Likes. Fans. Views. Followers. Who would have thought these innocuous words would be at the heart of one of the biggest potential scandals in modern dance music? On May 28 Mixmag reported on an online ‘Busted’ meme made up of screen grabs of Facebook pages of superstars including David Guetta and Deadmau5, showing they were all most popular in the same city, Mexico City – implying they had bought blocks of Facebook fans there.
It turns out this accusation was false, as social media expert Adam Biddle, who works with DJs in Britain and America (including one of the DJs in the ‘Busted’ meme), explains: “To run a Facebook ad campaign in Mexico costs 8p per fan, whereas in America it’s 30p – and Mexico’s a huge emerging dance music market so these guys focusing their ad spend on Mexico city was good business,” he says.
Within 24 hours North American dubstep titan Excision, who also featured in the meme, replied saying it was cheaper to advertise on Facebook in Mexico City, than, say, London or Miami, hence the spike in Mexican fans. Steve Aoki’s manager, Matt Colon, was also quick to point out Mexico City is an anomaly on Facebook. He proved his point with a graphic showing that numerous dead acts like Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra, all of whom have Mexico City as their most popular city. “Even tiny bands from Belgium have Mexico City as their most popular city. It’s such a huge place.”
But while the Mexican meme may have been disproved, Mixmag began investigating further – and most people we spoke to (promoters, up-and-coming artists, established DJs, PR agencies, social media experts) agreed that the practice of buying support was endemic in many areas of the industry. Andi Durrant, who hosts a weekly dance music radio show on Capital FM and is resident at Ibiza Live, is one of the few high-profile industry names to agree to go on the record and talk openly about dance music’s dirty little secret: “It’s the norm. Labels set aside budget to build up a good social media fanbase, and though much of this will be via genuine online advertising, it’s easy to start with a bulk buy of five to ten thousand likes to get the momentum going,’ he explains.
Alex Kirkland, co-promoter of London/ Nottingham electronic night Dollop and booker at Nottingham’s discerning dance music Mecca, Stealth, explains how to spot fraudsters. “You can click on someone’s ‘Likes’ and see how quickly fans are added and how many people are ‘talking about this’, he says. “If there’s a spike in fans over a few days and then it flatlines, or there’s no correlation between fan numbers and how many people are ‘talking about this’, it’s suspicious. I wouldn’t book anyone I suspected of buying fans or followers.”
The same applies on Twitter. Using www.topdeejays.com you can follow someone’s Twitter growth. For many DJs it’s a smooth line, but for some you’ll see sudden leaps of around 10,000 followers. “The DJ agencies will buy Twitter followers at the same time they release a new download or video,” one anonymous DJ manager told us. “But it’s a complete smokescreen to try and cover the move. The graphs don’t lie – it’s as clear as day.”
Durrant was shocked by how easy it is to boost social media stats: “I tried at the beginning of the year as we’d heard so much about it. A Google search threw up lots of companies, and for a hundred quid one added five thousand fans to my Facebook page – but within three weeks most had disappeared because they’re fake accounts that Facebook finds and deletes. So you have to keep spending to keep your numbers up,” he explains.
But having Facebook fans for the sake of it is a false economy, as Biddle explains: “The way Facebook works is you only reach five to eight per cent of your fans with each post. To reach eighty per cent you pay to advertise with Facebook. So if you’ve got thousands of fake fans, you’re missing out on talking to your real ones.” Matt Colon agrees. “With MySpace plays you could convince a radio station to play your track, but you can’t do anything with fake Facebook likes. They won’t buy tickets, or like your posts. If you have thousands of fake likes, your posts reach a smaller percentage of your fans and eventually Facebook will shut the post off for not being engaging.” But some people are looking at likes. Dance music uses stats like fans, likes, views and followers as a measure of pedigree and popularity. “DJs/producers make money from shows and sponsorship, and social media boosts your value to promoters and brands. Also DJs are egotistical and want to be better than the next DJ, and that’s all played out on social media,” reckons Biddle. “The clubs in the UK don’t look at likes so much,” one anonymous promoter tells us, “but overseas, in Asia and South America, it’s what they’re going on. If a DJ can fool a promoter into thinking he’s a big deal he’ll get that festival slot or club slot he otherwise wouldn’t have.”
“It all seems to stem from DJ polls,” says Durrant. “Once polls went online and opened up to a global audience they became very easy to manipulate, and the popularity frenzy began. Now the indicator of hype has switched to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – and unfortunately they are just as easy to manipulate.” Durrant also wonders whether dance music’s explosion in North America is a factor. “Since the American scene kicked off a couple of years ago, big money arrived in dance music and with it came a new way of doing business which is akin to the way celebrity careers are managed. Of course buying fans is dishonest – but that’s the nature of PR, marketing and the hype game. Is there any real difference between buying Facebook fans and celebrities paying Max Clifford to keep them on the front pages of tabloids?” But as we’re well aware, with boom comes bust – particularly when the house is built on quicksand. Where will dance music be when fans, promoters and brands realise the scale of dishonesty?
To avoid a dance music crash of unparalleled proportions, caution and common sense are the watchwords. Real numbers do the talking. “Did the DJ or artist fill the venue? Did the promoter make money? Despite the 100m YouTube views, did anyone buy the record? These are the true indicators of popularity, and always will be,” says Durrant. So for the likes of Guetta or Deadmau5 there’s no real need to buy fans – they are already selling out stadiums world-wide. But Facebook likes and Twitter follows can be bought – and some DJs are buying them. The lesson for promoters is an old one: judge DJs by their talent… not on their hype.