UPDATED: Manufactured YouTube plays versus conjured single sales? Those are the dramatic slurs at play in a chart battle between Ariana Grande and rapper 6ix9ine, as the latter returns to recording after a 17-month stint in prison.
“Stuck With You,” Grande’s duet with Justin Bieber, which benefits First Responders Children’s Foundation, debuts at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, while 6ix9ine’s comeback “GOOBA,” which claims to be the fastest video by an American artist to hit 100 million YouTube views, opens at No. 3. (Doja Cat’s “Say So,” a collaboration with another controversial figure, was sandwiched at No. 2.)
The rapper accuses Grande’s camp of hyping sales, while some sources allege that 6ix9ine’s associates goosed his “GOOBA” streaming totals with fake YouTube plays. He also alleges that Billboard and Nielsen Music/MRC undercounted his video streams, although Billboard does value streams from paid subscribers over those from free platforms.
Rapper 6ix9ine’s early release from a two-year sentence — handed down as part of a deal with federal law-enforcement officers in which the 23-year-old (whose real name is Daniel Hernandez) turned on gang members and pleaded guilty to nine federal felonies including racketeering conspiracy, firearms charges and narcotics trafficking — meant anticipation was high for his return. So when the New York native took to Instagram Live on May 8 and instantly drew 2 million viewers for what ended up being a 15-minute stream, all metrics seemed to point to a big debut once he had new music ready to drop.
That came hours later when “GOOBA” hit YouTube and DSPs. Within a day of its release, a press release issued by technology-driven music company Create Music Group claimed that “GOOBA” surpassed Taylor Swift’s “Me” and Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” as the fastest video by an American artist to reach 100 million views. As of Saturday, YouTube had not yet validated that “GOOBA” had earned that distinction. As of this writing, 6ix9ine’s video count has topped 180 million views per the count on the clip’s YouTube page.
Today (May 18), 6ix9ine is crying foul, asserting in a four-minute-long Instagram story rant that an unnamed entity working on behalf of Grande who, along with Bieber, is managed by Scooter Braun, purchased 60,000 units of the song “at the last minute” using six credit cards in order to boost the song’s chart position. He doesn’t make mention of Bieber by name. Of Billboard’s chart engine, Nielsen Music/MRC, 6ix9ine says: “You can buy No. 1s on Billboard. … You got caught cheating redhanded.” The rant garnered 4.5 million views within three hours.
“Sales count for more than streams,” responded Grande on Instagram. Indeed they do, because the sale of a download, a purchase of, say, 99 cents, entitles an artist to a percentage typically of 10% or more, versus a stream which counts as a fraction of a penny. In fact, on the less complicated formula that governs the Billboard 200 album chart, 1,250 paid streams equal one album sale, but the Hot 100’s blend, which also includes radio play, is fuzzier (Billboard published a handy explainer today).
To decode the rapper’s assertions requires a deep dive into one of the most walled-off processes in the entertainment business: Billboard’s Hot 100 rules. Rules exist, but good luck finding a copy of the Nielsen Music chart bylaws anywhere, although labels are informed of the formula.
Since Billboard introduced the chart in 1958, it always mixed sales and radio data to determine songs’ relative popularity. In late 1991, the formula got an upgrade with unit counts from what was then called SoundScan, and monitored airplay from Broadcast Data Systems, then a Billboard division.
Streams from on-demand data services like Spotify and Apple Music were added in September 2012, but labels were initially divided over whether YouTube should be included, with some worried that user-generated videos for some viral hits would have undue influence. By, February 2013, Billboard added YouTube plays for official videos or user-generated clips that incorporated authorized audio. Pandora became part of the mix in 2017.
Billboard most recently revised its Hot 100 formula in 2018. According to one label source, paid streams are divided by 1,250 plays, free streams are divided by 1,875, and programmed streams — like Pandora and other digital radio sources — are divided by 2,500. Radio audiences are divided by 6,000, while song sales are divided by five.
Applying a factor to sales is a recent wrinkle. In previous formulas, a sale was a sale, as remains the case on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The latter list just began utilizing YouTube plays at the start of this year, with 1,250 plays from paid subscribers, or 3,750 plays from free tiers equaling one album sale, the same metrics applied to on-demand audio streams.
Relatedly, profits from “Stuck With You” were earmarked to benefit a charity, which has nothing to do with how the unit is weighted on the charts but it could account for higher sales from listeners not necessarily looking to own the song, but rather to help during the COVID-19 crisis.
As for video views, the number 6ix9ine racked up for the week ending May 14 is unusually high for songs near the top of the charts. Among the top five tracks Alpha Data saw during the first week of “GOOBA,” video accounted for 60% of his streams, while the other four songs were is a more typical 80% audio/20% video ratio. On the Rolling Stone top songs chart, which flows from Alpha Data, updated numbers are expected imminently. (Both Rolling Stone and Alpha Data are owned by Penske Media Crop., the parent company of Variety.)
“From a pattern perspective, it’s an aberration,” says one data-savvy source of the metrics, pointing to Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” at 70% audio/30% video as the largest video consumption debut since Alpha Data started tracking music in 2015. “Clearly this was a concerted effort to impact the charts. He was juicing and juicing.”
Another source contends that YouTube saw six times the normal amount of bot activity for “GOOBA” — video view counts are scrutinized as a matter of course by Google, YouTube’s parent company — but a spokesperson for Create Music Group denies this, telling Variety, “Unequivocally, they did not use a bot farm to juice video views” on “GOOBA.” Another high-ranking label insider is also skeptical, crediting the YouTube algorithm for being “the most sophisticated” in the music industry.
In a statement, a Google rep adds: “YouTube takes abuse of our systems, such as attempts to artificially inflate video viewcounts, very seriously, and takes action against known abusers, including termination of their YouTube accounts. YouTube continues to employ proprietary technology to prevent the artificial inflation of a video’s view count by spam bots, malware and other means and the data we provide for the charts reflects this process.”
That all three artists are signed to Universal Music Group subsidiaries — Grande to Republic, Bieber to Def Jam and 6ix9ine to 10K Projects — is not lost on industry observers, although Create distributed GOOBA under license from the rapper.
As for who wins the war of public opinion? Advantage: Grande, whose message to 6ix9ine takes the approach of humility over judgment: “u can not discredit this as hard as u try,” she wrote on Instagram. “to anybody that is displeased with their placement on the chart this week or who is spending their time racking their brain thinking of as many ways as they can to discredit hardworking women (and only the women for some reason…..), i ask u to take a moment to humble yourself. be grateful you’re even here. that people want to listen to u at all. it’s a blessed position to be in. i’ve had a lot of ‘almost number ones’ in my career and i never said a goddamn thing because I FEEL GRATEFUL TO EVEN BE HERE. TO WANT TO BE HEARD AT ALL …. and you should feel that way too. congratulations to all my talented ass peers in the top ten this week. even number 3.”
In a pair of subsequent Instagram video posts, 6ix9ine essentially apologized to Grande, citing his rough upbringing — “YOU ARE VERY TALENTED AND BEAUTIFUL GOD BLESS YOU. But you will NEVER UNDERSTAND MY PAIN” — and saying that his issue was with Billboard. He followed with a photo of himself holding up six credit cards, captioned “Don’t worry we going #1 next time 💳 @billboard.”