TikTok Is Turning Music Marketing Into a Labyrinthian Game

Have you heard the reports? Artists are being held hostage by their record labels, who can only talk about TikTok this and TikTok that, demanding ever-more lip-syncs, dances, and casual posts for an insatiable internet. Meanwhile, Authentic Artistry is huddled in the corner, shivering from all the neglect. The official distress signal was shot into the air by Halsey, who took to the omnipresent video app a couple of weeks ago to allege that Capitol Records wouldn’t release their song “So Good” unless the star could manufacture a corresponding trend. Concerned Twitter users collated Halsey’s lament with similar complaints from FKA twigs, Charli XCX, and Florence Welch about facing pressure from labels to create TikTok content. “What TikTok has done to the music industry is upsetting,” a viral tweet read.

The battle between art and commerce has raged throughout pop history, staying constant through technological and stylistic evolutions; as of late, there’s no doubt labels’ myopic obsession with TikTok attention has led to some terrible decision-making. Like when the majors come to metaphorical blows over random teenagers who’ve miraculously ridden the algorithm to the top—even if that virality often has more to do with the tastemaking powers of certain TikTok communities than any given musician’s skill or savvy. To recoup the label’s investment, the newly signed artist is tasked with reproducing their initial success, though by that point viewers have often already moved on. 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 you could use for your advertising campaign, and too many trends to hinge them on. Even if you do manage to strike gold, going viral doesn’t get you as far as it used to.

Still, the ambitions climb higher and higher: The objective now is to get a track to trend before it officially comes out. Major artists emulate the scrappy presentation of novice producers, soliciting feedback from their audience, pretending as if they’re riffing in their bedroom. “What if a song started off like this?” Charlie Puth wondered while workshopping his single “Light Switch” with his viewers so they feel urgency for its ultimate launch. “Should I drop?” asked British rapper Central Cee, previewing his song “Obsessed With You,” which features a sample of one-time TikTok sensation PinkPantheress. Jack Harlow teased “First Class” with a cute video of him bopping in the studio. Even Phoebe Bridgers’ team tried to get ahead of the curve by sending select influencers advance previews of her song “Sidelines” to share. When so much emphasis is placed on getting early traction, there will inevitably be delays and equivocating; Halsey has clarified that their issue is not making TikToks, but being tethered to “some imaginary goalpost of views or virality” as a precondition for a song’s release—a legitimate grievance.

Online, fans have compared Halsey’s situation to Taylor Swift’s battle over her masters, because both instances involve non-male pop stars clashing with the corporate industry for control over their own art. Swift empowered fans to mobilize on her behalf, expanding a business dispute into a social justice campaign; you can imagine Halsey drawing from the same playbook, hoping that the resulting outcry could get Capitol to back down. And well, it worked: Halsey shared their complaint video to TikTok on May 22, and within a week or so the parent company @-ed them on Twitter (“we love you and are here to support you”), committing to release “So Good” on June 9. Problem solved. But the relative ease and expediency of the resolution has bolstered skepticism of Halsey’s motives, with critics accusing the star of engaging in a kind of “anti-marketing marketing.” Sky Ferreira, another Capitol signee who’s struggled to get her music released, subtweeted Halsey by reposting a random skeptic’s tweet on IG stories: “Pretending your label has ‘asked you to make TikTok’s’ to go viral for outrage clicks is pretty meta.”