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Overnight sensation or cheater? K-pop charts disputed

Shaun claims innocence amid chart-rigging allegations

As of Sunday, Twice, Black Pink, Apink, Mamamoo, BTS and other K-pop giants had claimed leading spots on charts of most music streaming websites in Korea. But snubbing them all for the top spot at Melon, Genie and other major charts was “Way Back Home,” by far lesser-known musician Shaun.

Shaun is a singer who also plays synthesizer for rock band the Koxx. He has made a name for himself since his band’s 2009 debut, but has never been considered among the big names in the industry, which is why his unexpected surge on the charts is sparking suspicion over chart manipulation.

Shaun (Dctom Entertainment)
Shaun (Dctom Entertainment)

“When a little-known musician tops the charts, there are usually some explanations behind it. But in Shaun’s case, there weren’t. The controversy is from him taking a No. 1 spot (between noon and dawn),” said culture critic Kim Jak-ga on an MBC radio show.

In Korea, there have been several cases where a relative newcomer has been suspected of manipulating his or her place on the rankings by inflating purchases online. This has been known to be particularly effective the wee hours of 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., when there are fewer users and even low numbers of sales affect the charts.

As music streaming websites provide charts on their top pages, taking the No. 1 spot helps further boost sales. The process is called “sajaegi,” which literally means “buy and stock.”

In order to prevent such practices, a collection of music streaming and sales websites announced earlier in the month they would freeze chart rankings between from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. But Shaun’s tune took the top spot at 12 midnight, right before the chart freeze started, and so stayed on top until the next morning.

The artist has been adamant he did not cheat in any way, and on Friday requested police investigate the case. He also filed charges on several citizens for spreading rumors on the case.

“I hope that no one gets hurt while the truth is uncovered. ... I want to say I’m sorry (to the fans) by showing them hard evidence as fast as I can, but it is such a rough road until the truth is revealed,” Shaun said via his Instagram page Sunday.

Shaun’s agency Dctom Entertainment has said his surge in the charts was thanks to its viral marketing, without elaborating on what that may have entailed.

While it is conventional for songs to reach their highest places on the charts immediately after release, it is also not rare for songs to climb the rankings over time, sometimes months after the initial release.

EXID is among the household names in K-pop now, but they were swimming in obscurity in 2014 when the group was in its third year together as a girl group. “Up&Down” created virtually no buzz upon its August release.

This all changed when a particular video of Hani performing during the song was uploaded and spread via social media, zooming in and focusing exclusively on her dance moves. The video created such a buzz, the band finally surged on local charts and landed the group it’s first-ever No. 1 spot on a TV ranking program on a major broadcaster.

In such cases, however, the artists are already being talked about frequently online and offline before appearing on the charts. But Shaun had remained largely in the shadows prior to topping the charts.

Park Jin-young, founder of JYP Entertainment, said he plans to request an investigation on the case to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and possibly to prosecution.

Some musicians have pointed out that often the very fact that an artist topped the charts sparks a buzz, leading them to affect the charts in any way possible.

“Charts should reflect the state (of music world), but it is actually the charts that create such state. This causes artists to chart using whatever means necessary,” said singer and producer Yoon Jong-shin.

With the real-time charts under dispute, those around the music circles are suggesting changes such as switching to weekly charts.

No matter what the truth turns out to be, it is likely that Shaun’s belated fame will come with some stigma as being involved in scandal tends to hurt one’s reputation.

Girl group Momoland was accused and later officially cleared of chart-rigging by the government, but the false accusations left a mark on the members’ formerly pristine reputation, despite being proven to have been innocent.

By Yoon Min-sik