Die-hard music fans always rally together on social media when their favorite artists release new music. They encourage each other to keep streaming, to replay the music video over and over, and to request the song from local radio stations — all pretty low-effort ways to feel like you’re helping your favorite artist net streams, climb up the charts, and get more radio play.
But a particularly dedicated and savvy group of Harry Styles fans, led by a Tumblr called Harry Styles Promo Team, is taking it even further. To nab chart victories for his first solo single “Sign of the Times,” released last month, and his eponymous debut album, due out next Friday, they’ve come up with a plan: They’re encouraging fans who don’t live in the US to download VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, a common security measure that can anonymize an internet user.
With a VPN, a non-US fan can fake the country of their IP address, then stream Harry’s music as many times as possible. The idea here is that Billboard charts now take streaming into account — a change made for its album chart in 2014 and for the “hot 100” singles list in 2012 — but it only counts streams marked as coming from a US IP address. (With less emphasis, fans are doing the same thing for the UK music charts.)
In part, this particular effort is a reaction to a Spotify technical glitch the morning that “Sign of the Times” was released. That weekend, Billboard reported that the song was difficult to find on the service for several hours and fans shared screenshots showing that it was listed as unavailable. Rose, a fan who co-operates a popular Harry Styles news account on Twitter, told The Verge via DM, “When Spotify messed up, we tried to fix their error... By the time everything was fixed, Harry had lost millions of streams. We had to start over. I streamed it all night on the lowest volume possible... We wanted number 1.”
Rose says fans organize global listening parties where VPN links are shared, and they stream the song together for hours at a time. Fans in other countries commonly use VPNs to get around geographic restrictions on One Direction and Styles-related content — like many music videos, interviews, and late-night performances that are limited to the US or UK when they’re first published online. So there’s really no learning curve when it comes time to support a new song.
“When Spotify messed up, we tried to fix their error.”
For fans who want to see Styles hit the top of the charts, it’s more of an uphill battle than you might think. Four of the five albums released by Styles’ band One Direction hit the top of the Billboard 200, but none of their 17 singles ever made it to the top of the list in the US. Former band member Zayn Malik was the first of the group to hit the top of the charts, with his debut single “Pillowtalk” last year, but Styles’ first solo work ended up falling short, losing out to Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” and peaking at number four.
“[Harry Styles] doesn't care about the sales,” Rose adds. “But we want to let him know how much we like and support his new music, especially with him being so open and honest lately, and streaming, sharing, and buying is the way.” She said she didn’t know if the fans’ efforts could reasonably change Styles’ chart position on Billboard or Spotify, but they like to update each other when it moves, regardless. When reached for comment, a representative from Spotify said the company had never heard of any similar efforts and declined to speak further. Apple Music did not return a request for comment.
Billboard charts have been gamed before by all kinds of non-fan entities — major labels used to get accused of manipulating physical album sale numbers all the time, even after the implementation of Nielsen’s SoundScan, the bar code system that was supposed to make the numbers infallible. So why not try to do it this way?
Though the effort, creativity, and uh, rule-bending here is impressive, these streams are likely just a drop in the ocean. Songs that wind up at the top of the Billboard charts get tens of millions of streams the week they debut. The max that any one of these fans could stream Harry Style’s five-minute, 20-second track is 270 times per day. It would take thousands of fans really following through (only 300 have liked the most popular Tumblr post about it so far) for this to take off, and the free data cap for most VPN services is way too low for individual sustained effort.
A PR rep for Nielsen, which calculates the numbers used for Billboard charts, told The Verge in an email “Nielsen and its partner data providers have mechanisms in place to protect against this kind of activity,” but would not provide particulars. Billboard declined a request for comment.
Of course, this isn’t the only trick fans have up their sleeves. Promo Team is also joining in on an older One Direction fan tradition: organizing to buy thousands of iTunes downloads of Styles’ music as gifts.
“you can only buy the song once, but you can gift it through iTunes as often as you want.”
The original reasoning behind these “sponsorships” is actually pretty great — a group of Tumblr users decided it would make sense to connect fans who had some extra cash with fans who couldn’t afford to buy the music on iTunes themselves. As an added benefit, it would be an infinitesimal boost to digital downloads. The main gifting blog, 1DSponsorships, was started in 2015 as part of a broader (enormous) fan effort to get the One Direction song “No Control” released as an official single. They claim to have doled out 3,000 copies of “No Control,” and most recently, they write, they gave out over 1,000 copies of Styles’ “Sign of the Times.”
Tessa, a Dutch fan who collects money and sends it to another fan in the UK to disperse, explains, “Sponsorships are one way to increase sales: you can only buy the song once, but you can gift it through iTunes as often as you want.” iTunes only allows gifts to be sent to users who live in the same country as the sender, so before a well-known fandom figure named Becca set up an automated service, gift organizers spent weeks making spreadsheets and manually setting up matches. She’s a programmer and developer, and wrote some simple code that pulls from the spreadsheets, matches requests by country, and can send out up to 75 emails per minute. Plus, fans can now watch the process happen live.
Some of the paired-up gifters and recipients become Tumblr pals, and the result is a fascinating network of One Direction and Styles enthusiasts. But 1DSponsorships’ numbers are pretty paltry with chart movement as a goal.
The six-week-old Promo Team already has nearly 16,000 followers on Twitter, and could conceivably rack up slightly higher numbers. Promo Team also does one better, suggesting that people buy the song on iTunes, buy the song for other people on iTunes, and then delete or hide the song from their library and listen to it only via streaming on Apple Music.
Their site lists all kinds of tips and tricks about the most effective ways to get Styles’ song better radio play or a higher stream count, many of them popular “new music day” go-to’s for serious music fans of all stripes. For example, the Team encourages fans to submit radio play requests to the hundreds of iHeart radio stations that take requests online through Mediabase. They also point out that Most Requested Live, a show syndicated on 150 US radio stations, takes request via Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Other fans tell each other to make sure to play YouTube videos to the 30-second mark at least and to remember that muting the tab discounts the play. Or that trending music on the popular “what’s that song?” app Shazam helps radio stations pick out new songs for playlists, so fans should feed “Sign of the Times” through it at least three times per day. Or that if they’re going to print out homemade flyers to put up around their neighborhoods, they better put QR codes on them.
Chris, a fan who has participated in recent iTunes gifting, says that the fandom has “stepped up” with measures like these over the years because they often disagree with promotional choices made by Syco, Simon Cowell’s Sony-owned record label (with One Direction now dispersed, only Louis Tomlinson still has an affiliation). But right now, he says, “the primary goal is just to support the individual members of the band as they release solo material. [And to] let them know that we're still here as a fandom and looking forward to hearing their new material.”
“there is not a fan who has a problem with streaming parties.”
Most of these activities are eccentric and admirable, but the VPN work-around tiptoes toward forgetting what the number one spot is ideally supposed to mean about a song. Fans don’t look at it that way. Iman, a fan who helps organize streaming parties on Twitter, told The Verge, “No, we don’t see it as cheating. We are simply supporting Harry. I can guarantee you, there is not a fan who has a problem with streaming parties.”
Which brings us to perhaps the weirdest thing about the whole Styles operation: it’s impossible for these fans to know if their collective effort is making a dent, and when they stop to think about it they’re mostly aware that it isn’t. They know better than anyone how many streams and downloads a #1 hit really demands, and it’s not like they can’t do basic math. So why do all this?
The rewards seem tiny, and the effort is huge. But, it’s worth remembering — as Styles and his former bandmates often do — that young people on social media created their careers in the first place. In some ways, they’re open-source pop stars, and that comes with a feeling of responsibility to keep iterating on them.
Chris says it’s hard to know the difference between organic numbers and “fan activity.” He doesn’t know if fans could ever move chart position. But he also points out that Louis Tomlinson, the former member of One Direction who’s seen arguably the least public hype, retweeted a link promoting iTunes gifts of his debut single last December. The recognition of the support, to him, is the most gratifying result (plus, Becca says, the retweet flooded the sponsorship system and 12,000 people offered to gift copies of the song). And ultimately he thinks Styles is big enough on his own, “We're just being supportive of [him] and of each other.”
Tessa explained that participating in the “punk” spirit of the group is its own reward: “I got involved because I love the DIY attitude. It's taking things in your own hands as a fandom.”
By now, many of these measures are ritual and reflex for fans — superstition even — and as much a part of participating in the fandom as making GIFs or tweeting reaction videos. It’d be pointless to try to convince them to stop, whether by illustrating the futility or explaining Spotify’s Terms of Service. And the “Sign of the Times” disappointment behind them, they’re gearing up for Harry Styles album release day next Friday.
Rose says she doesn’t know for sure that Styles is aware of all the work that will go on behind the scenes that day: “Maybe... He's very coy and dodges straight answers in interviews. But I know he's grateful.”