- 27 May 22
The recent trend of artists speaking out against label expectations has sparked an internet debate about the role of TikTok in the music industry. But more than that, it calls into question the evolving definition of celebrity.
TikTok is so much more than just social media. Of course, we know this — in the six years that TikTok's been active, it has transformed the definition and landscape of internet stardom, brand-marketing and even politics, fundamentally altering how we connect and interact with some of the most basics tenets of our world.
This phenomenon is perhaps the most obvious in the music world. The app has catapulted once-small artists into the realm of chart-toppers; giving names the likes of Olivia Rodrigo, PinkPantheress and Måneskin the leg up, or by breathing new life into tracks that have slipped under the waves of time — see: 'Down the Line' by Gerry Rafferty (over 122 million Spotify streams), 'Smile' by Lily Allen (over 198 million streams) or even 'Dreams' by Fleetwood Mac, which has now eclipsed 977 million streams on Spotify.
For many, TikTok has been hailed as the new music messiah — a chance for smaller artists to dodge the tedium bands have been wrestling with for years. Recently, however, it seems that the "TikTok effect" has been bleeding into the music industry's established corporate structures — creating a virtual avalanche of unforeseen consequences.
Sunday night (May 22), pop-superstar Halsey posted a TikTok captioned: "Basically I have a song that I love that I wanna release ASAP but my record label won't let me. I've been in this industry for 8 years and I've sold over 165 million records, and my record company is saying that I can't release it unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok."
"Everything is marketing, and they're doing this to virtually every artists these days," they continued. "I just wanna release music, man. And I deserve better TBH. I'm tired."
The video — which contained a clip of the song — has already garnered 7.5 million views and 1 million likes in the 18 hours it's been live, comments flooded with outraged fans, cautious realists and big name supporters. It's the newest piece in an all too familiar narrative; corporations taking a special brand of virality and conflating it with marketing success. In reality, there's almost no way to trace why certain songs lodge themselves into popular conscious and others don't — it's too complex of a blend of algorithm, relevant culture and blind luck.
That doesn't seem to be stopping industry execs from trying, though, as musicians from across genres are taking to social media to rack up likes on posts complaining about how their labels forcing are them to rack up likes on social media.
In addition to Halsey, FKA twigs, Florence + The Machine and Ed Sheeran have taken to TikTok to create videos complaining about their labels falling ill with TikTok fever — each video (ironically enough) gaining millions of views, likes and shares across platforms. Is this a ploy in itself? There's room for conspiracy theories, many 'chronically online' people have stated on the subject.
"It's true, all record labels ask for are TikToks and I got told off today for not making enough effort," Twigs posted in a now-deleted video. Florence Welch wrote, "The label are begging me for 'low-fi TikToks' so here you go. Pls send help." Ed Sheeran, though perhaps unintentionally, also made some commentary toward TikTok culture with a video captioned; "when you're supposed to be making promos for your song, but you just really want a snack and you decide that eating a snack can be promo for a song because everyone loves snacks."
what tiktok has done to the music industry is upsetting like… pic.twitter.com/bSJ0EIVfv1
— allure (@allurelg) May 22, 2022
Others have looked on the controversy with a sort of bemused mysticism — like Irish pop musician CMAT, who posted to TikTok: "My label have not pressured me into making any TikToks at all and I am now worried that this is because they respect me and think of me as a 'career artist' instead of a big fat pop star."
CMAT, as well as notable others the likes of Doja Cat, Lizzo and Lil Nas X, fall into the category of effortless social-media savants — big name artists who seem to genuinely enjoy the world's TikTok fascination. For them, harnessing the niche humour of the app is just a part of their personal brand; they're happy to have found a way to organically connect with fans, and have fun doing it.
Irish duo Tebi Rex are examples of musicians who just Get It — sure, they use social media as a marketing tool, but it's in a way that's actually, genuinely funny. Whether on Twitter or TikTok, they're a part of the faction of artists that aren't begrudging social-media's place in the industry, but embracing it.
Remember in Hanging With Trees I said “you’re in her DMs but I’m in that photo her ma has in the conservatory”?
It’s based on this exact scenario https://t.co/zxJTTb0okh
— Tebi Rex (@TebiRex) May 20, 2022
Maybe it's real, maybe it's a stab at meta-marketing in which labels are intentionally falling on the sword of internet hatred in exchange for likes — but regardless, this wave of complaints from big name musicians is bringing to the forefront just how drastically the industry has changed in the last few years. In many ways, moving into the TikTok age has transformed the definition of celebrity; where they, much like the royals, were once cloaked in a heavy mystique, they're now forced to invite fans into the minutiae of everyday life. People want musicians who are, for lack of a better phrase, just like them.
For those who were fostered in the old-ways of the industry, having to climb into the TikTok box has required some painful rearrangement of their creative limbs. But for those still scaling the ladder, changing their marketing ethos is just a step in adjusting to the times.
Local Boy, the recoding project of Dublin-native Jake Hurley, is one of many chasing TikTok stardom. For him, self-promotion via the app seemed like a matter of necessity.
"You could make the best music in the world, but if you can't market or promote it, nobody's gonna care," he told Hot Press. "I would obviously prefer if the music industry was more based around promoting and investing in quality music, but also you have to recognise that this is just moving with the times. There's no way of changing how the industry has gone."
"It's a sad reality," he admits. "But marketing and promoting is part and parcel of being a musician. It's like 50/50 now, it's equally as important as having good music these days."
Despite a grudging acceptance of the times, Hurley believes that the new-wave of celebrity culture is at odds with one of the most time-honoured traditions of the music world.
"It's interesting because a lot of musicians are notoriously terrible people," he laughed. "But now you have to present this image of likability, a lot more so than back in the day."
But more than that, Hurley believes the idea sometimes robs the artist of an aesthetic choice.
"There could be somebody like Frank Ocean, who uses mystery as their brand. Or even FKA twigs, she's got such a mysterious, ethereal presence, that it feels odd for me to see an artist like that on TikTok," he continued.
"But on the other hand, there's a lot of artists who would be really well served by developing a following. It comes to down to labels understanding the appeal of individual artists, and not pushing them into an activity that doesn't serve the best interests of their creative vision."
Charli XCX, who also posted a now-deleted TikTok captioned 'when the label asks me to make my 8th TikTok of the week,' recently revealed a conversation in which they asked her to appeal to her more genuine side.
"There is this quest at the moment for authenticity within all art, but particularly in music," she said on Dazed's A Future World podcast. “I think that transferred to the way labels wanted artists to be on social media. I remember having a meeting with my record label where they were like, ‘We just need you to post every Tuesday about your flaws and maybe you could post some pictures with dogs'...I stormed out. I was like, ‘This is fucking ridiculous!’ It was crazy. That’s not real."
Rebecca Lucy Taylor, otherwise known as Self Esteem, agrees — recently posting an eight-tweet long thread on the subject. Though acknowledging how TikTok and social media can be a useful "arm," the English singer also commented on how labels requiring an inside look can not only be taxing, but also disrespectful.
Social media for me has long been another arm of my overall art practice. it's another form to play with alongside music and visuals to further my point/put meat on the creative skeleton. Demanding more of it, giving briefs (viral trends), laying the blame on the artist for not
— Rebecca Lucy Taylor (@SELFESTEEM___) May 23, 2022
"It can have real psychological push back when you base the worth and success of your WORK on you having given enough of yourself," she wrote. "Like if I was in a 'normal job' and my chance of promotion came down to how much you knew about how I put makeup on, my workout routine, how sexy I am, doing acapella versions of the KPI report - that would seem a bit unfair and unhealthy wouldn't it."
It's hard to say exactly what it all means, but it's safe to say that TikTok, and social media in general, have become an integral part of the job description — whether they like it or not. And that the popularisation of TikTok fame has irreparably ushered in a new era of celebrity culture, sealing the mysterious, god-like musicians of the past in time's tomb.
Whether you agree with Halsey, twigs and Charli XCX or are firmly in the pro-social media camp, Hurley summed up the new wave of TikTok culture best: "It's a double edged sword, just like anything else."
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