A-List Artists’ Desperation for #1

Unfortunately, releasing bad music as a renowned artist just doesn’t guarantee a #1 spot on the charts anymore.

With streaming taking the crown of music consumption over the past few years, the mega-hit makers of the 2010s are realizing they can’t rely on their name and brand alone to sell their singles. Listeners have an almost overwhelming selection to choose from, and this unfortunately means that musicians need to make good music. 

However, that doesn’t stop A-listers from trying every marketing tactic under the sun in an attempt to grab that (kind of pointless) #1 position for their low-effort song.

Here are just a few recent offenders reeking of desperation. 

Justin Bieber

Fans and the general public alike did not find Justin Bieber’s latest single all that yummy (terrible joke, please forgive me).

Ahead of his fifth studio album release, “Yummy” is the first solo single to drop in years.

Despite being one of the best-selling artists in the world, with over 105 million records sold in the US alone, his highly anticipated return is rather lackluster.

Though US charting results are not yet published, “Yummy” debuted at #5 on the UK Singles Chart. This is Justin’s first lead single to not debut in the top 3 since his 2009 EP, My World.

However, the disappointing start to his new era is not for lack of trying. Bieber has excessively promoted “Yummy.”

Here is a breakdown of his marketing campaign as of the publish date of this article:

  • Justin created a TikTok and lip-synced to “Yummy,” then asked fans to do the same.
  • He released limited edition autographed “Yummy” cassettes, 7-inch picture discs, 5 unique seven-inch vinyls, and 6 unique CDs (available for only 24 hours).
  • He published 6 ‘music videos’ for the lead single, including “Yummy”, “Animated Version”, “x drew house, Animated Version”, “Beliebers React”, “Fan Lip Sync” and “Food Fight”
  • He launched a “Yummy” online video game.
  • Most surprisingly, he even asked international fans to download VPNs to create US Spotify accounts for streaming.

Shockingly, throwing money into a promotional campaign and begging fans for a #1 slot has done nothing but highlight the desperation for validation and bragging rights.

Taylor Swift

Speaking as an OG Taylor Swift fan, I’m not blind to the obnoxious ploys to rank higher on the charts.

The roll-out for her latest album, Lover, is plagued with the same disease that Bieber contracted: desperation.

Starting 2019 with a series of what she considers to be ‘Easter Eggs’ (better described as echos of hints to references of maybe a color scheme or a word said in a yet-to-be released song), Taylor gradually turned the dial up on her marketing campaign ahead of her “ME!” lead single release.

Swift first announced that she would be releasing a music video along with her new song, and that she would be chatting with fans in a YouTube live stream 30 minutes prior to the release. Not surprisingly, she shared approximately 5 messages in the chat and then disappeared.

After the music video and lead single dropped, she kept insisting that her fans had not found all the ‘Easter Eggs’ she put in the video, including the name of her upcoming album.

However, it was pretty obvious what the album name would be called, thanks to the giant neon sign that read “Lover” in the background of a scene, and it was even more obvious that she was just trying to get more YouTube streams on her video.

YouTube aside, Swift was also eager to overthrow Lil Nas X’s domination streak by amping up the merch. She sold limited edition ME! vinyls and autographed ME! CD singles for just $5.00.

My personal perspective is that if she wanted to get a #1 position, then she should have released a song that was worthy of going #1. Her tired quirk of releasing her most shocking song first is doing her a disservice. In the era of streaming, putting out a song with cringey lyrics, like “Hey kids, spelling fun!” and “I’m the only one of me. Baby that’s the fun of me,” is not going to encourage people to come back to stream more. Alas, “ME!” peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Likewise, Taylor Swift did her best to prove her worth in Lover album sales by releasing staggering amounts of limited edition merch + album bundles and 4 Lover Deluxe CDs that included 2 audio memos and photocopies of her very own diary pages.

French Montana

Just recently, French Montana was caught seemingly using fake Spotify streams to chart higher for his single “Writing on the Wall.”

It could be argued that French Montana’s label, Epic Records, is to blame for the fake streams, but French Montana also took this moment of attention to reignite an old beef with 50 Cent. Honestly, the drama between these two is quite boring and not at all worth the recap. What’s more interesting is the failure of French Montana’s single.

Despite two streaming giants on the track, Post Malone and Cardi B, “Writing On the Wall” charted poorly and was underperforming across the board.

Suddenly, French Montana’s team announced that “Writing On the Wall” had blown up on TikTok and shot up the US Spotify chart to #21 on January 4, 2020.

The fishy thing about this sudden appreciation for French Montana’s song is that there is no evidence of its virality on TikTok and the difference between its charting positions on Spotify and iTunes was significant. While Spotify showed “Writing On the Wall” at #21, it wasn’t even in the top 100 on iTunes.

Billboard Updates to Charting Metrics

Given the quick rise of steaming for audio and video content, Billboard made some big changes in 2019 to provide more accurate charts.

In order to combat chart manipulation through excessive merchandise and album bundle sales, Billboard updated their bundling rules* as of January 3, 2020.

Previously, many artists would sell merch and pair it with a digital copy of their album, often for free. While fans typically were not buying shirts and hats so that they could receive a copy of the artists’ album, this was a very obvious way to boost sales numbers and appear to have a hit record.

Now, Billboard has stated that bundles must be priced $3.49 higher than the individual merchandise price, because $3.49 is the minimum sale price for an album to be counted toward Billboard’s charts. Additionally, bundled merchandise must be sold “concurrently and individually” on the artist’s official website.

Along with their bundling rule change, Billboard also updated** the way they incorporate YouTube streams into their Billboard 200 chart, starting January 3, 2020.

Previously, YouTube streams were only included in their Hot 100 chart for singles. Now, any official music video streams will be given the same weight as streams from Apple and Spotify. 1,250 clicks from a paying subscriber is counted as one album sale, while 3,750 clicks from a nonpaying user is counted as one album sale.

Overall, these changes reflect the shift in music consumption towards streaming and the abuse of bundling by artists and labels. Both have been thinly veiled sources of desperate manipulation for top artists in the industry.

I firmly believe that if musicians (like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, French Montana, and many others) put as much effort into making their music as they do to promoting it, they would get the #1 position they so furiously want.

*If you are interested in reading more about Billboard’s updated bundling rules, but do not want to sign up for their Pro account, here is an overview by Pitchfork.
** If you are interested in reading more about Billboard’s updated YouTube streaming rules, but do not want to sign up for their Pro account, here is an overview by NPR.