Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gaming The System

The sales charts of the music business has always had someone gaming them.  It never gets old and it never goes away, no matter the attempt to stem the tide. Want some examples?

From the 50's through the 80's, a record label would pay off record store clerks to lie about the sales of a particular record when Billboard called in order to get a more favorable chart position. This ended with the institution of Soundscan, which entered the purchase based upon the bar code of the record at the point of sale.

Then the labels would pay off radio station program directors to put a song in heavy rotation. More airplay meant more sales and also meant the song would rank higher on the sales and airplay charts, thereby influencing more airplay and sales. This was the the dreaded "payola" and was eventually declared illegal. The labels got around it by paying third party promotion companies to do their dirty work.

Then the labels began to ship large quantities of a record they wanted to be a hit on consignment to dealers. They'd declare to the press that it "shipped platinum (over a million)", which again would influence programmers, distributors, one-stops and even the charts. This ended when reports started to come in from the dealers about shipping unsold records back in platinum as well. Everyone wised up to listening to sales figures from a label.

Music 3.0 is hardly immune to being manipulated, starting with artists and groups gaming their MySpace accounts by inflating their friend counts by using 3rd party "friend finder" apps, and using bots to inflate the number of plays their songs got.

Now comes the interesting case of Boston rapper Sam Adams, who came out of nowhere to hit #1 on the iTunes charts by selling over 20,000 downloads of his single "Driving Me Crazy" in one week. Sensing there's some trickery afoot, a number of journalists and pundits (like Bob Lefsetz) have questioned the sales. Now comes some informed speculation by Jay Frank, author of the book FutureHit.DNA and the blog of the same name. Jay believes that Sam Adams or people close to him bought the majority of these downloads themselves. He comes to that conclusion by analyzing the sales figures between iTunes and Amazon, Google search data, similar artist recommendations, file trading, and the song itself. It's an interesting bit of detective work that you can read for yourself. For the record, Adams recently presented a 3500 page document showing all the sales as evidence that the sales were legit, but Frank doesn't buy it.

This is just another example of trying to game the system, but in Music 3.0, it's by the artists instead of the record labels like before. The thing to remember if you ever consider trying it is that now there's always plenty of forensic evidence to sniff it out quickly. Get your friends and plays the old fashioned way - earn them.

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