reposted article by Tamar Herman for Forbes
Last week ended with the release of Kris Wu’s Antares album on Nov. 2, and it immediately topped the U.S. iTunes album and song charts. Relatively unknown in the U.S., Wu got his start in the K-pop scene as part of popular boy band EXO and has a sizable following in China, where he not only is a prominent hip-hop artist and judge on the popular reality competition show Rap of China but also an actor and model.
However, over the past few days, he has become embroiled in a larger conversation about fandoms and international music buying habits. Both music audiences and industry insiders alike questioned whether Antares’s immense iTunes sales were created by fans or automated bots in light of how Wu continued to top the chart upon the release of Ariana Grande’s most recent hit. Following the Nov. 3 release of Grande’s “thank u, next” and its subsequent failure to take the No. 1 spot on the U.S. iTunes songs chart, tension heightened between fans of Wu and fans of the Sweetener singer.
Despite his dominance on iTunes songs and albums charts, Grande beat out Wu on streaming platforms and is expected to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. “thank u, next” broke Spotify records as it surpassed 29 million streams within two days of its release on Nov. 3. In comparison, Billboard reports that the most-listened-to track from Antares, the October release “Deserve” featuring Travis Scott, has just under 24 million streams, and Wu has just over 1 million monthly listeners on the platform overall.
Due to the inconsistencies – and a sudden drop of Wu’s songs on iTunes to the high 100s on Nov. 6, with Grande’s song moving into No. 1 – allegations were thrown around on social media. After Grande liked, and then un-liked, a tweet that alleged “Scooter did what he had to do” in regard to the handling of alleged bots, her manager Scooter Braun reportedly denied his role in a now-deleted tweet. The situation was assuaged when Braun released a statement on Instagram early on Wednesday, Nov. 7.
In the post, Braun shared a picture of Wu and expressed newfound interest in the 28-year-old Chinese star, and denounced the claims against the hip-hop artist. “He has never been removed from the charts on iTunes,” wrote Braun. “That is false. Those were real people from the US and international community and not bots like many have rumored.”
According to the statement, Braun and Wu connected the night of Nov. 6, when the pair had it explained to them that the apparent intense charting and then sudden drop was due to Antares’s release in China being delayed until that day to coincide with Wu’s 28th birthday. Fans allegedly took actions into their own hands to access the album upon its release in the States on Nov. 2, but the drop came naturally as Wu’s homegrown fans could access it locally on Nov. 6.
Braun also called out negative, potentially xenophobic behavior. “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.”
His Instagram statement aligned with that of Universal Music Group (UMG) China, which was shared through its official Weibo page, also on Wednesday. According to a translation via Sixth Tone, UMGC asserted that the sales were “genuine,” and similarly denied reports that Antares and its songs were removed from iTunes. It also threatened taking legal action against claimed false allegations. Wu is represented by UMG and Interscope Records in the U.S.
According to Variety, industry insiders theorize that Chinese fans likely utilized VPNs to access the U.S. iTunes store; alternatives, like Spotify, are not available in China and weren’t similarly affected. However, one of Variety’s anonymous sources theorized that the situation may have been brought about intentionally as a way to “gain traction in the U.S.” by gaming the charts.
Billboard addressed the situation on Nov. 8 and confirmed that data provider Nielsen Music is looking into the “accuracy and legitimacy” of Antares’s sales. “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,” Billboard reported on behalf of a statement from Nielsen. “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.” The tracking week that began on Nov. 2, when Antares was released, and ends today will be reflected on next week’s charts, says Billboard.
Wu isn’t the only China-based star looking to crossover into the U.S, and he won’t be the last. Former EXO bandmate Lay Zhang’s NAMANANA album debuted last week on the Billboard 200 as the highest-charting album ever released Stateside by a Mandopop artist and remains on it this week, while Jackson Wang, a member of K-pop boy band GOT7, released “Different Game” with Gucci Mane on Tuesday (Nov. 6). However, at the moment all eyes are on Wu and his immediate future on the Billboard charts to see how the international fan activities are received locally. Whether the China-based sales are reflected or removed, it will set a precedent for how the United States’ main music chart organization intends to move forward in the globalized age of media consumption