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Are pop stars being pressured to go viral on TikTok?

American star Halsey joins a chorus of female singers complaining that their labels are demanding viral social media moments. The reality is more nuanced, explains music business insider Jamie Collinson.

<p>Halsey performing live</p>

Halsey performing live

/ Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
By
Jamie CollinsonContributor
@JRCollinson
07 June 2022
A

controversy has recently broken out in the music industry that has long been waiting to happen. The story centred around the 27-year-old American pop star Halsey. She’s better known at home than in the UK, having broken into the wider consciousness via a vocal for The Chainsmokers. (If you don’t know who they are, all I can say is I envy you.) More promisingly, her recent album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power was produced by Nine Inch Nails, and made her a sort of thinking person’s pop star.

Halsey claimed on Tik Tok that her label won’t release her new album until she makes a viral video on the platform. This came hot on the heels of tweets from Charlie XCX, Self Esteem, Florence Welch and FKA Twigs making similar complaints.

There’s no doubt about the emergent power of TikTok within the music business. The Chinese-owned social media platform has become one of the biggest drivers of streams, and so the industry is obsessing over it. I’ve written here before about the various effects of its dominance, which include an explosion in back catalogue listening.

The ideal scenario for a contemporary artist is something triggering a lot of user uploads featuring their song. Drake managed to manipulate this through starting a dance trend, but usually it happens organically. A user identifies a certain moment in a song that is perfect for a video’s subject, the trend catches on, and other users make their own version. The repeated listens required to learn the song – TikTok videos are performances, after all – mean many, many streams, most of them going to Spotify. TikTok is one of the few external drivers that the streaming services will admit makes a difference.

As a result of all this, most labels are, to one extent or another, asking artists to consider engaging with the platform. But this could all too easily turn into another exercise in label bashing. After all, they make easy targets, especially in an age when artists are arguably both more empowered and sympathised with than ever before.

The truth is more complex. I have never come across anything like the sort of blunt pressure that Halsey refers to, although I wouldn’t put it past a major label. They are, after all, in the hits game, and artists should go into such an arrangement with eyes wide open.

But we should always be wary of hearing one side of the story. One of the central truths I’ve learned in my time in the industry is that artists often want their albums out as quickly as possible – frequently before the timing is optimal. Sometimes a conversation between label and manager can be lost in translation when it reaches the artist. I can imagine a label saying: ‘We think that ideally there’d be more audience warm up to maximize the impact of the album announcement,’ for example. ‘They want you to make a viral TikTok’ sounds pithier, doesn’t it?

As in any industry, the balance of power is crucial. Top tier stars don’t allow their labels to set the schedule – the best the latter can hope for is some input. Halsey is very successful, but she’s not a household name. She has a little more than half the monthly Spotify listeners of Justin Bieber, and considerably fewer than half of those of Ed Sheeran.

It’s interesting that the musicians voicing concerns are mainly female. That does seem to concur with the idea that the pop world is harder on women. The pressure to make TikToks will be evenly distributed though – after all, the impact on streams is gender agnostic.

The good labels – and I’m willing to say that there are lots of these – are simply explaining the situation to artists and managers and letting them make the choice. Many label staff are equally uncomfortable with the demands of social media. Most are aware of the risks of a youth-ensnaring platform operating under the auspices of a brutal surveillance state. If labels are social media obsessed, that’s because society is too.

In some ways though, it’s reassuring to realize that there’s nothing new here. When radio sold all the records, labels pushed for gruelling tours of regional stations. At least you can make a TikTok from home.

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