UPDATED: A strange thing happened on the iTunes U.S. store on Monday (Nov. 5) when Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian actor and artist, practically swept the Top 10 songs chart. For much of the day and into the night, the only non-Wu track in the top five was Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” which had premiered amid much fanfare just ahead of “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 3. For an artist who was accustomed to topping the chart with every new release, it was a bitter pill for Grande to swallow. At the same time, it seemed curious that Wu, whose album “Antares” had yet to be released in China, would have such momentum on a U.S. chart. While he’s a household name in Asia, in America he’s comparably an unknown. Also, Wu’s tracks weren’t streaming in significant numbers which was reason enough for some industry insiders to cry foul.
Indeed, according to a well-placed insider, Wu’s album sales were acquired fraudulently and will not count toward the iTunes sales chart reported to Nielsen and disseminated by Billboard. The determination was made to “suppress those sales numbers” on Wednesday afternoon following patterns of high-volume purchases on iTunes, first of the explicit version of “Antares,” and then of the clean version.
In a statement early Thursday, a rep for Nielsen (which publishes chart data in Billboard) said the data is under review: “Billboard and Nielsen Music are working closely to ensure both the accuracy and legitimacy of the sales volumes being reported for Kris Wu this week. We capture data from a number of sources including streaming, radio and retail, allowing us to validate the accuracy of sales and playback information as well as identify anomalies. As we do with all reports when irregularities are noticed during the normal weekly validation process, we work closely with our partners to address the issue, which may result in excluding any irregular or excessive sales patterns, prior to charts being finalized.”
So how did this happen? According to insiders, there were several factors that contributed to Wu’s showing. First, his album hadn’t yet been released in China where the label purportedly purposely held it back so it could come out on Wu’s birthday, Tuesday, Nov. 6. Typically, albums come out on Fridays worldwide, as per the global release date change instituted in 2015. But in the U.S., it was already available on iTunes, released by Interscope Records on Nov. 2. What transpired was a classic supply and demand scenario where “supply in the U.S. met the demand in China.”
This theory was supported by Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun in an Instagram post early Thursday, relating a conversation he’d had with Wu. “Last night we had an opportunity to connect and talk and show respect,” he wrote. “It was explained to he and I last night that because his release was held back in China for his birthday his fans went and got the music any way they could and that was US Itunes. Once the release in China took place the fans had their access. He has never been removed from the charts on iTunes. That is false. Those were real people from the US and international community and not bots like many have rumored. I have never wished anything bad for Kris nor any other artist and those saying otherwise are wrong. Any fans of anyone I manage who are using this opportunity to spread any sort of division or racism are dead wrong and I won’t stand for it.”
A comment from Universal Music China (to which Wu is signed, and with Interscope as the U.S. licensee) was less clear in translation, but according to the site SixTone it claims the chart numbers were “genuine and effective.”
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Over the past few days I have become aware of an artist named @kriswu. Last night we had an opportunity to connect and talk and show respect. We learned of eachother since many rumors have come out about both us in connection to his newest release. Kris is a great artist who on a global scale is a star. It was explained to he and I last night that because his release was held back in China for his birthday his fans went and got the music any way they could and that was US Itunes. Once the release in China took place the fans had their access. He has never been removed from the charts on iTunes. That is false. I have never wished anything bad for Kris nor any other artist and those saying otherwise are wrong. Any fans of anyone I manage who are using this opportunity to spread any sort of division or racism are dead wrong and I won’t stand for it. The music community is international and no longer held by borders. Kris happy birthday and you showed yourself to be a global star. Glad we got to connect and speak and keep your head held high. This is just the first of many achievements for you. And for those using my name for false rumors now you know exactly where I stand. Keep it positive.
While it’s not hard to see how fans from China, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, could impact a chart so swiftly, it is less clear how those living in the famously curtained country, which doesn’t even have access to Twitter, able to make a purchase on a U.S. platform. Another source surmises that there was “a plan to game the U.S. system to gain traction in the U.S. and mobilize a new audience.”
Still other insiders contend that Chinese fans were able to use VPN manipulation to access the U.S. iTunes store, noting that Spotify is not available in China, so it stands to reason that Wu devotees would resort to any method possible to support their favorite artist (Wu is also a graduate of boy band EXO), and that there are indeed that many diehards in the U.S. Still, the integrity of the iTunes store comes into question if such a VPN breach occurred. And an added anomaly: as soon as Wu’s album was available in China, his rank swiftly slipped on the U.S. iTunes chart to position No. 90. Where did all those U.S. fans go? (Apple declined comment.)
Then there’s the issue of whether Wu’s sales would be counted towards Nielsen Music metrics, which power the Billboard charts. If “bots” weren’t a factor, an argument could be made for Wu to chart, or at least that it’s not Universal Music Group’s problem, which may still be the case in terms of keeping the money. But the explicit determination was made that sales acquired in such a matter are considered “fraud.” Spotify is not unsusceptible to these issues either, as Variety reported in August.
UMG signed Wu earlier this year to release his music internationally, excluding Japan and Korea, through a partnership between Universal Music China, Interscope Geffen A&M in the U.S. and Island Records in the U.K., as well as UMG’s operations in more than 60 countries. UMG Greater China is headed by chairman/CEO Sunny Chang.
All of this is not to say that Wu isn’t deserving of success. He enlisted some of the top hitmakers of the day for the album — the song “November Rain,” for example, features production by Murda Beatz (Drake, Migos), while other tracks credit Frank Dukes — and he’s already notched an iTunes No. 1 in the past, “Deserve,” featuring Travis Scott, which has racked up more than a billion streams (and is also on the track list for “Antares”). He’s also starred in such films as “XxX: Return of Xander Cage,” “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” and “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back,” in addition to recently being named the face of Louis Vuitton.
Ariana Grande tried to take things in stride — she did, after all, have a No. 1 on streaming service Apple Music, the first pop artist to top that tally, and “Thank u, next” currently sits comfortably atop the iTunes single chart — but her fans didn’t hold back, launching the hashtag #kriswho and pointing to Wu fan groups which had detailed instructions on how purchase individual tracks or download the album and make it count. Making matters a bit more awkward, both Grande and Wu are signed to UMG labels (Grande to Republic Records).
Reps for Interscope and Republic have yet to respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.