Within 24 hours of posting his video Paagal to YouTube, Indian rapper Badshah broke a record even Taylor Swift couldn't touch. The clip, a dancehall romp, was seen 75 million times in one day, eclipsing a mark set by Korean boy band BTS in April.
But then a funny thing happened: YouTube declined to credit the Sony Music artist. Since introducing a new way to premiere videos last year, the Google-owned site has trumpeted the setting of every new record, from Ariana Grande's Thank You Next to Blackpink's Kill This Love, culminating in BTS's Boy With Luv. It even said Swift's ME! set a record for "most-viewed female solo debut." But Badshah's feat elicited no response from the world's most popular online video hub.
Rival executives in the Indian music industry began whispering Paagal had benefited from server farms and bots - two tools grouped under "fake views." But in subsequent days, a different explanation emerged: Badshah and his representatives had purchased advertisements from Google and YouTube that embedded the video or directed fans to it in some other way.
The incident has led to scrutiny of what many in the music industry say is a common practice - buying tens of millions of views. When releasing a new single, major record labels will buy an advertisement on YouTube that places their music video in between other clips. If viewers watch the ad for more than few seconds, YouTube counts that as a view, boosting the overall total. Blackpink and Swift, among others, have done it. Badshah just took it a step further, people familiar with the matter say.
The practice creates doubts about the real popularity of these clips and reveals some of the murky ways in which artists and their labels promote their music-especially in emerging markets. YouTube, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.'s Google, is now reevaluating the way it judges records, according to two people familiar with the company's thinking.
Badshah suggested the exclusion was a double standard at YouTube, which was happy to trumpet records from global superstars like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande but paused when an Indian rapper unknown in the West employed the same strategy to reach the top.
"We worked hard for this, promoted it worldwide," Badshah said on Instagram. "I don't want people abroad to see India like it's shown in a film like Slumdog Millionaire. We are at par with the world and it's our time to shine." Badshah, whose real name is Aditya Singh, has released dozens of singles over the past few years, including many hits from Bollywood movies, and was ranked by Forbes as one of the 100 wealthiest Indian celebrities.
India is a huge priority for YouTube, which is relying on emerging countries for most of its growth. India is both YouTube's largest market - some 265 million Indians visit YouTube every month-and home to its most popular channel. T-Series, India's largest record label, operates the only channel with more than 100 million subscribers.
Dubious view counts are nothing new for Google, which has refunded companies for ads that ran on sites with fake traffic. The problem has been particularly thorny in India, where music companies employ bots and server farms to boost the number of views for a video. Views from a computer or bot are considered illegitimate since no human is actually watching the video.
Many music companies have moved on to ads. Companies can either buy ads that direct viewers to the music video or employ the video in the ad itself. Buying clicks is now so widespread that many artists in India demand a certain number of YouTube views in their contracts.
"They make clear to the label that they expect something," said Mandar Thakur, chief operating officer of Times Music, a local label.
Indian media executives raised the matter when YouTube Chief Executive Officer Susan Wojcicki and music head Lyor Cohen visited the country earlier this year to introduce a new paid music service, according to people who attended the meeting.
While technology executives condemn the use of server farms and bots-known by some as stream fraud-the use of Google's advertising products to drive views puts them in an awkward position. Viewer records support their contention that YouTube is the most popular music service in the world, and that artists and labels should invest more time and money on the site. YouTube introduced a product called Premieres in 2018 for artists to debut new material.
Google also makes money every time one of these music companies buys an ad, so eliminating the practice would hurt.
But including advertisements in a video's view count or chart position has negative implications, ranging from bad public relations to angry partners. It also devalues past records, and undermines the credibility of view tallies-one of the bedrock metrics on YouTube. That could, in turn, lead to more government scrutiny, something no one at Google wants.
At the very least, music-industry executives say YouTube should treat these cases consistently across cultures. While Badshah and his label may have pumped up his views by taking advantage of cheaper online ad rates in India, videos for Swift's ME! and Blackpink's Kill This Love also appeared as ads on YouTube. In fairness to Swift, her video had a significantly higher proportion of likes and fewer dislikes, suggesting ads played a lesser role.
Many of the views for these videos were ads, based on the difference between the higher totals listed on YouTube and the number reported to Nielsen, which provides the official counts that generate royalties for record labels and artists. Clearing up what is an ad and what is a view might reveal something else: the real record holder.