In my last post, I mentioned that bestseller charts and lists are inherently and unavoidably unfair, and I wanted to expand a bit more on this.
Even before this latest round of reforms, I’ve noticed more interest in the charts. For example, there’s this whole effort on OneHallyu to gather data from the Gaon charts and present it in different ways. At times, it’s just people looking for tools to use to bash other fandoms, which is annoying, but on the whole, I think that fans delving into the numbers is a good thing, because being willing and able to crunch data is actually a really good skill set to cultivate. (It’s a bit like fans learning Korean because of K-Pop–people might be critical of the motivation, but hey, anything that encourages someone to learn a foreign language is all right in my book.)
Plus sometimes I see these fans stumbling upon an important realization: If you crunch the data this way, Group A comes out on top. But if you crunch the data that way, a totally different group comes out on top, and Group A looks like a bunch of losers!
It’s almost as if–stay with me here–“topping out on the charts” is a somewhat artificial phenomenon, or at least something that (while good news) is certainly not so fraught with significance as to be equivalent to success itself. Plus it’s completely irrelevant to quality, which is why it’s pretty ridiculous when fans look to the charts for no other reason than to attempt to “prove” that their favorite group rocks and everyone else’s favorite group sucks eggs. (And let me encourage you to further skepticism, since this kind of statistical overreach is by no means limited to music charts: Like pictures, numbers do indeed lie, and it’s important to be aware of the various methods used to make them lie.)
The most fundamental problem with looking at the charts to determine how well a group is doing is that there’s more than one way to make money. Does a group actually rely on digital sales in Korea? Do they instead rely on the sales of event tickets, CDs, and other goods geared towards fans? Do they make their money in non-Korean markets? Is music a near-irrelevant income stream to the group, which uses new releases as nothing more than a loss leader to get more endorsement, variety, and acting deals for its members?
Even if digital sales are where it’s at for a particular performer, chart rankings can be extremely misleading, and even sales data can give you only a partial picture.
Look at Zico’s discography: “Day/Predator” and “Oasis” both topped out at #5 on the Gaon weekly chart–the rankings are totally the same. If, however, you look at the data from each song’s first week of release, it looks like “Oasis” did a bit better than “Day/Predator”–it sold 180,000 copies compared to 117,000.
But “Oasis” sold more than four times as many downloads overall–it was a major hit! “Oasis” stayed on the chart for ages, while “Day/Predator” fell off pretty quickly–a fact that neither the ranking nor the first week of sales reveal. Or look at “Eureka,” which sold 1,180,000 downloads. That’s a number that should have put it in the top 25 of the 2016 Gaon download chart, yet it’s a lowly #69. Why? Because it was released in December of the previous year, so sales were split between the two years.
Who is the top-selling K-Pop group? What is the best-selling song? It all depends on how you slice it. That’s really nice for marketers, because you can usually figure out some way to spin a release as successful, but for anyone interested in objective reality–well, this is why you learn to get comfortable with crunching data yourself.
* * *
When people hear that charts are not, in fact, Divine Truth carved into a pair of stone tables and handed to Moses by God himself, they often start in with the conspiracy theories. But you don’t need a conspiracy for charts to be Made Useful–or rather, the conspiracy doesn’t need to be limited to a few well-heeled players. Like all effective marketing tactics, charts benefit the industry and the chart-maker, and (believe it or not) can benefit consumers as well: Sometimes what people call a “conspiracy” is more accurately labeled “market forces.”
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’m going to explain the workings of the bestseller lists I myself have manipulated: Amazon bestseller lists.
Some background: About six or seven years ago, Amazon made some changes in the way that they sold e-books that suddenly made it much easier for self-published authors to sell enough to actually make a living.
But how should a self-published author market themselves? Especially if they don’t have the money to buy ads everywhere?
You can probably guess what the answer is going to be: Get onto one of Amazon’s bestseller lists.
This works very well–even though I completely stopped marketing my books, it took over a year for my sales to slow significantly.
That was great for me, it was great for Amazon (which gets a cut of sales), and it was even great for readers, because bestseller lists make it easy for them to find books that interest them. Indeed, that is why Amazon has about a billion different genre-related bestseller lists–that way people looking for very specific kinds of books can find authors who write those books! Everyone is happy!
Except that everyone is never happy. Authors figure out Amazon’s chart algorithms and start to game them to improve their chart ranking. Then readers stop buying what’s on those charts, so Amazon changes its algorithms. Then a bunch of authors suddenly aren’t selling books any more, which makes them very upset. Amazon is both a chart-maker and a book retailer, so they weigh their charts to give preference to books that aren’t available anywhere else. This puts authors in the sticky position of having to choose between putting all their eggs in one basket, retailer-wise, or losing a valuable chart position.
Do you begin to understand why I so reject the notion that charts are about fairness? I mean, honestly–fairness? There is no fairness here–there are a bunch of competing demands and agendas, and none of them are more noble or moral than any of the others.
Is it therefore a bad system? I don’t think so–I think it’s a vast improvement what came before (which also relied heavily on bestseller lists, albeit ones that were harder to get on). More authors can sell more books, more readers can find books they like, and the company that makes it all possible is also rewarded. If you want to call it unfair, go ahead–but I feel like it’s unfair in everyone’s favor.