TikTok turns music marketing into a maze game

Did you hear the reports? Artists are held hostage by their record companies who can only talk about it tik tok that and tik tok that, demands more and more lip syncs, dances and casual posts for a voracious internet. Meanwhile, Authentic Artistry sits in a corner, shaking from all the neglect. The official distress signal was blasted by Halsey, who reached out to the ubiquitous video app a few weeks ago to claim Capitol Records wouldn’t release her song “So Good” unless the star could do one create trends. Concerned Twitter users collected Halsey’s lawsuit with similar complaints from FKA Twigs, Charli XCX and Florence Welch about pressure from labels to create TikTok content. “What TikTok has done to the music industry is staggering,” read one viral tweet.

The struggle between art and commerce has raged throughout pop history and has remained constant through technological and stylistic developments; Lately, labels’ short-sighted obsession with TikTok’s attention has undoubtedly led to some terrible decisions. For example, when the majors come out with metaphorical smacks about random teens who have miraculously ridden the algorithm to the top — even if that virality often has more to do with the power of taste of certain TikTok communities than with the skills or know-how -how of a certain musician. To recoup the label’s investment, the newly signed artist is tasked with reproducing their initial success, though viewers have often moved on by this point. Even for more established musicians, TikTok is more or less a losing game: there are simply too many artists, too many songs, too many influencers to use for your advertising campaign and too many trends to orientate yourself on. Even if you do manage to strike gold, the viral trend won’t get you as far as it used to.

But the ambitions keep rising: now it’s a matter of making a series trendy before it’s officially out. Great artists mimic the gruff presentation of inexperienced producers, solicit feedback from their audience and pretend they’re riffing in their bedroom. “What if a song started like this?” Charlie Puth wondered as he presented his single “Light Switch” with his audience at the workshop so they could feel the urgency for the final release. “Shall I drop?” asked British rapper Central Cee, previewing his song “Obsessed With You,” which features a sample by one-time TikTok sensation PinkPantheress. Jack Harlow teased “First Class” with a cute video of him hopping in the studio. Even Phoebe Bridgers’ team tried to get ahead of the curve by sending select influencers previews of their song “Sidelines” to share. When so much emphasis is placed on getting traction early on, there will inevitably be delays and ambiguities; Halsey has cleared that their problem isn’t making TikToks, but being tied to “an imaginary goalpost of views or virality” as a requirement for a song’s release — a legitimate complaint.

Online, fans have compared Halsey’s situation to Taylor Swift’s fight for her masters, because in both cases non-male pop stars clash with the corporate industry over control of their own art. Swift empowered fans to stand up for her and turn a business dispute into a social justice campaign; You can imagine Halsey drawing from the same playbook in hopes that the resulting outcry might cause Capitol to back down. And well, it worked: Halsey shared her complaint video to TikTok on May 22, and to the parent company within a week or so @-ed them on Twitter (“we love you and are here to support you”) and commit to releasing “So Good” on June 9th. Problem solved. But the solution’s relative ease and practicality has fueled skepticism about Halsey’s motives, with critics accusing the star of engaging in a form of “anti-marketing marketing.” Sky Ferreira, another Capitol signee who is struggling to get her music out there, subtweeted Halsey by a Tweet from the random skeptic on IG Stories: “Faking that your label ‘asked you to do TikToks’ to go viral for outrage clicks is pretty meta.”

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