How Musicians Gamed YouTube to Hit No. 1 Billboard in 2017

Evan Lockhart/Thrillist
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

Earlier this month, the rapper Post Malone told Canadian interviewer Nardwuar that he used to perform his 2015 hit "White Iverson," a bleary-eyed anthem where he name-checks NBA players, multiple times in a single concert. It wasn't part of a brilliant strategy, but out of necessity. "I used to get a lot of shit for it," he admits in the clip, showing off his gold teeth as he grins. "But, hey, you've gotta understand I had like three songs out. I only had one good song -- I still only have one good song."

This comment, clearly meant as a joke at the end of a lengthy interview where he was given obscure gifts like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard tour programs, was widely aggregated by the music press and interpreted as a confession that his recent tracks haven't been up to snuff, specifically "rockstar," his narcoleptic chart-topper featuring Atlanta hip-hop innovator 21 Savage. But Malone's remark following the "one good song" gag was more revealing: "I had to do it first and I had to do it last because no one knew who the hell I was."

The Dallas-raised 22-year-old with ratty hair is right: repetition breeds familiarity. It's a tactic that has served rappers, singers, and bands well since the dawn of pop, with emerging groups often book-ending their brief sets with reprisals of the one damn song you actually want to hear. But what if you updated that tactic for the streaming music era? What if there was a way to hook listeners by giving them nothing but the hook? Think of it as the sonic equivalent of Cap'n Crunch's Oops All Berries breakfast cereal. And, most importantly, what if you could profit off this sugar-rush of a concoction?

Post Malone -- or, more likely, his label Republic Records -- did just that. Far from being yet another one-hit-wonder destined for appearances on VH1 clip shows, the rapper temporarily fought off irrelevance by gaming a system in a state of constant flux. He's not alone. As subscription-based streaming services and free platforms like YouTube continue to reshape the way listeners experience music, the tale of Post Malone is a compelling one. His story and the many similar chart-related acts of chicanery that have popped up in 2017 could end up being speed bumps on the road back to pop normalcy. Or they could be harbingers of the data-driven chaos to come.

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Post Malone's looping gamble

From a lyrical standpoint, Post Malone and 21 Savage's "rockstar" is a reimagining of the preening guitar god as a napping slug lord. Don't let the Kill Bill-style swordplay in the video confuse you: This is a dour, half-warbled party track in the vein of Future's DS2 era and this year's similarly sleepy "XO Tour Lif3" by Lil Uzi Vert. Like "Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmurd and countless other rap hits, it views rock mythology through a hip-hop lens. ("Threw a TV out the window of the Montage," raps Malone.) And, like "Black Beatles," "rockstar" was a monster chart hit, grabbing the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in a year that's seen rap music reemerge as a pop force in ways it hasn't been since the mid-2000s.

This No. 1 achievement -- something veteran stars like Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and P!nk couldn't pull off this year -- was unlocked by doing something unprecedented: Soon after "rockstar" dropped on September 15, Republic released a YouTube loop of the chorus that ran for 3 minutes and 38 seconds -- the length of the actual song. This all-chorus version dropped Post Malone and 21 Savage's verses and stretched the song's gooey center like a piece of Laffy Taffy. It's a move common to amateur DJs on YouTube -- not something major labels do to promote a hot new track. The video is no longer available, but according to this SPIN write-up of the ensuing controversy, the loop, which The New Yorker noted was "presented unabashedly as if it were the full song," still racked up 42 million plays in under four weeks.

If you got tired of hearing the chorus, the video's bio directed you to a wide range of paid streaming services to hear the full track. (At the time, the full version of "rockstar" was not available on YouTube in an official capacity.) In a sense, the video was a commercial or a "sizzle reel" for the song, but according to Billboard's rules, which count any use of a song in a YouTube video for over 30 seconds as a stream, the millions of "plays" counted toward the song's total and were worked into the weighted formula that determines the song's chart position. While the exact math that determines the Hot 100 is a closely guarded trade secret, there is a separate Streaming Songs chart that ranks songs by streaming data.

The YouTube loop wasn't the only factor that drove Post Malone up the charts, but it certainly played a role. "US streams for that clip do contribute to our songs charts, the same way an instrumental track or a remix of song would count towards the main song’s placement if downloaded or streamed," said Billboard in a statement at the time. (Malone himself was a little more defensive: "Well the song is good so probably not the only reason why.") In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson told Thrillist: "Loop videos that feature misleading and inaccurate metadata violate YouTube policies and we are actively working to have them removed. Further, any upload of a song intended to mislead a user (preview, truncated, looped) posted on YouTube to look like the original song will not contribute to any charts."

The song didn't go away, either. Malone's Jim Morrison-style antics unseated Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," another insurrectionist and grimy rap surprise, from the top slot the week of October 28, and sat at the top of the charts for eight consecutive weeks before being toppled by Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran's "Perfect" on December 11. As Slate's chart expert Christopher Molanphy pointed out at the time, this is hardly the first time clever tricks have been deployed to shoot up the charts -- "Bodak Yellow" rode the waves of a perfectly timed Kodak Black remix to grab its No. 1 spot and radio station payola used to be a common practice -- but the method was novel.

By creating a loop, Republic found a loophole.

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2017 was the year of streaming controversies

This isn't the first time YouTube streams have given a song some juice. When Billboard first began counting YouTube data in its mysterious chart algorithm in February 2013, it led to the No. 1 debut of Baauer's "Harlem Shake," a dance track that had become a viral sensation. (In contrast, 2012's viral hit "Gangnam Style" was a hit before YouTube streams were counted and only peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Similar YouTube-assisted hits like "Black Beatles," Soko's "We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow," and The Chainsmokers "#Selfie" soon followed. The viral era was upon us.

But YouTube is hardly the only data stream that's available to crafty labels looking to get a leg up in the streaming wars; the influence of platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and, yes, even TIDAL on the pop charts can't be discounted. In July, Odd Future rapper Tyler the Creator accused Meek Mill of having "bots spiking up plays for Billboard" when his new record Flower Boy failed to grab the top spot on the album chart. (Mill's Wins & Losses was released for free from behind the TIDAL paywall.) Similarly, JAY-Z's 4:44 received the RIAA's Platinum certification after only six days because of a deal with the phone conglomerate Sprint. It was a sequel to the rapper's similar telecommunications coup with Magna Carta Holy Grail in 2013. Never forget: JAY-Z is a business, man.

But sometimes fans are the ones behind the shenanigans. Earlier this year, One Direction fans were mobilized into an online army to help push Harry Styles' single "Sign of the Times" and his self-titled solo debut to the top of the charts after a Spotify glitch made the song temporarily unavailable on the service. What was their plan? As described in The Verge, the Tumblr-founded "Harry Styles Promo Team" got to work by encouraging fans to boost the Dunkirk star's stats by having fans who didn't live in the US download VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, that they could then used to fake a US IP address.

Instead of dutifully lining up at Sam Goody, today's fans are like crafty hackers trying to break the matrix. And as pop music in the United States becomes more responsive to global trends -- just look at the break-out success of the Spanish language chart-topper "Despacito" -- we'll likely see international fan communities working together. In a Billboard article from September about K-pop juggernauts BTS, the group's fans were noted for having "fan-run social media accounts" that  "helped fellow BTS fans understand how Billboard's charts are compiled." Some fans even gifted the albums to friends through the iTunes Store in hopes of helping the band. In 2017, it's not enough to like an artist. Instead, advocacy is the truest form of brand loyalty.

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Lil Uzi Vert/YouTube

What does this mean for 2018?

When Billboard began incorporating streaming data into its chart-making formula, the actual songs that became popular changed as well. The inclusion of streaming data made the Billboard Hot 100 more dynamic from an aesthetic and regional standpoint, allowing for the occasional mainstream rise of more regional artists, unsigned singers, and controversial "SoundCloud rappers," who have prospered despite that platform's recent struggles. Today, the Hot 100 is increasingly powered by YouTube, which is still the most popular source for on-demand music, giving the chart a genre-spanning, globe-hopping populist bent. That is, for now.

Back in October, Billboard announced that next year YouTube will have less of an impact on the Hot 100. "In recognition of an evolving music market and the means that consumers engage with music, Billboard has decided to implement changes on how it incorporates streaming data into our charts," read a statement. "Beginning in 2018, plays occurring on paid subscription-based services (such as Amazon Music and Apple Music) or on the paid subscription tiers of hybrid paid/ad-supported platforms (such as SoundCloud and Spotify) will be given more weight in chart calculations than those plays on pure ad-supported services (such as YouTube) or on the non-paid tiers of hybrid paid/ad-supported services."

What does this change mean? It's hard to say, but it does seem that the Billboard charts are less interested in being an exact record of what people are merely listening to and more interested in what music consumers are spending their money on. (Fittingly, YouTube recently announced yet another attempt at a paid music service scheduled to launch in March.) If you pay to listen to Imagine Dragons on Spotify, your time is considered more valuable than the time you played a SZA song off YouTube. From a business perspective, it makes sense: Billboard is a trade publication. When piracy was at its peak, it never counted data from illegal downloading services like Napster or Kazaa. There was never a way to "count" how many times you wore out that burned copy of a Snoop Dogg CD you kept in your car.

But where does that leave Post Malone and his label's chorus-loop stunt? Is this the future of stardom? Secret plots and juiced numbers? While suspicious accounting and eyebrow-raising marketing are often the norm in the entertainment industry, there aren't many modern analogues to the Post Malone's "rockstar" scheme in other mediums. In the world of film, Warner Bros. wouldn't rent out the local theater chains and only show the "No Man's Land" sequence from Wonder Woman on a loop to boost the box office. Despite its historic reliance on Nielsen ratings, TV is going through its own growing pains as platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu fluff viewing data or refuse to release numbers at all, leaving analysts with nothing to chew on other than the scant hints the company itself releases. Secrecy reigns.

It leaves the consumer in a perilous position. You want to know what's new, what's popular, and what's coming up on the horizon. Inevitably, data will play a role. But can you trust the numbers? It might be best to take a page from Post Malone: listen to what you like, take a leap of faith, and stage-dive into the unknown. There's no guarantee anyone will catch you but you'll go out like a rockstar.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.