American Sajaegi

The first thing you need to understand is that, historically, there has been very little transparency in the record business. Until 1991, the sales data that trade publications like Billboard used to determine chart positions was sourced by cold-calling record stores and asking for estimates. The transition to streaming and social media platforms with public viewcounts and creator-facing analytics breakdowns has been a paradigm shift for anyone with even a passing interest in watching the charts. Large fanbases like the Swifties and the BTS Army are now able to track sales, streams, and radio spins to an extent that was never possible during the the days when proving your mettle as a superfan meant calling in requests to radio stations and MTV. The music industry is notoriously byzantine and opaque, but many of these fans now understand it better than most artists and critics do.

For years, fans have used this knowledge to manipulate the charts. They do research to determine the most efficient way of running up play counts on streaming platforms. They purchase digital and CD singles en masse during release week to secure the strongest possible debut. They make and distribute infographics to coordinate mass buying and streaming campaigns on social media. Twitter is now littered with accounts that provide regular updates about iTunes sales and radio playlist adds, and the replies are often full of stans debating rule changes and chart formulas with a zeal that was once reserved only for hardened industry professionals.

In South Korea, chart-obsessed superfans feel compelled to take on an additional responsibility. They watch for signs of a dubious practice that they call sajaegi. The word can mean “hoarding” or “panic-buying,” but in music, it almost always means chart manipulation. Fans use the word sajaegi to distinguish between the efforts of passionate volunteers to improve their favorite artists’ chart position and another, different type of campaign that tends to be waged in secret by “marketing companies” working at wealthy clients’ behest. These firms offer services that are not so different from those advertised by bot formers selling SoundCloud plays and Instagram followers via online marketplaces like Fiverr. 

A few years ago, NPR published a report detailing a meeting in Seoul where an artist was told he could buy a guaranteed number one placement for his next single in exchange for the equivalent of a quarter million US dollars. In the Korean market, where demand for digital downloads and CDs is much stronger than in America, sajaegi tactics are expensive because they involve bulk-buying a lot of product.

The world-conquering Korean boy band BTS has spoken out directly against sajaegi in the past, and it’s easy to see why. The group’s fans like to view them as insurgent underdogs fighting for truth and virtuousness against a corrupt, dishonest world. In the Korean market, this means viewing them as true artists operating in an industry that revolves around manufactured groups. In America, it means seeing them as freedom fighters who seek to overcome the racist, nationalist gatekeeping that keeps the pop mainstream white and English-speaking. In both cases, it is of paramount importance to both fans and the group themselves that their chart victories are seen as legitimate.

The steep price tag associated with sajaegi tactics means the expense is only justifiable under very specific circumstances. Spending a quarter of a million dollars on a traditional promotional campaign might not guarantee a plum chart position, but it would likely help an artist reach new fans that could help them build a sustainable career. Most artists get into music hoping to find actual fame and actual fortune. An artificial chart boost is unlikely to provide them with either. 

Sajaegi is a desperate, money-losing play that would only really make sense for a new group that wants to jumpstart their career or a washed-up superstar seeking a flashy comeback. Projects that do not benefit from the volunteer enthusiasm that powers the BTS phenomenon require an additional edge in order to be competitive.

Rooting out and identifying sajaegi is a matter of looking at the numbers. It’s about identifying huge spikes in sales that look unnatural compared to those experienced by artists with large, organized fan bases. Habitual chart-watchers develop a sense for what level of success is or isn’t possible, and they call out numbers that look wrong. The “marketing companies” that engage in sajaegi at the behest of industry stakeholders do not have trade publications charting and reporting on their activities, so specific information about who is doing this and how it is being done remains hard to come by. Until the veil is pulled back, conversations about the practice will remain focused on DIY forensic reconstruction.

The second thing you need to understand is that the market for digital downloads in America has utterly collapsed over the past decade. Over 80% of all US music industry revenue comes  from streaming, and sales of digital downloads are now a tenth of what they were ten years ago. That foreboding figure may not even tell the whole story; BTS alone accounted for nearly a third of all digital download sales in the US last year, indicating that outside of the fan-led bulk-buying practices that American K-pop fans have imported from the Korean market, overall interest in the format may be eroding even faster than the numbers indicate.

The state of physical music sales isn’t much better. Much has been made of the vinyl revival that independent labels engineered during the aughts, but sales of vinyl records hit a plateau last year after consecutive years of double-digit growth. Vinyl and CDs each account for a single-digit percentage of overall music consumption, and neither format seems to stand much of a chance of challenging the all-access streaming subscription for control of the mass market. In the streaming era, people are spending less on recordings than they have since recordings became the primary way people listen to music. This means recordings are simply worth less now, and consumer spending has consequently shifted from recorded music to concert tickets and artist merch, which are now priced higher than ever before.

Spotify intentionally cultivates a passive, disengaged style of listening because their business model requires them to guide subscribers away from music and towards cheaper, higher-margin content like podcasts and audiobooks. This helps to foment a bias in the streaming-led mainstream towards the comforting and familiar, which is bolstered by the inherent conservatism of program directors in America’s hyper-consolidated radio landscape. As the market for CDs and digital downloads has declined and streaming platforms’ subscriber bases have continued to grow, the nature of the record business itself has fundamentally changed. Five or six years ago, the physical market was still big enough to serve as an alternative to the streaming economy for those who wanted one. Today, there is no escape.

A recent report suggesting major label staffers are “depressed” about how difficult it is to break new artists in this environment prompted many fans and artists to proclaim on social media that the solution is a return to the days of “artist development,” when labels invested more resources in signings before giving up on them. In order for that to be possible, though, we would also have to return to the days of listeners spending more than nine dollars a month on recorded music. The older, slower way of doing things that so many artists still revere depended upon a business model that the mass audience mostly seems thrilled to be rid of.

This leaves the architects of Billboard’s flagship charts in a a bind. How do you measure a paid download against a stream? Are passionate fans buying up songs on iTunes solely to impact their favorite artist’s chart position a better or worse indicator of popularity than passive streaming listeners who let algorithms determine their listening habits? 

There’s no question that streaming is how the vast majority of people listen to music in America, but it also seems sensible that an intentional purchase of a digital download should carry much more weight in Billboard’s chart formula than a stream. Ergo, even though basically nobody is buying downloads anymore, it still takes a significant amount of streams to equal the chart impact of one digital purchase.

This is because the charts calculate the impact of a stream by estimating how many streams it would take to make the same amount of money as a direct purchase. From the industry’s perspective, a track costs a dollar and an album costs ten. From the streaming listener’s perspective, though, the economics look a bit different. 

The collapse of the CD and digital download markets indicates that subscribers who are used to paying nine dollars a month for unlimited access to the entire catalogs of all three major labels might think those price points are too high. The industry may view the one dollar price point of digital downloads as the true market value of a song, but evidence suggests the mass audience mostly sees downloads as a way to overpay for something they can usually get cheaper elsewhere.

Until Billboard’s chart formula properly accounts for the declining value of recordings, niche operators who are willing to overpay for a piece of recorded music by buying it digitally will continue to have a disproportionately greater impact on the charts than the mass audience on streaming. Accordingly, digital downloads and CD singles have been key tools in the arsenal of organized fanbases like the Swifties and the BTS Army. The impact of these bulk download-buying campaigns has only increased as overall demand for downloads has faltered, and thus, it has not gone unnoticed. A dollar per song might be a bad deal for your average music listener, but the potential chart impact of each purchase might make those economics very appealing if your goal is to make a niche song appear very popular. The discrepancy between the charts’ ideas about what recorded music is worth and everyone else’s has created perfect conditions for sajaegi to thrive in America.

The third thing to understand is that country music is having a real moment in the mainstream right now. In the early years of the streaming era, rap was by far the dominant genre on those platforms. The audience for that music was the first to embrace the new way of listening, and the magnitude of their streams fueled an outright takeover of the Hot 100 led by hits like “Black Beatles” and “Bad and Boujee.” Since the pandemic accelerated the shift from physical to digital, though, the rap audience’s early adopter advantage has disipated. We didn’t see any rap albums top the Billboard 200 albums chart until Lil Uzi Vert’s Pink Tape and Travis Scott’s Utopia in July. Industry trades have taken to wondering out loud if hip-hop’s mainstream dominance is “slipping,” though few have felt comfortable making assertions about what sort of music might succeed rap as the current sound of mainstream music in America.

At present, though, the story the charts are telling is that country is the next big thing. Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” has been setting records as one of the longest-running solo number ones in Hot 100 history, and subsequent crossover hits like Luke Combs’ “Fast Car” and Jelly Roll’s “Need A Favor” have experienced great success in their efforts to follow him to the top of the charts. Country radio is a formidable institution in America, and support from the thousands of country stations that operate here is surely a major factor in the success of these songs. Pop stations are playing them too, though, and they stream as well as anything else that’s currently thriving on US Spotify. The country audience was slower to embrace streaming than others, but they are now just as active on those platforms as anyone else. Their enthusiasm is now capable of becoming contagious, and country hits are now competitive with pop and rap singles on the Hot 100.

This new wave of country hitmakers is not made up of staunch traditionalists or embittered culture warriors. Wallen’s confessional, conversational songwriting is fully conversant with hip-hop, and Combs’ decision to keep the original gendered pronouns intact on his Tracy Chapman cover would never have flown during the aughts, when the Dixie Chicks were chased off the airwaves by angry Republicans and replaced by jingiostic anthems like “Have You Forgotten?” by Daryl Worley. “Last Night” fits into playlists with artits like Drake and Pinkpantheress much more naturally than country hits of eons past, and Combs’ “Fast Car” cover is perfectly suited to a popular music landscape that prefers chestnuts like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” to most of what major labels are releasing in the present. These guys are meeting the streaming audience where they are.

If this had been the state of mainstream country a decade ago, Taylor Swift may not have had to defect to pop in order to court a global audience and escape the territorial conservatism that led the country establishment to turn against the Dixie Chicks. Miley Cyrus may not have needed to cut Rihanna cast-offs in her efforts to make a name for herself. Country radio in particular was a harrowing place for women back then, as an excellent Rolling Stone report from 2018 details. The same year, Taylor succeeded in transitioning from country artist to pop star with the release of 1989, women had become so scarce on country stations that Billboard was publishing articles with titles like “What Happened To Women In Country? An Investigation.”

If we recall that Cyrus and Swift are both effectively products of the Nashville establishment themselves, the story the charts are telling about the present moment becomes even simpler to discern. Nashville has an absolute stranglehold on the mainstream right now. The two biggest success stories on the Hot 100 are Regional Mexican and a new style of country that prioritizes the preferences of streaming listeners above the biases of country radio stations. A style that pulls liberally from pop and hip-hop in order to attain broader appeal in a manner that is not wholly dissimilar to how Reggaeton artists like Bad Bunny evolved their sound into a global phenomenon over the last decade. Call it Regional American.

Jason Aldean is not part of this new wave of sonically adventurous country artists. He’s been around for about as long as Taylor Swift, and unlike her, he has only ever benefited from the macho, nationalistic status quo that enveloped mainstream country during the Bush era. When his song “Try That In A Small Town” became his first Hot 100 number one earlier this month, outsiders may not have seen much of a difference between it and “Last Night” or “Fast Car.” In reality, though, Aldean is a washed up relic of a bygone era. “Small Town” is a weak late-career single that country radio showed no interest in before former president Trump and the right-wing media establishment turned it into a cause célèbre last month. After a minor controversy erupted around the use of protest footage in the song’s video, a campaign to show support for Aldean in the face of attempts to “cancel” him led to bulk-buying of digital downloads on iTunes. The desolate state of the overall download market allowed these purchases to boost the song all the way to the top of the charts.

The current enthusiasm surrounding songs like “Last Night” and “Fast Car” should be viewed as a repudiation of Aldean and others like him. Wallen and Combs exist in Taylor Swift’s lineage much more than they exist in Aldean’s. She’s the one who struggled to see a future for herself in such a rigid, insular cultural environment, and it is her footsteps in which country artists are now walking in their quest to cross over. The campaign to turn Aldean’s twentieth-best single into his first number one was not a continuation of Wallen and Combs’ success but a reaction against it, an effort to re-assert an old hierarchy that contemporary country artists no longer seem terribly concerned with.

Once, Aldean looked like the future of his genre. He was one of the first to bring hip-hop influence to country radio when he covered “Dirt Road Anthem,” a song that was originally recorded by Brantley Gilbert and the Athens-based golfer-turned-rapper Colt Ford. He was the only country artist invited by Jay-Z to appear at the all-star press event where he announced the music streaming platform Tidal. He even worked a goofy Eminem reference into “1994,” his tribute to the legendary nineties hitmaker Joe Diffie. Today, he’s setting his own legacy on fire out of bitterness towards a genre that now seems poised to move on without him.

Accordingly, “Try That In A Small Town” suffered a historic drop from number one only a week after hitting the milestone. The digital bulk-buying campaign that boosted him to the top evaporated after whoever was behind it decided that the libs had been sufficiently owned, and the tepid support the song was receiving from radio stations and streaming listeners was insufficient to keep up the illusion that it was broadly popular. In South Korea, huge gains and drops of this nature are often viewed as compelling evidence of sajaegi.

I’m writing this on the morning of Wednesday, August 16th. “Rich Men North Of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony has only been available on streaming platforms for like, two days, but it is already a lock to debut at number one on the Hot 100 next week. Radio is not playing it, and the song is not drastically outperforming established hits like Wallen’s “Last Night” and Swift’s “Cruel Summer” on Spotify and Apple Music. There is no physical edition of the song to purchase. When the song debuts at the top of the Hot 100 next week, it will be entirely because of paid digital downloads. Somehow, this brand new artist that nobody had ever heard of a week ago sold so many downloads in only two days that he was able to leave Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, and Taylor Swift in the dust.

If you’ve been following the charts at all for the past few years, you’ve seen countless records being broken by these artists. Taylor Swift has  eleven albums in the Billboard 200 right now, and she’s challenging for number one with a four-year old single that she started promoting to radio just because she felt like it. Morgan Wallen has the longest-running solo number one in Hot 100 history. These are not paper tigers, these are some of the most successful artists who have ever lived and they are operating at the absolute peak of their powers. The blend of Nashville-tempered songwriting and modern pop production they traffic in is the biggest thing in music right now, but Oliver Anthony has somehow managed to top the charts with a song that cannot be read as anything but a total repudiation of the current sound of mainstream country.

There isn’t an organized hive of Oliver Anthony stans online that coordinated a bulk download-buying campaign to get him a number one. If you’re curious about who’s doing that work for other artists, like Taylor Swift and BTS, you can easily find them on social media. They’re always looking for new recruits, and sometimes they make really fun infographics and explainers to help newcomers understand how to participate. They jam up the replies to chart and music news accounts on Twitter with chatter about their faves. Internal combustion engines give off a lot of heat, and organized fanbases make a lot of noise. It’s like a law of nature.

It is simply not possible for such a culture to have developed around Anthony, because no one outside of Goochland County knew who he was last week. This guy has no major label behind him, no name recognition, and he makes a style of music that has no obvious constituency on any mainstream radio format. Without any of the organization or infrastructure that chart success typically demands, he came out of nowhere to secure a Hot 100 number one within 48 hours despite going up against several of the most successful country hits we’ve seen since the era of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.

On paper, this looks like the the most obvious case of sajaegi I’ve ever seen. The only other possible explanation would be that hundreds of thousands of people independently decided to buy this guy’s song on iTunes within a day or two of learning he exists. The numbers themselves are unprecedented, but the speed with which it all came together is unthinkable. If this is not sajaegi, these numbers would represent a cultural reset even more severe than the one Nirvana is said to have brought about in the early nineties. If that level of organic demand for a song like this really did exist, the entire American music industry would have little choice but to remake itself in order to take advantage. It would mean that all of the unprecedented success that artists like Swift and Wallen have experienced is actually small potatoes, and that the real money is in polemical folk songs about Little Debbie products.

I have no doubt a lot of people do sincerely enjoy “Rich Men North Of Richmond.” It seems to connect most strongly with folks who are dismissive of mainstream country and prefer “stripped-down” and “authentic” Americana to the craft and professionalism that Nashville has prided itself upon since the days of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. I think we used to call them “rockists.” I just don’t personally believe the demographic of people who are legitimately into the song is three times bigger and more organized than the demographic of people who are streaming the shit out of “Last Night” and “Fast Car.” If the populist right had the numbers to dominate the charts like this without relying on sajaegi, they wouldn’t have needed to buy out empty screenings to promote The Sound of Freedom. They wouldn’t have to resort to gerrymandering and voter suppression in order win elections. Consider what Ayesha Siddiqi recently wrote in The New Inquiry’s “Sunday Reading” newsletter:

The networks are tightly-knit, and redundant. Behind every newly minted thought leader from the "intellectual dark web" or "alt right" are the same interests and usually the same people. The reactionary right is successful because it is organized, not because it is inherently popular. Their network density demonstrates both the efficacy of their strategy, and its primary weakness.

If sajaegi was employed to get Oliver Anthony to number one, I do not know the specifics of how it was done. The public faces of this phenomenon––namely, Anthony and his financial backer, Jason Howerton––may not even know themselves. I do not believe Anthony is a crisis actor playing a role, and I see no reason to believe he didn’t write “Rich Men North Of Richmond” or that he doesn’t mean it sincerely. The biggest barrier to breaking new artists in the post-streaming era is getting the masses to care about them in the first place, so I don’t doubt Anthony is going to walk away from this whole episode with a raft of new fans.

What I do believe is that once the bulk download-buying campaign dies down, “Rich Men North of Richmond” will plummet down the charts just like “Try That In A Small Town” did, owing to a lack of radio support and organic traction on streaming. Songs like “Last Night” and “Fast Car” that do have a significant presence on radio and streaming platforms will promptly rush in to fill the void. Songs like “Religiously” by Bailey Zimmerman and “Need A Favor” by Jelly Roll that are doing great on streaming and seem to be endearing themselves to the mainstream country audience will do their best to follow suit, and the charts will represent the state of the genre much more accurately.

It remains an open question whether or not Billboard can or will adjust their chart formula to prevent this from happening again. The discrepancy between the way digital download storefronts like iTunes and streaming platforms like Spotify value the worth of a song is going to be hard to reconcile in a satisfying way. Billboard has taken some steps to regulate bulk download-buying in the past, such as a recent decision to stop counting download purchases from artist webstores. It’s possible they won’t see a problem with it, though. Three years ago, Billboard came under the control of Jay Penske’s Penske Media Corporation, which has been using film industry trades like The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline to advocate shamelessly for film studios in coverage of the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Penske’s goals and those of whoever paid for the digital downloads that got Oliver Anthony to number one may turn out to be aligned.

A month from now, we may not be hearing much of “Rich Men North Of Richmond” anymore. American sajaegi, on the other hand, might be here to stay.