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Gaming the charts has been going on for decades. Economist Tyler Cowen documented how prosecutions in the US for what was called payola started in the 1950s in his book: In Praise of Commercial Culture. Prior to this the process for ranking and gaming the charts was opaque at best. It destroyed the career of radio DJ Alan Freed, who helped pioneer the rock and roll sound. American Bandstand presenter Dick Clark almost had a similar fate. Clark sold a stake in a record company and turned snitch for the authorities.
Over time labels relied on legal promotional means to radio stations. Here’s what KLF’s The Manual had to say about them circa 1988:
Your plugger. The man responsible for getting the nation to hear your record. From now on in this man will undoubtedly be the most important person in the jigsaw. Without his faith, vision and understanding of the fastest lane in this particular rat race, you will be nowhere.
So go with the plugger that’s got the faith, vision and understanding – indefinable qualities – but you will know within five minutes of meeting them if they have it. Top grade bull is something else they should have.
The plugger will try and explain what his job is. Each of them view their role differently but all must be able to deliver the following:
1. Concrete advice on what has to be brought out on your record for him to be able to do his job.
2. Appointments with Radio One producers where he is able to get them to listen to your record under the most favourable light.
3. Advice and help in putting together a video that will be acceptable for children’s television and a lead on some of the hungry young video makers who are out there.
Money and pluggers. They will want a lot and when your record starts happening pluggers will want more. Scott [The KLF’s plugger] wanted a thousand pounds to start working the record and then all sorts of bonuses related to our record reaching certain positions on the charts. We had to pay him five grand altogether once it had made Number One. He had a lot of costs and his team worked flat out for it, but we had to give him the first thousand the day of release. We had a couple of months to pay the other four. Anybody who can do it much cheaper won’t be much good.The KLF – The Manual – How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way
Plugging services also worked with club DJs to get their artists in club play charts. When I used to send returns to these charts I used to receive ‘promotional copy’ records from promo agencies. Some of them were good, some indescribably bad. One of the agencies I used to get material from was IRP; my contact there Lohan Presencer went on to become executive chairman of the Ministry of Sound Group.
With the rise of hallyu and online voting you saw early breakout artists like the Wonder Girls galvanise fans and home and abroad to get them on to the likes of Disney Radio in the US and assist in gaming the charts.
Now it seems political activism has merged with the art of plugging. Miles Guo, a critic of the Chinese government based in New York has provided the vocals and money behind ‘Take Down the CCP‘. It feels like the Team America soundtrack, but without the irony.
It went to number one on the iTunes download chart in three countries on the one day America, Canada and Australia (you need to make an allowance for the international date line, so Australia appears on September 11th, rather than 10th). It has all the hallmarks of a coordinated promotion. The reduced prominence of downloads versus streams obviously paid a part in their chart choice. Promotions of streams are structurally very different, with playlists along genres being much more important; so for Guo it would be much harder in terms of gaming the charts. Gaming the charts for streaming does happen; but with more conventional agendas. More music related posts here.