The pop star Halsey lambasted the role of TikTok in modern pop music on Sunday, saying that their label wouldn’t let them release a new song without an accompanying campaign to make it go viral.
“Everything is marketing. And they are doing this to every artist these days,” they wrote, ironically, in a TikTok video, as their unreleased song played in the background. “I just want to release music, man. And I deserve better tbh. I’m tired.” (Halsey uses she/they pronouns.)
TikTok is a vital tool for artists who want to promote and share their music. Many of the biggest recent pop hits, from Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” to Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” owe a large share of their success to their virality on TikTok, where users dance, lip sync to the song, or use it to soundtrack a wide array of activities.
The app is becoming more popular, and artists are beginning to complain about the expectations of the site’s content. FKA twigs, Florence and the Machine, and Charli XCX have all posted complaints about the pressures they’ve received from their labels to post more. Their statements, along with Halsey’s, reveal a tension between the platform’s ability to both elevate artists’ music while shackling them more tightly to the industries’ financial incentives.
TikTok’s increasing importance in the music industry
TikTok was established four years ago and its democratizing, liberating nature enabled smaller, independent artists like Lil Nas X to expand their fan base. However, big labels have been able to strategic deploy the app in their favor using marketing campaigns that could have otherwise gone towards magazine spreads and billboards. Records labels hire prominent musicians to create videos for their songs. Universal Music Group signed deals to promote content across platforms and hired TikTok teams to monitor TikTok data.
“At first, labels would throw some additional ad spend at TikTok, as a kind of test to see if it would work. But now it’s definitely proven—and it’s a line item on their budget when it comes to how they spend their marketing money,” Jesse Callahan, who runs the marketing agency Montford Agency, which works on music marketing campaigns with labels and artists, says. “You’re really starting to see actual salaried positions at these labels in charge of managing and running that aspect.”
Callahan belongs to a small cottage industry built around creators and labels in order to help them achieve virality. Marketers help to connect labels with influencers. They also help to create dance routines and viral challenges. And they use data to verify that songs are being heard by the right audience.
Callahan also claims that labels have created viral campaigns. “The fake stuff does happen: that’s just kind of the way some of this marketing goes,” he says. “In general, I think music labels are pretty cutthroat and ruthless.”
In April, pop star The Kid Laroi staged a feud with his ex-manager Scooter Braun in order to promote his new song “Thousand Miles.” Other high-profile influencers including Bella Poarch and Charli D’Amelio jumped onto the trend of revealing their “last mistake,” leading to 23,000 videos containing The Kid Laroi’s song on TikTok overall. “Thousand Miles” debuted at No.15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Artists such as Halsey have a reason to speak up
Some musicians have unabashedly embraced this new pathway to success, creating music that is particularly suited to the platform’s all-important fanbase. The Kid Laroi had a huge boost earlier in his career after penning the song “Addison Rae,” named after one of TikTok’s foremost influencers. Tiagz, a rapper, writes songs that use memes or other trends from the platform.
Other artists are speaking out against the demands that they put in more effort and time into their marketing. “It’s true all record labels ask for are TikToks and I got told off today for not making enough effort,” FKA twigs wrote on the app. In March, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine posted a video of herself letting out a big sigh before singing an a capella rendition of her song “My Love.” Below the video, she wrote, “The label are begging me for ‘low fi tik toks’ so here you go. pls send help.”
Halsey is a thriving user of the app. He has accumulated 4.5million followers and 17,000,000 likes. While they post on TikTok only occasionally, many times, such as to share new merch or participate in lip synch challenges and offer tutorials in makeup, But on Saturday, they posted unhappily that their label, Capitol, was stopping them from putting out a new song if they didn’t agree to “fake a viral moment on TikTok” first. In a subsequent video, they showed themselves listening to someone talk through the label’s wishes for their marketing rollout, before responding, “I just hate this.”
Last year, Halsey criticized their label for the way that they responded to the singer’s pregnancy, saying in an interview that they viewed it through the lens of their “profitability or your productivity or your assembly line.”
Ironically, Halsey’s tirade produced its own viral TikTok moment: it was seen 7 million times over its first 24 hours, and other users began to use the underlying song in their own videos. “It’s interesting the way it came back around to be maybe more powerful than the campaign they were planning—and they’re not spending any money on that,” Callahan says.
Halsey denied claims that the video was itself a marketing campaign: “I’m way too established to stir something like this up for no reason or resort to this as a marketing tactic,” they wrote on Twitter. They also wrote that their label had actually responded positively to their “tantrum” and the number of views it had received.
Erin Jacobson, a music attorney, says that while Capitol might have legal grounds to take action against Halsey for publishing the unreleased song snippet on TikTok, it’s unlikely they will do so. “It is rare that a label would sue one of its own artists, especially when the label plans to continue working with that artist. Further, using such a short piece of the record could also be seen as a promotional use,” she wrote in an email.
A Capitol Music Group spokesperson wrote in a statement that “Our belief in Halsey as a singular and important artist is total and unwavering. We can’t wait for the world to hear their brilliant new music.”
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