to push his tracks higher on the charts.
A tweet allegedly from Scooter Braun, manager of Grande and Justin Bieber, claimed on Sunday that Wu and his management used bots to manipulate the iTunes sales charts. Braun later said the tweet sent under his name was fake and that he did not know Wu. Both tweets have since been deleted, but screenshots of them were circulated.
Wu has remained active on social media since the controversy, promoting his new work on both Weibo and Twitter. On Tuesday he posted a video clip of his new single and talked about the album as a special gift to himself and his fans, the artist’s 28th birthday.
Wu’s management team did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Bots – or algorithms that generate automated clicks to inflate streaming numbers and sales figures – are a consistent problem facing the music streaming industry which has been plagued by fake artists uploading fake tracks, and by the use of automated streaming to earn royalties.
In 2013 an Australian programmer managed to earn US$1,000 in royalties using such methods, knocking pop stars off the charts on Spotify, according to a report at the time by SC Magazine. In 2014 US funk band Vulfpeck released an album of 30-second silent tracks on Spotify which could have brought in an estimated US$30,000 in royalties from over five million plays before the platform removed the tracks, according to Billboard.
While no evidence has surfaced to support the accusation against Wu, instructions posted by Wu’s dedicated fan base on Weibo offer a glimpse into how they can boost the artist’s international exposure, targeting major online music stores and streaming platforms in the west.
The Weibo handle name FanGaxaxy_fanqiba is one of Wu’s fan clubs that provides step-by-step instructions for fans to help boost the artist’s albums on iTunes, from setting up a US Apple ID, buying and redeeming gift cards, and downloading the tracks and full album. On streaming services including Spotify, Tidal and Pandora, fans are encouraged to create new playlists and repeat the albums to boost streams.
They are also reminded to clear the cache in the app before repeating the steps, so that repeated plays will be counted and iTunes will unlock the buying limit. These steps require the use of a virtual private network (VPN) to reset the user’s location to the US or to gain access to services blocked in China.
"I set alarms every day to play on Spotify and Apple Music in turn, and tweet about the new songs on Twitter whenever I have a moment. Please get everyone to work on this together,” a Weibo user named Luckystar_yuan posted on Saturday.
Some Twitter users defended Wu’s chart performance and dismissed the accusation as prejudiced. "It’s low key xenophobic to accuse a Chinese artist of cheating with no evidence and disregarding his large fan base in his home country. You simply can’t see a non-western person succeed especially if your it hurts your western favourite,” a popular tweet by user Parisweenter said.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.
Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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