Music charts are so broken, teenage Harry Styles fans are gaming them with VPNs

All directions.
All directions.
Image: John Davisson/Invision/AP
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Hell hath no fury like teen pop fans scorned. When musician Harry Styles, formerly of boyband sensation One Direction, dropped his debut solo single “Sign of the Times” last month, a temporary glitch on Spotify made the song unavailable on the platform for several hours—sending Styles’s devotees into revolt.

Their annoyance wasn’t over not being able to listen to the song, but the precious time it had lost to climb the music charts.

“By the time everything was fixed, Harry had lost millions of streams,” one told The Verge. “We wanted number one.” As a result, some fans banded together to start a blog called the Harry Styles Promo Team, and they put together a guide to boost Styles and his song to the top of the US Billboard charts—the definitive ranking of new music, which tallies an artist’s purchases, downloads, and streams—nonetheless.

The six-week-old “team,” which already has almost 16,000 Twitter followers, is asking non-US fans to fake the country of their IP address with a virtual private network so that Styles can rocket up the US charts. (Here’s Quartz’s guide to everything you need to know about VPNs.) It also suggests an array of other tips and tricks to game the ranking system, including buying the song as a download on iTunes, then buying the song as a “gift” to send others on iTunes, then deleting it from one’s library and only playing it on streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify. Even if done by a single person, all of those tactics would contribute to Billboard’s tally in different ways.

Nielsen, the data analytics company that calculates the numbers for Billboard’s charts, argues it has certain mechanisms in place to protect against this kind of manipulation. It would also take a massive, coordinated effort on behalf of Styles’ fans to truly skew the charts in the pop star’s favor, considering how much music is listened to in the world at large.

But the fact that a group of teenagers over the internet might be able to influence a musician’s sales ranking just points to how nonsensical the charts have become.

Billboard and Nielsen, which previously measured new music by physical and digital album sales alone, redefined their formula in the last few years to take streaming services into account. One album sale is counted the same way as 10 track sales or 1,500 song streams—a somewhat arbitrary equivalence. Because subscribing to streaming is much cheaper than purchasing albums (it costs an average of $9.99 a month for unlimited listening on Spotify, but the same amount to buy a single album), musicians with savvy fans who know how to game the formula on streaming—which can be done for free—are put at advantage.

Will Styles’s fans succeed in their efforts? His full album drops on May 12, and its rank on the charts the week after will be not only a reflection of the artist’s talent, but how dedicated his fans are.