Over 20 years after its launch, Apple’s online music store has found a surprising new life – as a battleground for online turf wars. Last week, at least five songs rose to the upper reaches of the Apple Music (formerly iTunes) download charts, powered by different internet factions. Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion fans waged war against each other as foot soldiers in the rappers’ feud; Britney Spears fans mass-bought the singer’s years-old songs Liar and Selfish as a way to troll her ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, who released a song also called Selfish last month; and rightwing media influencer Ben Shapiro encouraged his fans to drive Facts, his new rap song with Canadian former wrestler Tom MacDonald, up the charts. Far from a measure of objective popularity, the chart reflected political biases, years-old feuds and outright pettiness.
Fans mobilising to push certain albums or songs up the Apple Music download charts is nothing new – in 2018, a group of Mariah Carey fans mass-bought the singer’s 2001 flop Glitter as part of a campaign called #JusticeForGlitter. But musician and writer Jaime Brooks says that the cratering of the digital download market in recent years – around 152m digital songs were sold in the US in 2022, less than half of 2018’s 412m – has allowed campaigns that are smaller and far less coordinated than #JusticeForGlitter to disproportionately affect the charts. “I don’t think anybody’s actually using their phones and iTunes to listen to files any more, except people who have not upgraded their setup since 2012 – there are a lot of people like that in America, but not enough to sustain these huge numbers,” she says. “This [downloading] is a purely performative gesture – it only ever happens as a result of some kind of factional culture war that somebody has the money and inclination to try to represent on the charts.”
Indeed, a lot of these sales campaigns have an implicit or explicit political meaning. Shapiro’s song, naturally, is part of an attempt to “own the libs”; Spears fans see their trolling of Timberlake as a kind of punishment for his perceived mistreatment of the singer when they dated, and for the unapologetic pose he has since adopted. In Megan’s song, she references Megan’s Law, a piece of legislation that requires the government to make information about sex offenders public, which many saw as a shot against Minaj, whose husband is a registered sex offender; Minaj’s song accuses Megan of falsely accusing Tory Lanez of shooting her.
These relatively niche buying campaigns seem small fry in comparison with two campaigns led by the American conservative establishment last year. In July, Jason Aldean’s single Try That in a Small Town was sent to No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after its video was pulled from Country Music Television amid criticisms, including that it was racist, which Aldean denied. In August, the total unknown Oliver Anthony debuted at No 1 with his libertarian – and, some say, QAnon-pandering – single Rich Men North of Richmond.
Kristin Robinson, a senior writer at Billboard, says the Aldean song in particular was not just driven by his fans, but by onlookers who saw the track as a cause to support. “Anchors on Fox News and other kinds of conservative talking heads led a fandom – not in the musical sense but in a political sense – to support that song,” she says. That both songs were in the country space, she says, only helped. “Country music still does quite well with sales in general, because country tends to be a bit of an older audience that has more buying power, or might not be as technologically savvy.”
Sales also have a disproportionate effect on the Billboard charts. A single sale counts for 150 streams, which is why astute fans tend to focus more on downloads than the kinds of “streaming parties” that some fanbases hold. Brooks says that education on the charts – the ways in which certain formats are weighted more heavily than others, and how a fairer chart might be implemented – has been led by K-pop fanbases. “They’ve developed among themselves a whole ideology about this type of thing, and they really did teach the pop fan community about how this stuff works,” she says. “That’s factoring into the current situation, where you had Megan fans organising to try to put big numbers on the board to fight back against Nicki.”
Of course, few of these campaigns create their desired impact. While Megan’s Hiss debuted at No 1 – with around 100k in sales, 29.2m streams and 2.9m radio impressions – Shapiro’s song debuted at No 16, Timberlake’s at No 19 and Minaj’s at No 23. Brooks says that, either way, we’re likely to see more of this in coming years, as music consumption drops on the whole and pop music becomes more tied in with celebrity and politics. “Politics is sort of eating music – in the case of the Ben Shapiro thing, it’s enthusiasm driven by the political media industrial complex, and with Britney v Justin, it’s the celebrity industrial complex,” she says. “It’s all ultimately pointless – it’s people competing to be into the virtuous product v the non-virtuous product. But ultimately, it’s all the same shit.”