How TikTok is changing marketing in the music industry and beyond

In a post on TikTok last month, singer Halsey shared a message with her fans: “Basically I have a song that I love and want to release ASAP,” the musician wrote, “but my label won’t let me.” Despite eight years in the music industry and selling over 165 million records, Halsey said: “My record company says I can’t put it out unless she can fake a viral moment on tiktok. “

Several other artists had recently expressed similar frustrations with labels always chasing the next “Old Town Road” or “Drivers License” – singles that took off on TikTok and climbed the Billboard charts. “All requested record labels are TikToks,” FKA twigs wrote in a since-deleted post on the platform. Florence Welch, Doja Cat and Charli XCX also talked about their labels’ TikTok fixations. (Just over a week after Halsey posted the TikTok Videowhich became its own “viral moment”, Capitol Records announced in a Twitter post addressing the artist that he was “committed to releasing ‘So Good'” on June 9. “We are an artist-driven company that encourages open dialogue,” the label said in a statement. “We have nothing but a desire to help each of our artists succeed, and hopefully we can continue to have those critical conversations.”)

Complaints from recording artists about promotional requests are as old as the music industry itself, and they have often played out in public feuds. But these recent grievances are not aimed at the labels themselves. These are direct appeals to fans (in Halsey’s case, 4.6 million of them on TikTok). And while they describe very specific scenarios – of world-renowned artists clashing with their labels over marketing strategies – they also evoke an experience familiar to almost anyone on social media, where aspects of the experience of fame have been formalized and made available to everyone.

All of this to say: Being told how to sell yourself isn’t just a celebrity issue anymore. It is a basic requirement to be online.

One way to think of contemporary pop stars is as de facto social media influencers. Some relish the chance to commune with fans online, and many first found fame there (including Halsey). Others are less enthusiastic, but understand that their fans – or their labels – value an authentic online presence. All of this situates their complaints against TikTok in a more recent tradition: calling out social platforms.

Like musicians, professional social media influencers sometimes find themselves at odds with their business partners. They, too, are under contract with big companies on which they depend for their subsistence and their self-esteem, and which do not hesitate to make demands.

YouTube creators, for example, depend on the platform for publishing, maintaining a relationship with their audience, payment, and distribution. For all but the biggest creators, YouTube’s management style is indirect. Rather, its suggestions and requests are conveyed through detailed and frequently updated policies. guidelines for creators, and direct prompts into its interfaces. Another way for YouTube to reach its creators is through its analytics dashboard, which provides them with constant feedback from Google on their performance within the Google ecosystem.

Popular art has often referenced the conditions in which it was produced, and musicians’ most dedicated fans have always understood in one way or another – that their favorite artists are under sales stress, or little sure of criticism, or dissatisfied with the conditions in which they find themselves. their industry, or angry at their label. On YouTube, however, fans don’t have to search for clues. Across YouTube’s vast array of content types, creators frequently speak out about creator work on the platform. Subscription milestones are openly pursued and marked, and fans are regularly thanked – in direct and personal terms – for their support.

Up-and-coming YouTubers, whether they’re makeup teachers, comedians, product reviewers or political essayists, speak directly to viewers about their goals and progress: how many subscriptions would it take to quit their day jobs; how it would help them if you bought goods; and to subscribe, comment and enable notifications of new videos. They talk about their hard work, what the job requires, what the platform wants and what it gives in return. Even casual YouTube viewers eventually get to grips with it. growth jargon: CPM, copyright warnings, frame rate, demonetization. In the long run, every YouTube channel talks about YouTube, at least a little.

The closest comparison to how recording artists might talk about their labels is how a YouTuber might refer to “the algorithm” — shorthand for talking about the unspoken instructions the platform gives them. This is often steeped in folk theories from creators who combine official YouTube advice with models drawn from individual hits.

YouTubers share and criticize the requirements they believe YouTube places on them: post very frequently; maximize “watch time” at all costs; to interact with new features, such as YouTube Shorts, whether or not they appeal to creators or their fans. They criticized the company for offer advice on how to avoid burnout while leaving them uncertain about the material consequences of a break in assignment. While some of these videos speak directly to YouTube, most seem to seek recourse by appealing to fans, who by collectively watching more or engaging in different ways can actually materially change a YouTuber’s situation. . It’s a familiar but modified message: we are together in this app.

TikTok, which has quickly become a major cultural influence, is affirmed even by industry standards. It’s an environment where users are subjected to constant nudges and suggestions on how to engage and what to post, an environment where complaints from famous artists about relentless marketing interventions don’t seem so unreasonable or unreasonable.

It’s also an environment where folkloric theories of the algorithm abound, particularly about what it takes to appear on other users’ feeds, known as “For You” pages. In a forthcoming article, researchers Elena Maris, Hibby Thach and Robyn Caplan suggest that on TikTok, users have organized themselves to gain attention and attempt to influence the opaque ways in which not only attention but also money real are distributed on the platform. . (In December, TikTok introduces new monetization tools for creators, including a tipping feature.)

“With TikTok, we see this shift from popular algorithm theories to popular compensation theories,” said Ms Caplan, senior researcher at Data & Society, a nonprofit research organization. An awareness of TikTok’s priorities — what it demands and how it assigns value — “is something that seeps into the general user population,” she said.

It may have been a while. Millions of people can relate to the strain of using Instagram with different potential audiences in mind (e.g. friends and family) or with a sense of professional responsibility (e.g. people who work for themselves or in sectors where a professional reputation is linked to an online presence). Noticing that your numbers are lower than usual and wondering what other people are doing that you’re not are widely shared experiences, as is rejecting or heeding a recommendation about the new feature or trend on a platform. – form: Instagram Reels or Close Friends; Twitter spaces; YouTube shorts; TikTok avatars. Haven’t posted in a while? Expect a notification about it, or 20.

In 2022, you don’t have to be a famous musician to get unwanted audience research recommendations, unsolicited instructions on how best to promote your brand, or regular updates on the number of people that participate in your latest version. Joining a social network for personal reasons only to find yourself using it for material gain is, in fact, the standard experience. Bringing him up, even as a world-famous recording artist, isn’t just an offer of sympathy from fans on social media — in a small way, it’s an attempt to relate.

For Context is a column that explores the confines of digital culture.