Several songs, starting with the singers “Jang Deok-cheol” and “Nilo” earlier this year, suddenly became high on the music charts along with “Shaun” in July. These songs show a different pattern from EXID’s “Up and Down” and Yoon Jong-shin’s “Like it,” commonly known as “climbing the charts songs.” This term means that although the music was not very popular at the time of the release, it was re-appraised after a certain period of time and later ranked high on the charts. While existing “climbing the charts songs” have gradually risen over 10 to 12 weeks, some songs have topped the music charts in just two to seven weeks.
As a result, companies have been suspected of rigging the music charts by the public and the suspicions still remain. Even more than 600 people have signed and submitted a petition to the presidential petition board to resolve the controversy. The Argus stepped up to take a closer look at the situation.
Poor operations of music charts
The charts of music sites are easily manipulated by companies who commit illegal acts. Some advertising agencies are requested to do marketing by entertainment management agencies independently of music sites. Generally, it does not matter if the agency advertises the songs of its singers through various media. However, this situation is problematic because the companies that advertised their songs were dodgy. The music charts are vulnerable to illegal acts by these companies.
One of the methods that they use is hacking into music sites. Agencies who commit such illegal acts hack into users’ accounts and then put them into automatic repetition systems. The systems automatically download a particular song and continuously play it to trick the music sites’ systems. Through this process, the aggregated information is reflected in the music charts to produce debatable results.
According to a Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) News Desk report on May 12, brokers hacked into the music site Melon, which has the largest number of users in Korea. They hacked IDs and manipulated the ranking count system using a macro program which helps to defraud the music site. The macro program is a program that can easily and automatically repeat certain tasks.
Also, underhanded companies said that it takes at least 10 million won (about US$8,900) to get to the 50th spot on the charts and a lot more money for first place through the macro program with obtained IDs through hacking. In other words, if you just have money, you can improve the music ranking.
Unreliable social media marketing
Is it possible to reach the top of the music charts just by using social media? Many people question whether the controversial singers’ agencies are all behind the rise in the music charts as a result of “viral marketing.” Viral marketing is a marketing technique that allows netizens to voluntarily promote a product and spread it through the broadcasting media like social media. Culture critic Kim Heon-sik said, “The controversy over the fabrication of sound sources is certainly different from what it used to be. This case is not due to the problem of hoarding albums.”
There are suspicions that the marketing has been illegally conducted and manipulated the public. In particular, the problem is that it is not properly verified whether or not the number of followers such as on Facebook and Twitter, which are the marketing types of music recommended, is real.
In fact, there is an issue over the Facebook page, “Music played only for you.” This is because it has been revealed that the Facebook page is managed by LIMEZ Entertainment that represents controversial singers. The page made it look as if their songs were popular with the public by faking the views through ghost accounts on social media.
If a song truly gained popularity through social media, it should be evident in other media outlets. However, the public did not know about their songs until it was ranked high, and the controversial singers did not have high views in other media outlets like YouTube, contrary to Han Dong-geun and Yoon Jong-shin who have been deemed “climbing the charts singers.”
Lack of legal punishment
“Manipulation of the music charts” remains an issue, but no legal punishment has been made. However, with no clear solution at the national level, there is a cycle of waiting without the promise of an investigation. This will just increase the chances of new controversial singers appearing and receiving the same suspicion in the future. In fact, there are laws against the panic buying of albums and regulations on the investigation of illegal acts, but there are no laws on the prohibition and punishment of music streaming.
There is also a problem with black markets where illegal transactions take place. They control the music charts constantly and the related market could grow bigger. Furthermore, instead of using macros, it is possible to create more subtle ways to avoid the law and manipulate rankings.
Insufficient indicators to evaluate music charts
The method of counting the ranks of music sites is very simple. Most sites measure song rankings by using only the number of downloads and streaming records as indicators. These two indicators are vulnerable to manipulation by hacking users’ IDs.
In fact, Melon, Genie, and Mnet, which are Korean music sites, use only these two indicators. Naver Music, which has at least a number of evaluation items, has only three indexes: downloading, streaming and BGM setting. As Korean music sites set fewer standards, it is easier to use automatic repetition systems.
Not all of the results provided by the sites are invalid because many people use these sites. However, the problem is that the indicators of downloading and streaming are easy to manipulate and do not always reflect the public’s preference. Although the public enjoys a lot of music through other media such as radio and YouTube, there is no indication of them included in the charts.
Creating reckless ghost accounts on social media
There are many ghost accounts that do not have real users on social media. They are typically used for viral marketing. Ghost accounts can be created by illegal companies, and they cheat the public by increasing the number of views on social media postings or “Like” accounts.
The way to produce an unlimited number of social media ghost accounts can be easily found on the Internet, which is simple enough for anyone to do. However, ghost accounts created in this way have a high risk of being misused because they are indistinguishable from one another at a glance.
In fact, according to research by Indiana University and the University of Southern California in March last year, 15 percent of 48 million bot accounts on Twitter automatically responded to certain messages. A “bot account” means an account that performs repetitive tasks like a robot. According to the announcement in November last year, about 60 million fake accounts are active on Facebook. These ghost accounts make it falsely appear as if lots of people are interested in particular issues by repeatedly visiting certain posts.
In other words, high views and the number of “Like” clicks from ghost accounts are how some agencies dishonestly try to mislead the public into thinking a particular song is a popular piece of music.
Ambiguity of evidence
The problem of manipulating the music charts is very hard to prove. First, it is difficult to identify the exact victim and the extent of the damage. Since in the case of records there are substantial album sales lists, it is easy to find out that they are not false. However, the case of a sound source is different. A sound source does not have reliable figures and also has a limit in terms of transparency. First of all, the number of users’ IDs cannot be fully confirmed and further problems related to personal information may occur in the course of checking it.
In addition, there is no agency responsible for regulating the music charts, so no detailed investigation is conducted. The government has yet to decide whether the issue should be dealt with by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism or by the Fair Trade Commission. For this reason, the enquiry into the matter is currently ongoing, and no definite conclusion has been made.
Introducing a new evaluating system
The aggregation method of current sound source sites, which are based solely on downloads and streaming times, should be changed. It should include not only the existing indicators but also various other popular indicators so that the rankings could not be manipulated simply by hacking IDs. For example, music downloads and streaming, as well as air-plays and YouTube hits should be added.
Air-play measures the number of sound sources played on the radio, which can be obtained from information held by broadcast stations. Also, YouTube currently offers a service called YouTube Premium, which allows users to play music or music videos. These are sufficient to be reflected in the music chart.
In fact, the United States’ most powerful music chart, the Billboard charts, is already doing it. Billboard uses a network that connects the entire U.S. through SoundScan. SoundScan provides data such as the number of hits and the amount of music videos sold. In addition, thousands of 24-hour radio stations in the U.S. offer information to Billboard.
Crackdown on ghost accounts
Intensive control on fake accounts created on social media is essential. This requires management in two ways, before and after creating accounts.
First of all, the problem is that anyone can create a ghost account on social media and doing so is simple. To address this, new conditions to the process of creating an account must be added. For example, restrictions should be placed on the methods of email authentication for accurate self-certification.
Gmail is comparatively easy to use to create accounts, and it can be the easiest way to ignore and pass the security procedures on social media. The security procedure is a confirmation process that considers both cell phones and ID cards. Therefore, the government should lead users to use email that is more difficult for users to authenticate themselves, such as Naver mail, which can only register three accounts per resident registration number.
Next, ghost accounts that have already been created should be identified and removed. In fact, in November last year, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency's cyber investigation team discovered a group of ghost accounts created by using stolen phones as a means of certification.
Practical legal punishment
In order to solve this problem, the controversy itself should be investigated and a penalty should be imposed for music sites that run the charts.
Above all, it is important to decide which institution will be the main agent to uncover the truth about the manipulation of sound source charts. What the public wants is the truth about whether the controversial singers actually manipulated the music charts. There is an Act on promotion of the music industry which was enacted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. However, it is only for the acts by the record industry, not sound sources. Therefore, the ministry should draw up a bill about sound sources.
Such discussions are likely to take place in the long run. Thus, legal penalties that can be implemented relatively quickly are needed to prevent further problems during the investigation period.
This can be realized by setting up an institutional system that takes responsibility for music sites that have let the problem persist continuously. If the government does not want to create a constant controversy, it should establish a system that punishes the sites. If direct legal sanctions are imposed on music sites, they will be alert and no longer close their eyes to the issue.
Even now, the controversy is still unsolved and the questions are growing. Since this is not a temporary problem, a thorough investigation should be conducted. Also, we should constantly give attention to it. Unfocused social problems could have a bigger impact and then our society will only move in the wrong direction. In other words, if we can rely on music charts, which we have been using without any misgivings, we can become more cultured individuals. It will also help society solve this problem and better the music industry.
By Lee Jun-young
Staff Reporter of Culture Section