The sneaky YouTube hack that made “rockstar” a number-one hit song

Shit was legendary.
Shit was legendary.
Image: Photo by Scott Roth/Invision/AP
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“I done make the hot chart,” 21 Savage boasts on the guest verse of Post Malone’s “rockstar”—a smooth three-and-a-half minute track that, since its release on Sept. 15, has indeed rocketed up the charts to number one on Billboard’s Top 100.

But the song’s—and the relatively unknown singer-rapper’s—one-month climb to the top may not be as impressive as it seems. According to investigations last week, Malone’s label, Republic Records, quietly uploaded a YouTube video in September that is the same length as the full song, but only features the chorus on a loop. It now has more than 50 million views.

The video doesn’t give any hint on the outset that it’s not the genuine track, forcing listeners to click through to a second video for the real thing.

Whether it was uploaded as a marketing gimmick or an intentional chart-gaming ploy, the snippet video’s views have counted toward Billboard’s charts—causing many to question the validity of Post Malone’s triumph. Per the Recording Industry Association of America, 150 streams of a song are equal to one paid download, meaning that the faux-“rockstar” video has potentially earned more than 333,000 equivalent downloads.

(For context on how much that can shift an artist’s chart placement, that is more equivalent downloads than Billboard’s previous #1 song, Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” had in streams in its first week at the top; Malone’s song also only had 80,000 actual paid downloads in its first week.)

Music industry leaders have been raising a ruckus about YouTube for some time now, alleging that the service encourages piracy, doesn’t pay artists enough, and hinders people from actually buying and supporting music. “rockstar’s” unorthodox rise is a further insult to those critical of YouTube’s place in the music business; it also proves just how broken music charts are these days, with streaming thrown into the mix of physical purchases and digital downloads.

Fans and musicians are seemingly find new ways to game the system every day, and such confusion is making it hard to even say who the real top stars are. (Caving to pressure from angry record labels and Apple Music, Billboard announced this weekend that it will no longer give equal weight to free streams and paid streams in 2018.)

Post Malone, for his part, addressed the controversy last week by tweeting in response to a Spin article that claimed the YouTube video was responsible for the track’s success.

Exactly seven hours later, he followed up with a second tweet: “Whenever you live your dreams everyone wants to try to take it away from you.”