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Billboard and Universal Music Group Fudge Truth to Cover Up Kris Wu Controversy

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Who is Kris Wu? For many US listeners, November 2nd was the first time they’d heard of the mega-popular Chinese hip hop and pop artist. That was the day Wu dropped his debut studio album Antares, which immediately generated huge controversy as American audiences failed to understand how he a seemingly unknown artist could capture the top seven spots on the US iTunes downloads charts.

But at RADII, he’s sort of a pet subject of ours. We were quick to publish our own take:

Kris Wu Controversially Pulled from iTunes Top Spot as Twitter Asks, “Kris Who?”

There are now endless takes on the situation, but to summarize, many posit that it’s impossible for Wu’s chart-topping success to have come about organically. On the often-overlooked Chinese side of the internet, fans have been openly organizing on social media into task forces to boost sales data. Wu’s camp maintains that fans’ US iTunes purchases weren’t aiming to artificially prop up sales — apparently the album’s Chinese release was held four days later on November 6th, to coincide with Kris’ birthday, and as a result, eager fans had to turn to the US iTunes store to get their downloads.

That’s the line Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun took, anyway:

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Over the past few days I have become aware of an artist named @kriswu. Last night we had an opportunity to connect and talk and show respect. We learned of eachother since many rumors have come out about both us in connection to his newest release. Kris is a great artist who on a global scale is a star. It was explained to he and I last night that because his release was held back in China for his birthday his fans went and got the music any way they could and that was US Itunes. Once the release in China took place the fans had their access. He has never been removed from the charts on iTunes. That is false. I have never wished anything bad for Kris nor any other artist and those saying otherwise are wrong. Any fans of anyone I manage who are using this opportunity to spread any sort of division or racism are dead wrong and I won’t stand for it. The music community is international and no longer held by borders. Kris happy birthday and you showed yourself to be a global star. Glad we got to connect and speak and keep your head held high. This is just the first of many achievements for you. And for those using my name for false rumors now you know exactly where I stand. Keep it positive.

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Even if you swallow that birthday line though, Wu’s management would surely have known what they were doing by delaying the Chinese release?

An article by Billboard Editor Colin Stutz paints the situation as an unfortunate mix-up:

Meanwhile, Wu’s label Universal Music Group says it’s “thrilled” with the global success of Antares, his first album from Interscope, Island Records U.K. and Universal Music China. And while there may be disappointment over the sales that did not count towards the U.S. charts, the label is taking the long view, looking forward to building his star power internationally.

“In its first week, the album has already been certified seven-times Platinum in China, where it’s currently the top album on the country’s four biggest streaming services,” said a UMG spokesperson. “With Antares, Kris Wu becomes the first Chinese recording artist to concurrently land in major industry and genre charts across the U.S., U.K., Australia and other parts of the world.”

Unfortunately, UMG’s statement is somewhat misleading, but is the kind of PR that is often swallowed whole when it comes to English-language coverage of China’s music industry. Alex Taggart, General Manager at China-focused music rights and services company Outdustry, explains why the “number one” claim could be seen as dubious:

“It’s certainly possible that it went to the top of at least one chart on all four streaming services. But the thing about charts in China is that there is no independent entity to verify the numbers coming from the different streaming services, as Nielsen and Billboard do elsewhere. I hear at least once a week from an artist manager in the west whose record label has told them that the artist has ‘a number one in China’. At this point I really don’t even know what that means!”

For instance, one Antares track, Tough Pill, did briefly sit on top of a Netease Mainland music chart. But, as with the other major streaming platforms in China, Netease has a whole array of different charts, from the seemingly superfluous (“best new music”, “best new original music”, and “hottest music”) to lists backed by alcohol brands and video streaming platforms.

In the context of a discussion about the top iTunes rankings, to say Antares is the “top album on the country’s four biggest streaming services” is therefore not quite as clear cut as it might first appear. At the time the Billboard article was published, Antares had 150,000 sales on QQ Music. In comparison, the latest album from boyband NINEPERCENT had 300,000 presales.

Major Western media outlets are often quick to pump out a headline, but rarely want to get their hands dirty actually looking into the Chinese internet — and this is particularly the case when it comes to the complex world of Chinese music.

If you were to tell an audience of millions that Weird Al Yankovic were at the top of iTunes, Spotify, and Apple Music, readers would refuse to believe it, and if there were uncertainty, they’d look it up. But cynical PR companies and record labels know that many a US reader won’t bother logging onto NetEase or QQ Music to check for themselves, or simply hit a language barrier if they do, and are happy to push the boundaries of truth. Unfortunately, despite some notable exceptions,  many English-language reports on Chinese music haven’t moved on far enough from the “Ayi Jihu” affair, whereby outlets such as the BBC were seemingly duped into writing about a pop star who was “huge in China” but who few in the country had actually heard of.

ayi jihu bbc pop star china

Ayi Jihu on the BBC

“There is a lot of discussion of the Chinese music industry in the global press at the moment, some (not all) of which is based on press releases,” says Taggart. “The music industry is a complex beast in any country, and it’s understandable that people don’t really know where to go for a second opinion in China, as it’s a relatively new industry and it’s so far away. Add to that the fact that data is impossible to verify independently, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion.”

That may be the case, but with more Chinese artists breaking into the US market, the US’s media and music industry are going to have to learn to adapt. There’s nothing new about record labels trying to make their artists look good overseas. But soon, they might find themselves dealing with a more informed audience.

Universal Music Group declined RADII’s request to comment on the situation.

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.