Record labels want viral TikToks. Artists like Halsey push back.

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Halsey posted a TikTok this week with the effect of a hostage video. In it, she stares blankly at the camera as words appear on screen: “Basically I have a song that I love and want to get out as soon as possible, but my label doesn’t not allow me. I’ve been in this industry for 8 years and I’ve sold over 165 million records and my record label says I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on tiktok.

Ironically, this very ICT Tac gone viral — getting the attention the label wanted, but with outrage at its heart. Some wondered if it was the marketing ploy. Others rallied around Halsey, who uses the pronouns she/they, arguing that they “should be able to release music the way you want”. Fellow performer King Princess wrote, “Tell the girls!!!!”

The relationship between musical artists and their labels has always been tenuous, often a headache over creative desires and business strategies; Sara Bareilles said last year that her 2007 hit “Love Song,” in which she sings that she’s “not gonna write you a love song / Because you asked for it, because you need one”, doubled as a frustrated response to “feeling invisible” to his label, which she told Glamor magazine she felt “held back” because she didn’t have a big radio-ready single.

But Halsey’s complaints have shed light on the specific strain some artists experience when they’re supposed to produce additional content for TikTok, a platform that tends to reject artificiality. Teams of people contribute to marketing campaigns, but TikTok’s viral moments often depend on the authenticity of the artists themselves creating the videos. It works for artists like Doja Cat, who is particularly adept at perform for an online audiencewhile others find it a less natural task.

“When the music is done and you’re a major label artist, it traditionally takes a while before it comes out,” said Marc Plotkin, a music business professor at New York University who led marketing campaigns for independent and major labels. “They don’t wait that long because they have to make CDs, like in the 90s. They want to get enough attention. The shortcut to this is if you have millions of followers on TikTok.

After Halsey’s TikTok, social media users started circulating other examples of major artists speaking out against similar expectations. Months ago, Charli XCX mentioned that her label had asked her “to do my 8th tiktok of the week.” In March, Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine posted a video singing a cappella because “labels beg me to have ‘low fi tik toks'”. In a since-deleted post, FKA branches mentioned she “got scolded today for not trying hard enough”.

Ed Sheeran filmed himself eating crisps for 15 seconds straight, adding a text overlay: “When you’re supposed to do promos for your song, but you really want a snack and you decide that eating a snack might be promo for a song because everyone loves snacks.”

According to Plotkin, TikTok dominates marketing conversations more than other platforms have in the past, be it Facebook or Instagram. But the attention can be a little misleading, he said, adding that he’s “entirely into converting to platforms like Spotify or Apple Music.” We might have a TikTok video that gets 4 million plays, and 15 of those people want to go listen.

Brandon Stosuy, a music executive who co-founded the Zone 6 company, found the intense focus on TikTok a natural extension of how labels have always operated. He recalled when, in the early 1990s, labels rushed to sign grunge bands in response to the massive success of Nirvana.

“Some things were signed that were good, some were terrible, some didn’t make sense,” Stosuy said. “It’s the trend you see with major and independent labels over the years, where something works for one person so they want to recreate that success for another person. You can’t predict TikTok, if anything going viral or not. It’s hard to recreate that.

Having grown up with the internet, younger consumers tend to be more savvy than older generations when it comes to detecting if online content is fabricated. Stosuy pointed out that this is why unexpected viral sensations have the most impact. Belarusian post-punk band Molchat Doma, for example, became a meme when teenagers used their music in TikToks to channel what Pitchfork described as “Soviet vibe. Admittedly, the independent label Sacred Bones had not foreseen this.

But smaller artists are still under pressure to pursue this unlikely success, especially as they try to catch the attention of TikTok tuned labels. Plotkin described the dynamic as “an early-stage A&R cheat code,” an easy way to source talent based on a quantified level of interest.

None of this is very romantic, and singers involved in the marketing process — especially those who have already amassed an audience and could arguably be successful without TikTok fame — say these considerations take away from the artistry involved. In an interview in November, Adele said she responded to his label’s request for her to do TikToks with, “Tika Toka, who?”

“It was like everyone was making music for the TikTok, who was making music for my generation?” Adele continued. “Who makes music for my peers? I would do this job with pleasure.

Singer-songwriter Vérité, who has released music independently since 2014, said it’s “really disheartening when technology and culture evolve in a way that…is so obviously driven by pure consumerism “. Deciding to stay independent was difficult, she said, but it ultimately translated into her desire to retain her autonomy and control over her music and overall vision.

“The majors system is a gamble,” she said. “When it pays off and it works well, it’s great and you can become extremely successful. You can become famous and you can have number 1s and all dreams come true. If it’s not going well – which it is, let’s be honest, most of the time – a lot of artists are stuck. They are unable to monetize and do not have ownership of their work. »

Some artists end up leaving labels altogether, an easier choice when they already have an audience. John Mayer announced in March that he decided not to renew his contract with Columbia Records and “hasn’t signed another one because he doesn’t really need to”, according to Plotkin.

Artists bound by agreements with their labels may envy this freedom, but some, including Halsey, don’t seem to have been prevented from saying the same. Doja Cat’s Eve posted an extremely stupid and soon to go viral TikTok mourning the loss of Taco Bell’s abandoned Mexican pizza, she shared another warning viewers of the “terrible” video to come.

“Just know,” she said, “it’s contractual.”

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