How Much Does It Cost to Go Number One?
Break the Internet ®

How Much Does It Cost to Go Number One?

by Crystal Bell

We're living in the golden age of fandom, where social media has allowed stans to interact with their idols on a daily basis. Whether you're a barb, lamb, belieber, or registered bardi gang member, you're probably @-ing somebody. On Stan Stories, we meet the internet's most dedicated followers and delve deep into their obsessions.

Few things can galvanize stan forces quite like the elusive pursuit of a Billboard No. 1. In an online ecosystem where numbers are everything — and views, streams and sales are vital clout currency — topping the charts is the ultimate flex for both artist and fans. Today, a hit single doesn't just indicate a song's cultural impact. It's also the telltale sign of a supremely internet-savvy fandom that plays by the rules of the charts. From organizing online streaming parties to participating in buying events to boost digital sales, to actually donating to the cause.

These days, fans of Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Justin Bieber, BTS, Miley Cyrus and more have taken to grassroots fundraising to purchase digital copies en masse to help their favorite artists make an impact on the charts. The practice isn't new; stans have been sponsoring each other for years by sending unlimited iTunes downloads as gifts. But the process is now more streamlined than ever, thanks in part to a metrics system that heavily prioritizes digital consumption and artists who are publicly enlisting their fans to help them climb the charts.

The Hot 100 formula considers three main factors, in order of importance: streams (paid, premium subscriptions count for more than free, ad-supported platforms), radio spins, and digital sales. So it makes sense that fans would focus on streaming and buying, the two areas in which they have the most influence. More than just a clever strategy to increase sales, these funding initiatives have become an essential way to unite fans — regardless of resources and region — and make everyone feel like they're part of an artist's success.

Perhaps no fandom has implemented a more sophisticated system than ARMY, fans of Korean superstars BTS and one of the most powerful communities on the internet. In the years since the group's 2013 debut, ARMY have leveraged their passion and digital acumen to raise millions for human rights campaigns and other social causes in the name of amplifying BTS's message around the globe — from donating their Map of the Soul world tour ticket refunds to coronavirus relief in South Korea to matching the group's $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter within 24 hours. Now, ARMY are using their unparalleled buying power to reach another goal: helping the Korean hitmakers secure more monumental No. 1s.

BTS has topped the Billboard Hot 100 with their fizzy, feel-good single "Dynamite" for three weeks (and counting), becoming the first all-South Korean act to lead the coveted chart. The group's first single sung entirely in English, it debuted on the Hot 100 with 33.9 million U.S. streams and the biggest digital sales week in nearly three years, with 300,000 copies sold — including 265,000 digital downloads and 35,000 physical copies on vinyl and cassette. The meteoric success of "Dynamite" is the winning result of strategic efforts on both sides. While preparing for their next album, BE (Deluxe Edition), BTS decided to release the exuberant disco-pop song because they believed it would spread joy amidst uncertain times. They even kept the original English lyrics of the demo to reach as many fans as possible — a decision that landed them their biggest hit to date on US radio, an institution that hasn't played much of their Korean work outside of their collaborations with Western artists.

But ARMY's coordination can't be overstated. They started raising funds and preparing streaming and buying guides weeks in advance. "Everyone made this result and everyone should be congratulated," vocalist Jimin tweeted shortly after "Dynamite" bowed at No. 1. (The comment, originally written in Korean, has been translated by a fan account.) "I hope now, at the very least, this result makes everyone feel good." And it did. For 22-year-old Mi, an ARMY from California, BTS's historic No. 1 was a testament to how "music really connects people." She saw the news on Twitter shortly after a particularly grueling work shift. "I was tired when I clocked out, but then I was full of energy," she tells PAPER. "I feel like it's not just Bangtan's achievement. I feel like it's ARMY's, too. It's always been BTS and ARMY."

In addition to streaming on both YouTube and Spotify, Mi contributed 12 sales to "Dynamite"'s first tracking week, purchasing digital copies of the single on iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play and BTS's official U.S. store, as well as buying four limited edition cassettes and 7-inch vinyls each.

"I felt like I was a part of them achieving their goals, so I achieved a goal too," she says. "They were so happy to get that No. 1, so I wanted to make an effort to help them do it again." And so she did. The following week, she purchased 24 more digital copies of "Dynamite" — including the EDM remix, acoustic remix, poolside remix, and instrumental versions, released to give the single an extra boost on the charts — for around $18. This time, she had help from Funds For Bangtan, a fan-led funding project that receives donations from fans "to fund digital albums and songs" for ARMYs in the US and Puerto Rico. On their website, it says their aim is "to help and benefit BTS and ARMYs" by financially assisting those who can't afford to contribute to the group's US and worldwide sales.

Ahead of the release of "Dynamite," Funds For Bangtan received roughly $40,000 in donations, and they've consistently raised even more funding, via PayPal, Venmo, and Cashapp, in the weeks since. "It's really like a movement," Mi says. A really smart, well-organized one. According to Mi, the process for receiving funds is as simple as filling out a Google form that dictates how many copies one wants to purchase and on which platforms. From there, the recipient sends a screenshot of the total amount with tax, and one of the account's eight admins will send them the funds to cover the costs. "After they give you the money, they expect you to buy it right away and download it on your computer," Mi adds. "Then, you need to send proof that you've downloaded it." The account encourages fans to tag their receipts with "#7Funds" on Twitter.

The experience was so seamless, and the high of clinching another No. 1 for BTS was so strong, that for the third tracking week Mi donated money to Funds For Bangtan and purchased an additional 24 copies of "Dynamite" on a separate account. And she's already planning to buy more, like the newly released slow jam and midnight remixes. Don't worry: All of those MP3s won't go to waste on her harddrive. "If I don't have [the] internet, I can still play it," she laughs.

Driven by her desire to give back to a group that she says has given her so much, Mi, who's been an ARMY since 2014, doesn't think of stanning as a job. "When I have free time, this is what I want to be doing," she says. "Work is something I do because I have to do it. But I do this because I want to do it."

It's a feeling that college students Madelyn Myer and Aastha can understand. Despite being separated by hundreds of miles — and never having met face to face — they're two of three admins for @BlackpinkFunds, an account that receives and supplies funds in support of K-pop girl group Blackpink. Aastha, a 21-year-old college senior from the Midwest, created the account after she decided to randomly fund 10 Blinks, or Blackpink fans, to purchase digital copies of the group's Lady Gaga collaboration "Sour Candy" in May. She had been inspired by Funds For Bangtan and their pay-it-forward approach to helping fans feel more involved, and wanted to do the same for Blackpink and Blinks. (Aastha is a fan of both Blackpink and BTS, or an ARMYBlink.) "I just wanted to see [Blackpink] reach greater heights with organized support," she says of her initial tweet. However, she vastly underestimated just how many Blinks would take her up on the offer.

"My post got a thousand likes, and I'm a small account, so that's how I knew there was a really big need there," she says. "So I started @BlackpinkFunds." Madelyn, a 21-year-old college senior from Louisiana who runs her own fan base dedicated to streaming, messaged Aastha and asked to collaborate on the project. "It's not only that we want to help our Blinks, definitely that's part of it, but also we want the girls to have more opportunities here [in the US]," Madelyn says. "We want more people to recognize them and recognize their work."

Even with their late start, they were able to fund a "couple hundred copies" of "Sour Candy." But it wasn't without a lot of labor. Aastha, a self-proclaimed Type-A personality, handles much of the administrative tasks, which includes making the Google form for those who wish to receive funds and keeping a tally of how many copies are funded. Meanwhile, Madelyn oversees the donation process — and all three admins send funds (the most time-consuming part), update the spreadsheets and work on the account's overall messaging. They also answer DMs from curious fans; running a funds account on stan Twitter is essentially being an accountant, IT professional, digital marketing manager and customer service representative at the same time.

"We get DMs from people who want to help but can't afford to, so it's like of course we'll help," Aastha says. "We mediate that gap. You can donate to us, or if you need funds because you can't afford to support Blackpink, fill out our form."

To initially recruit Blinks to participate in the project, Madelyn personally replied to nearly 800 tweets asking fans if they lived in the United States. "It took me all day," she recalls. "I was working on my laptop and my phone simultaneously. My mom was like, 'What are you doing?'" While school is still her main priority, Madelyn, a public relations major, says "being a Blink is an escape." And between conceptualizing promotional campaigns for fan projects, keeping an organized database of hundreds of Blinks, and tweeting daily funding updates, running two fan bases simultaneously is a practical use of her communications skills.

"I'm really good at time management, which is one of the things that all of the admins need to have because we're all in college," she says. "I just get happy when people say thank you. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience — I'm working on my patience — but it's nice."

Their first full test as an organized force was Blackpink's June single "How You Like That," the group's first proper comeback in over a year. @BlackpinkFunds set a fundraising goal of $4,000 and raised a little over $3,000. For "Ice Cream," Blackpink's breezy August track with Selena Gomez, they teamed up with a few prominent Selenator accounts and raised over $6,000. However, cross-fandom collaboration isn't without its hiccups, especially when fans have different initiatives. "We made a groupchat with [the] Blackpink and Selena fan bases," Madelyn says. "The fan bases were very encouraging, but some of the fans were difficult to deal with." With Blackpink set to release their first full-length album, titled The Album, on October 2, Aastha and Madelyn have set their next (and most ambitious) goal at $10,000 — the first $4,000 will directly fund purchases of its single "Lovesick Girls." They want to help the group crack the Top 10 of the Hot 100 for the first time, as well as debut atop the Billboard 200.

"These girls are so multi-talented, and I want to help other people support their music and discover who they are," Aastha says. "This is a really innovative way of sharing your love for Blackpink and your love for other fans as well."

For some fans, it's not about breaking records; it's about making a statement. Just ask the Swifties. "So many of us were feeling devastated when 'ME!' and 'You Need To Calm Down' peaked at No. 2," Bogi, a 20-year-old Taylor Swift fan and journalism student from Budapest, Hungary, says. "This gave our fandom more motivation for the next lead single. It became even a bigger deal when Taylor dropped Folklore, and 'Cardigan' had a shot to make history with debuting at No. 1 along with the album. We also all really wanted 'Cardigan' to be Taylor's first self-owned No. 1 song."

"No one was forcing us to stream, and life still goes on if the song doesn't debut at the top," she adds. "I think this major emphasis on charting originates from the fear of other fan bases … Some stan accounts are constantly seeking opportunities to label someone's favorite a flop. It feels like they're not tweeting to support the artist they stan but to tear down others instead."

But fandoms are more powerful when they work together to reach a common goal. There's power in numbers. Bogi, using her stan account @swifferstruggle, teamed up with a "swiftøp" fan — a portmanteau of Swift and the acronym for Twenty One Pilots — for a streaming and buying party for both "Cardigan" and "Level Of Concern." Using the hashtag #locxcardiganparty, they created a Spotify streaming playlist and custom artwork to help promote the event. Not only did they notice a notable uptick in the streams of the latest Twenty One Pilots single, but it also was a cool way to "expose people to other artists' music."

"It was fun seeing the two fandoms interact and listening to tracks they never really listened to before, just because we organized a little online event," Bogi said.

And organization is key, especially when time and money are involved. Strategies are finalized over group chats, and each new piece of information is efficiently packaged and spread throughout the fandom in a matter of minutes. Anne, a 28-year-old mother of two who asked to use a pseudonym, works part-time at a hospital in West Virginia and full-time co-running a fan base for Korean boy band Stray Kids. For the group's latest album, IN生, Anne started planning over a month in advance. She put together an iTunes mass purchasing project — which involved creating nearly 60 accounts and finding volunteers to cover them — as well as a streaming team on the South Korean music platform Bugs. "That was to help them chart in Korea," she says.

In total, she raised over $400, the money split between digital sales and buying streaming passes. Separately, she's participating as a fan in a streaming project on Genie, another Korean platform, with over 400 other fans, all of whom are volunteers. (She paused her streaming for our call.)

For international K-pop fans, helping to boost physical sales and digital streams on these platforms makes them feel more involved in their group's domestic achievements. And the K-pop industry has its own metrics for success: More streams leads to more coveted wins on weekly music shows in South Korea, a symbol of a group's momentum and of a fandom's global growth and coordination. (At the time of publishing, Stray Kids have already earned two wins for their single "Back Door," a new record for them.) "I'll work hard because they're working hard and they deserve it, and when you see that pay off it feels amazing," Anne says.

There's also a feeling of unity, of knowing that the entire fandom accomplished something by working together. It's a reminder that stanning is a team sport. Thresh, a 23-year-old Stray Kids fan (or Stay) and events manager from the Philippines, says they initially felt too intimidated to join a streaming project for IN生. "I didn't want to not meet a quota and feel bad about it," Thresh says. Typically, these projects require participants to stream for a minimum of eight or nine hours a day. To make sure they're hitting their quotas, admins ask them to send nightly screenshots of their stream counts. This helps keep track of progress and guarantees that no one is walking away with the money without putting it to use.

So Thresh joined forces with a close friend and together they hold each other accountable when it comes to hitting their own streaming targets. "Fangirling is just a way for me to relax and enjoy music," they say. "I didn't want it to feel like a job."

But participating in the two-person endeavor has inspired them in ways they didn't anticipate. "I've been taking notes on how I can improve for the next [release]," they say, adding that they've been streaming on multiple phones so that they can utilize different platforms on each device. "I've started to realize the power of our fandom and how much we can do if we get organized."

Angela, a 26-year-old graphic designer from the Philippines, is a co-admin of @StaySocialZone. They were part of a global project with Stray Kids fan bases from Spain, Italy, Peru, Russia, the US, and South Korea that raised over $5,000 to purchase streaming passes and digital downloads. "Communication is chaotic, but it's a good chaos," she says, adding that they mainly communicated in English on the group chat. "If there's a new strategy that's more effective, we'll discuss it there first before spreading the message to the entire fandom. We need to be united to avoid misinformation." Amanda, a 29-year-old Stay from San Francisco, California, refers to this as the "Avengers group chat." Although she's not a part of it herself, the decisions that they make trickle down to the entire fandom. Amanda is part of three projects: a voting team, a streaming group and an iTunes project that she both donated and participated in to aid their Billboard prospects. With "Back Door," Stray Kids debuted at No. 2 on the World Digital Song Sales chart. "Every [release], we get more organized and smarter, and we learn a little bit more," she says. "It takes the edge off, too, especially when you're stressed out and you just need someone to rant with."

Plus, watching Stray Kids break their previous records is "such a relief," she adds. "It's money well spent." But it's not just about getting them to the top of the charts; it's about lifting the entire fandom up, too. "It helps people who can't afford to participate feel like they're doing something for Stray Kids."

While fundraising for fandom endeavors at a time fraught with economic uncertainty and civil unrest may seem frivolous, it's a way for fans to take control and yield tangible results. Everyone gives what they can, be it money, time, expertise or some semblance of the three. "I don't think there's any pressure on people to spend money where they can't," Amanda says. "Fan bases do a great job of sharing their donations but really emphasizing that they're donations and that people [should] give where they can. There's no shame for anyone who isn't able to purchase something or donate. We're all in this together. We all contribute in different ways."

Fandoms are communities, and projects like this allow individuals to feel connected to their environment — providing structure, support, information and a sense of purpose. Because ultimately, you have a lot of pride in where you come from.

To those who can see beyond the surface — past the record-breaking numbers achieved via shrewd tactics — the marker of true success is clear. It's the feeling that you're sharing these experiences, the challenges and the disappointments, with people who not only empathize but also inspire you to learn and grow from them, to accomplish a goal. To achieve the impossible. That's the real pursuit.

"I feel like we're in our own world," Mi says. And in this sprawling musical metropolis, "We can do so much to help each other."

Photos via Getty