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Did One Lady Gaga Troll Prove that the Billboard Chart Is Broken?

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By Ryan Bassil

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On November 17, 2013, “Sabrina O’Connor” posted a story on Examiner.com that claimed Lady Gaga’s Interscope label had spent $25 million on the promotion of ARTPOP—the most since Michael Jackson’s Invincible—resulting in redundancies at the label. 

Within days this number had been treated like a limp-sock in a public-school dormitory; passed around by anyone desperate enough to use it. Business Week, Vulture, and MSN all ran stories leading with the click-baiting $25 million loss and the figure has since been floated elsewhere; contributing to analysis and reviews of Gaga’s strongly unanimous fail of a record.

The problem—Sabrina O’Connor doesn’t exist. Gaga has since denied the $25 million figure, and many sites—despite adding a small-print “according to Examiner.com” correction—still have their lead-story online.

Examiner.com, a website that has a network of “100,000 contributors”, had been taking submissions from O’Connor and another writer called Angela Cheng – who some have speculated are the same person. Cheng, who once wrote that the “top reason to dislike Madonna” was because she “helped encourage the spread of aids”, had, alongside O’Connor, published a tonne of Gaga takedowns on Examiner.com. Here’s a screenshot.

(via)

Perez Hilton, notorious Gaga hater, is also a fan.

It could just be the work of a crazed Madonna stan except, on January 1, 2014, Cheng published another piece claiming that Bill Werde, former Editorial Director at Billboard.com, was to be fired from the company—a week later he was gone. The details may have been incorrect—he wasn’t fired—but the “scoop” gave slight credibility to Cheng’s previous claims. Was Cheng not just an internet troll with spare time, but a credible, albeit very biased, source of information operating under a false identity? When Buzzfeed contacted Werde to discuss the story, he took matters into his own hands and embarked upon a super-slewing investigation.

In a Tumblr post published last week, Werde states that he was aware of both Cheng and O’Connor because they would mention him in their stories "with ungrounded and wholly untrue accusations that somehow Billboard or [Werde] was receiving favor from Gaga's camp to better represent her or her chart positions."

In the post, Werde details how he reached out to friends at AEG—the touring-company (who are putting on Gaga’s shows) and also parent company of Examiner—citing defamation and libel: 

“AEG said they’d have someone look into the matter, and very shortly thereafter—and very much to AEG’s and the Examiner’s credit—the stories disappeared from the site. At some time after that, ‘Cheng’ appeared to stop contributing to Examiner.com.”

The author pages of Cheng and O’Connor have since been deleted, prompting Cheng to set up her own website, Pop Music Gadfly. In a post dated April 1, Cheng personally tackled Werde over his investigation into her identity – he’d found that Cheng’s profile picture is from a non-associated Flickr account and the college and publications listed on her Examiner author-page had no record of her attendance.

“I have made it quite clear that in order to avoid death threats from music stans and music industry executives (who are as bad as the mafia), I had to take on this identity. However, that shouldn’t matter. I work in the industry and know the truth. I write the truth.”

She continued: “If I was just some troll blogger, why would Werde make phone calls to universities I supposedly attended? Why would he attempt to get me and others who write negative stuff about Gaga fired? Why would he contact his friends at Buzzfeed and Gawker in order to discredit my stories? Have you ever heard of someone who held such a high position at a music industry trade publication try to discredit articles—even if they were written by supposed trolls? It seems that Bill Werde, with possibly the direction of Team Gaga, has a goal to put the blame of ARTFLOP’s failure on some unknown writers, rather than admitting it is a bad album and people are sick of Lady Gaga.” 

“I can say that Bill Werde knows who I am.”

WHY WAS ANGELA CHENG, AN ANONYMOUS BLOGGER, INTERESTED IN THE EDITORIAL DIRECTOR AT BILLBOARD?

Cheng states that she contacted Werde on several occasions to respond to one question: “How did the song “Dope” by Lady Gaga chart in the top ten when the song was never played on the radio and barely sold on iTunes?”

The song charted at Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. By comparison, it charted in the UK at Number 126. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Lady Gaga has more American fans than British; the population of the United States is mother-trucking twelve-wheeler compared to the UK’s tiny Morris Minor. Yet Cheng claims that she has another answer: 

“A video clip of “Dope” was used as an advertisement before several thousand YouTube videos. Even though viewers didn’t solely intend to view the clip of “Dope,” Billboard, under Werde’s leadership, still counted the views towards their charts.”

Billboard incorporated streaming data into the Hot 100 in 2013. Google, y’know the guys that run YouTube, state that a view of a skippable ad will increment the YouTube view count only when the ad has been watched completely. This would seem to only back up Cheng’s claim if the pre-roll advertisements were, essentially, a full length music video watched in entirety—metrics upon which Billboard, in simplicity, run the Hot 100. Yet it’s worth nothing that a Billboard article published in February 2013 states that the streaming data would also take “user-generated clips that utilise authorised audio” into account.

We contacted Cheng, since she’s the one throwing around accusations, to find out more. It wasn’t especially hard, an email address is listed on her site. Yet it’s worth noting here that a.) considering how shady she’s been about her identity we can only take her word that it’s her replying to us via email, and b.) no one else has interviewed her up to this point.

Noisey: When did Gaga become the main source of Angela Cheng's hate? And why?
Cheng: Gaga became the source of my hate around the time the ARTPOP promotional campaign started. When "Applause" didn't go over as well as she wanted it to, Gaga was on Twitter telling her fans to buy multiple copies of the song. She was tweeting sites that allow one to playlist a video thousands of times. And her label didn't try and stop her. Then, in interviews, she said she didn't care about sales or chart positions. She barely got called out on this. If any other artist had done the same thing, their careers would have ended. 

On Aug 13, 2013, Gaga asked her fans to buy multiple copies of the song. This is a bit shitty, but it’s a practice lots of other big pop artists have used, and their careers haven’t ended. 

What other artists are you unhappy with? What needs to change?
Another artist who is similar is Mariah Carey. She has cheated the system far more than Gaga has. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Carey scored a lot of number one hits by releasing her singles for 49 or 99 cents, while other singles sold for at least $2.49. Carey brags about her record breaking 18 number one singles, but can anybody name them? Before hitting the stage or making an appearance, Carey has people call her "the greatest selling female artist ever," even though that statement is false. Her worldwide record sales seem to increase by 20 million every month, and NOBODY calls her out on it. Carey, like Gaga, has talent - however, she is relying on manipulating sales facts rather than releasing a great record. 

This a practice that Lady Gaga has also employed. In 2011, Born This Way was sold on Amazon for a cut-price of 99 cents. Although Billboard changed their rules to state that any album sold below $3.49 during the first four-weeks would not be eligible for the chart, it didn’t stop Lady Gaga from smashing first week sales records. 

I am a huge Beyonce fan, but believe she is being protected by the media and industry as well. For example, let's talk about her Super Bowl performance. Everybody I talked to thought the performance was awful. Most of the people on Twitter said it was awful. But did you find even ONE review stating it was awful? Of course not. When Beyonce takes off her clothes, she is empowering women. When Miley Cyrus does the same, she's a slut. There is definitely a double standard here and I think the music industry (who works hand-in-hand with the media) is responsible for this. 

The main thing that needs to be changed is that artists, as well as their record labels, NEED to be called out on this. So many writers are afraid of losing their jobs because the magazine or website they work for relies on their relationship with record labels. Billboard, which is supposed to be an objective magazine, needs to stop being a fanzine. They need to base their charts on the actual popularity of music rather than being hand-fed bullshit from record labels. 

On your blog you state - "A video clip of 'Dope' was used as an advertisement before several thousand YouTube videos. Even though viewers didn’t solely intend to view the clip of 'Dope' Billboard, under Werde’s leadership, still counted the views towards their charts." - can you expand? What sort of pre-roll was played? 
Thank you for asking about this, because out of all the things that happened with Gaga, this made me the most angry. Till this day, nobody at Billboard has answered how "Dope" by Lady Gaga became a top ten hit. Billboard is truly misrepresenting their charts here. I know "Dope" was given away for free to people who pre-ordered ARTPOP. However, so was Gaga's more popular hit "Do What U Want," a much better received song that was far more talked about, received a lot more airplay and sales, but didn't come close to the chart position "Dope" did. 

“Do What U Want” reached Number 13 in the Billboard Hot 100.

"Dope” didn't receive any airplay; it was never officially released as a single. Somebody from Billboard posted on the ATRL forums that video views for the YouTube Awards performance of "Dope" went through the roof and that's how it became a top ten hit with little sales and no airplay. But others I talked to say that is absolutely bull. I did a lot of research on this.

An article posted on Billboard.com says that “Dope” generated 8.2 million first-week streams; 95% of which stemmed from YouTube views of the live video of Gaga performing "Dope" at the YouTube Music Awards on Nov. 3, not the song or official music video. 

The “Chart Overview” for Lady Gaga on Billboard.com states that “Dope” only stayed in the charts for two weeks.

The week before "Dope" made its strange chart debut, the performance of the song was seen as an advertisement before thousands of other YouTube videos. For example, if you wanted to watch a video of an interview with Jimmy Fallon, the performance of "Dope," advertising the YouTube Awards, played before the clip. In other words, people never intended to watch Lady Gaga's performance. This is completely misleading and is how the song, despite being one hardly anybody knows of, became a top ten hit. The week after the advertisements, the song tumbled down the charts. I think Billboard no longer allows these advertisements to influence the chart position of a song. But it's a little too late and I am not the only one questioning their integrity. 

This is a screenshot showing the statistical view-count of Lady Gaga’s “Dope” from the YouTube Music Awards. The views since a small-period in November, 2013 (when the song charted) are virtually non-existent. There are also the two official version of "Dope", an audio track (currently at 3m views) and the official video (currently at 2m views). These are both dwarfed by the 15m views for the live performance, all of which took place in a single week. Let’s compare this to popular Lady Gaga song, “Bad Romance”.

The view counts are vastly different. “Bad Romance”, despite being released four years ago, continues to clock up hundreds of thousand of plays on a daily basis. 

Thanks Angela.

SO, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

We don’t know what interests Bill Werde may or may not have outside of his work at Billboard, but Cheng does raise a good point, if awkwardly. 

All YouTube streams now count toward the Billboard Chart and it is possible for a skippable pre-roll advert to add to the viewcount of a video, potentially affecting its position on the chart. It’s like the iPhone 5S of payola. Is it a bad thing that Gaga only charted because a live video of her playing at the YouTube Awards was watched loads of times? It depends on circumstance. 

If the views from a pre-roll advert of Lady Gaga’s YouTube Awards performance were included, the pre-roll would need to be watched in entirety to count as a view. Lady Gaga’s performance of “Dope” had a similar spike in views as YouTube Awards performances by artists like MIA and Eminem. The difference is that Eminem released “Rap God” a month before his performance, so had already achieved a high chart position whereas Gaga released “Dope” the day after the YouTube Awards, increasing the stream’s bounty. 

Chart position remains a sign of an artist’s power. It increases their live fees, their ability to get on TV and the size of their marketing budget. Of course, there's nothing wrong with Youtube promoting the performance and ot’s up to them how they wants to count views, but Billboard needs to be discerning in judging what views count towards a chart position.

The covert nature of this story means that it is possible Angela Chen has a series of personal motives for rubbishing the name of Gaga and Billboard, with evidence that feels, at best, incomplete. It’s also possible she’s just trying to expose corruption in the music industry and is having her name dragged through the dirt because of it. From the language both, but irrespective of political mud-slinging, troll-sabotage, accusations and the like, this story is important because of the larger picture that it has generated—the Billboard chart is still broken.

Ryan Bassil is on Twitter — @RyanBassil

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