K-pop songs are sweeping the international music charts in almost half of the countries around the world. “Gangnam Style,” a worldwide hit song by PSY that was released in 2012, topped the iTunes chart in only 30 countries. Some say the “K-pop inflation” is serious in the iTunes and the Billboard chart.
Currently, fandom has a huge influence on the music charts such as the Billboard and iTunes. People nowadays consume music in three ways: CDs, digital downloads, and digital streaming. Digital streaming is taking up the biggest share as people can stream music in real-time through their smartphones and can still enjoy the sound quality of CDs. Music charts, however, are calculated mostly by album sales and downloads. According to the Billboard’s chart methodology, the sales of one physical album or 10 downloads are equal to 1,500 streaming plays.
The iTunes chart is more likely to be affected by concentrated consumption by few as it is based on downloads, which take up a small portion of the entire consumption. A case in point is the controversy caused by the fans of Chinese-Canadian singer Kris Wu that recently hit the headlines in the U.S. In order to celebrate his birthday, fans used VPN manipulation to sneak around the walls of iTunes and made him top Apple's iTunes downloads chart. The iTunes purchases by his fans were enough to make him top the Billboard’s Album Chart. But the Billboard, after carrying out independent investigation, decided to degrade his ranking to 100. “After the incident, the Billboard is planning to intensify the monitoring of album purchases by strong fandom,” said Korean music artist Bernie Cho, CEO of DFSB Kollective, a label services agency.
Some say the chart rankings based on normal purchases should be looked at dispassionately, too. K-pop songs are hogging top iTunes charts in many countries, including Canada, Brazil, and Sweden. But almost half of them are small countries such as Kazakhstan, Armenia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Azerbaijan. “A K-pop singer, who was outside top 1,000 in a music chart in a small European country, shot up to top 5 all of a sudden. We analyzed the purchases thoroughly and found out that a single-digit number of fans downloaded great number of his album,” an official at a global music streaming service said.
“We can’t deny the worldwide popularity of K-pop. But it is better to look at digital music services like Spotify, which is popular in major music markets, to gauge the true popularity of K-pop in countries like the U.S. and the U.K.,” Pop music critic Lee Dae-hwa said. “But news articles released by Korean entertainment agencies rarely use Spotify’s ranking.”