Why are pop music stans always fighting about sales figures?

Pure sales, first week streams, platinum eligibility – stanning is a numbers game.

by James Greig
03 December 2021, 8:00am

Flora is a devout K-pop stan, but her love of pop music began with One Direction. With a decade of stanning under her belt -- one marked by seismic shifts in the marketing and consumption of music -- she's seen huge changes in the way artists are supported by their most loyal fans." “[Since] I was a Directioner as a teenager, stan culture has shifted hard towards numbers,” Flora says. “It's just a lot more programmatic and formalised.”

Fans have been debating sales figures and radio plays since the dawn of pop music, but social media and the easy access all kinds of data have allowed this aspect of fandom to accelerate like never before. "Streaming is rigidly planned, which causes a huge amount of pressure within these subcultures," Flora says. "I've seen all sorts of weird behaviours encouraged; skipping school on release day, stealing parents' devices to stream." Whether it's Swifties and Livies teaming up to mock Billie Eilish stans for her latest album under-selling, the backlash which ensues every time a popular artist is awarded a Pitchfork ranking of less than '7', or the popularity of Twitter accounts like 'Chart Data' (currently at over 1 million followers), metrics form an important part of how fans talk -- and argue -- with one another about music. It would be easy to dismiss this fixation with data as evidence that "it's not really about the music", but this wouldn't be an entirely fair assessment.

"Fans have always been invested in chart wars -- where there are a couple of artists battling it out to reach number one -- and have always wanted their artist to thrive," says Hannah Ewens, author of Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture, "But the drive they're showing now has a different flavour." For stans today, being interested in metrics is more than just a passive process: in other words, they're not simply observing the figures, and rooting for their artist to do well, but actively seeking to transform them. Sometimes known as 'chart manipulation', this is often talked about as a digital trend, and it's true that social media has facilitated it by allowing fans to coordinate their efforts as never before. But this tactic actually has a long history: prior to the 90s (which saw the introduction of a computerised system), music charts were extremely unreliable. They were entirely dependent on reports by record store employees who could be, and often were, bribed by record companies to artificially boost sales figures (according to a New York Times report from 1996, these employees were frequently paid off with "free albums, concert tickets and even vacations and washing machines" -- it's hard to imagine the cash-strapped music industry engaging in such hi-jinks today.) These strategies were driven by record companies, rather than by fans, and they began to tail off as computerised systems became more sophisticated.

“Prior to the 90s, which saw the introduction of a computerised system, music charts were extremely unreliable. They were entirely dependent on reports by record store employees who could be, and often were, bribed.”

The introduction of streaming in the late 00s, however, allowed this process to be democratised. For the first time, music fans had the power to influence chart positions beyond the expensive tactic of going to a Virgin Megastore and buying loads of CDs. Within the last ten years, this practice — sometimes known as 'spoofing' — has boomed. "Stans themselves have so much power to manipulate the charts today," explains Hannah. "It's common behaviour to sit and stream songs endlessly on different devices and buy multiple different merch bundles that count towards sales." Other tactics fans deploy include using VPNs (virtual private networks) to fake their location and organising within online communities to stream at the most optimal times. Some fandoms have even organised donation drives to help their less well-off members afford premium streaming services. While this is goal-orientated rather than purely altruistic (the ultimate purpose is to boost the figures), it's still quite sweet.

For Flora, the ex-Directioner and current K-pop stan, this fixation on metrics can serve as a distraction from what should be the most important thing: the music. "People talk about new releases purely in terms of numbers and don't seem to enjoy the songs," she says. "It feels like stan culture is somewhat divorced from actually enjoying the artistry." But metrics continue to be an appealing part of fandom for large numbers of people. For a start, they provide a kind of objective, quantifiable barometer of quality and status, and in doing so, offer a sure-fire way of winning an online argument. Particularly on Twitter, it's common to see rival fandoms taunting one another with statistics. "Aggressive competitiveness to prove an artist is the best, and the proliferation of the charts both in the US and elsewhere means there's a lot of data to prove or disprove a stan's argument," says Hannah. "If someone is arguing with you online saying your artist is a flop, but they have a Billboard number one to back it up, it's hard for them to back that statement." What better way to wipe the smirk off the face of a rival stan than presenting objective, inarguable receipts?

But investing so much in the metrics of your favourite artist also comes alongside an obvious risk: what happens if they flop? Does this entail a loss of status online, and if so, how do you navigate that? According to Flora, the answer is usually denial. '“People have an extraordinarily high level of industry knowledge which allows them to backpedal and blame different charting systems — like when BTS kept selling really well, BTS' antis' blamed Billboard's metrics, and it got really racist really fast." Antis, for context, are the sort of shadow counterpart to stans, vying for an artist or bands' failure. "If a song flops, there's a lot of blaming of the systems in place. It's never a question of the music being bad." For Flora, this plays into a wider shift in the culture of fandom. "When I was a Directioner, there was a kind of good faith relationship with the world, where the stans genuinely believed that if they supported the boys enough they could help elevate their status in the media and garner some respect. Whereas now, most stans believe the media is overlooking their idol and being unfair, or that the public has no taste and everyone else is shit."

“If groups don't make it in the US, that might impact their ability to continue making music at all, and will almost certainly prevent them from touring there. So for K-Pop fans, it makes a lot of practical sense to boost their favourite artists' performance.”

This focus on metrics isn't just about clamouring for online status, though. According to Dr Colette Balmain, a senior lecturer at Kingston University and specialist in K-Pop fandom, stans have good reason to care about this stuff. "If an artist doesn't find an audience then they're not going to last very long," she says. The idea that there's a dichotomy between 'caring about the music' and 'caring about metrics' isn't exactly true: the focus on metrics is often motivated by wanting your favourite artist to be able to continue making music, which is hardly a superficial reason. This factor is even more important when it comes to K-Pop, which, in the west, can't rely on support from mainstream radio stations and media outlets. For up-and-coming K-Pop bands, to succeed in the US is particularly crucial. "There are so many groups that it's impossible for them to make money solely in Korea, and the US seems to be the mark of achievement," says Dr Balmain.

If groups don't make it in the US, that might impact their ability to continue making music at all, and will almost certainly prevent them from touring there. So for K-Pop fans in the US (and, to a lesser extent, the UK), it makes a lot of practical sense to boost their favourite artists' performance. For all sorts of reasons, including an incuriosity within mainstream western media which borders on a kind of cultural racism, K-Pop fans can't just assume that the music they like will be rewarded fairly on the basis of its merit. In light of this, it's hard to begrudge them for taking matters into their own hands.

While a preoccupation with metrics is often characterised as a trait unique to stan culture, I don't think this is true. Nor do I believe that it betrays a trivial relationship to music. Being invested in the success of the artists you like isn't all that different from the elation and despair felt by football fans on a weekly basis -- and you rarely hear people argue that caring about goals, trophies and league positions comes at the expense of caring about the game itself. Whether it's football or pop music, or whatever, this kind of investment provides meaning in people's lives, which is no bad thing. "When your artist does well, it provides a sense of validation," says Dr Balmain. Hannah agrees: "When the artists win, the fans win," agrees Hannah. Streaming BTS, Billie, Taylor, Harry et al. might not give you clear skin, but it won't do you any harm, either.

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