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Singer Chelsea Cutler shared her frustration about social media demands. It hit a nerve in the music world.

Struggling to constantly promote herself online, she posted that she’d rather just be a musician and a performer. Artists everywhere told her they feel the same way.

Singer-songwriter Chelsea Cutler, whose post about the social media pressure on musicians took off across the music world. (Muriel Margaret)
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On a recent rainy Sunday, singer-songwriter Chelsea Cutler and her girlfriend went to a Michael’s craft store for paint supplies. They spent the next several hours happily painting and disconnecting from the world, but at the end of the day, Cutler started thinking: Should she have recorded their art adventure? Could she have turned it into a TikTok video for her 187,000 followers? Her fans feel connected when they see snippets of her personal life — did she miss a prime opportunity for a post?

Social media is nothing new as a marketing tool for countless musicians, but the long pandemic has put more pressure on singers to also be content creators, pulling them away from making music so they can obsess on algorithms. With tour dates still frequently being canceled and fewer in-person opportunities, there’s a high demand for singers to entertain fans through their phone screens, sharing pieces of their lives. While sometimes entertaining for the artists, it can also be a mentally draining task.

Cutler, a 24-year-old Connecticut native who left college her junior year to pursue music full-time, was ruminating on this last week as she sat in her New York apartment. She feels grateful every day for her career — she signed with Universal-owned Republic Records in 2019 and has released two albums — but that doesn’t lessen the stress as she’s seen an increase in the need for constant social media activity, or the breakneck pace at which hopefully viral singles are released, or the fleeting hits on TikTok that barely give a listener a chance to know an artist. It was starting to feel like too much, and with her girlfriend’s encouragement, Cutler started typing out her feelings and posted this on Jan. 3:

“Scary to post this but would rather be honest as I imagine this is something a lot of people might feel lately. … As an artist I’ve struggled terribly the last year or so with how to adapt to the way the industry landscape has changed. I don’t feel like a content creator, I feel like a musician and performer,” Cutler wrote in a long message published on Twitter and Instagram. “It feels exhausting to constantly be thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

Her anxieties about social media on social media struck a nerve throughout social media — notifications started rolling in as her post was shared and texted and circulated in pockets of the music world. Her Instagram post got more than 103,000 likes (about triple her usual amount) and thousands of comments, which lit up with hundreds of blue-check-mark-verified musicians — some of them A-list stars — confessing that they felt the exact same way.

“I thought maybe there would be, like, my friends and some fans saying the typical ‘Oh, keep doing you, you’re crushing it.’ … Kind of the typical support that you’re somewhat fishing for when you vent on the Internet,” Cutler said in a recent interview. “But I think maybe the next morning, a bunch of people were texting me saying, like, ‘The whole music industry is talking about this right now.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

Ryan Tedder, lead singer of OneRepublic, weighed in: “This might be the most perfectly written summation of how I feel weekly. … I don’t know what the solution is, but I know this isn’t what I signed up for, and I know for sure this doesn’t lead to phenomenal ‘art.’ ” So did country star Maren Morris: “It’s so easy to feel bad at everything about this when all you wanna do is play your songs but this made me feel seen.”

Plenty of Cutler’s high-profile Universal label mates (Niall Horan, Maggie Rogers, Zedd, James Blake, Julia Michaels) commented, and the post spread to other major label and independent artists, who offered their thoughts. Jesse McCartney, a millennial favorite: “Finally. Somebody says it.” Lauren Jauregui, former member of Fifth Harmony: “I feel seen wow.” Pop singer Hayley Kiyoko: “YUP.” Rachel Platten of “Fight Song” fame: “Wow. This.”

Cutler was taken aback by the volume of response yet not completely surprised — this has been a conversation among artists for a long time behind closed doors. She admitted she was “definitely scared” to publicly post such vulnerability. “There is a lot of pressure from our entire teams, whether it’s the label or management, to be really active on social media … it’s definitely intimidating to kind of express that to them,” she said.

But the response from her team, who say they were not given advance notice of her post, has been positive; even industry executives admitted they feel equally overwhelmed in the current music landscape, as they struggle to get their artists noticed. (Although songwriter/producer Tofer Brown joked in the comments, “Dear Chelsea, With the recent viral success of this Instagram post, we were thinking you should find a way of turning your thoughts into a TikTok dance to create more content and increase your fan engagement and reach. Sincerely, Record Label Executive Who Doesn’t Get The Point Of It At All.”)

Things may not change, but Cutler is pleased to see other musicians take comfort in her post.

“It definitely totally made me feel like I’m less insane to see so many other people validating what I’ve been feeling,” Cutler said. “There’s definitely no black or white solution for sure. I think the best thing that can come out of this right now is just starting dialogues and trying to have actual conversations about it, instead of being hesitant to speak up.”

Her post resonated with Kelleigh Bannen, a Nashville singer-songwriter and radio host for Apple Music. Bannen said she felt like she saw it on nearly every Instagram story last week, from musicians to those who work behind the scenes. Seeing those anxieties in the open, Bannen said, felt like everyone “immediately exhaling together” and being granted permission to acknowledge that success in the social media era often feels unattainable.

“Even though you got into a creative industry like the music industry to write songs and add to the conversation, you are actually expected to contribute in all these other ways that often feel just all-consuming and you’re just pouring it all into the void,” Bannen said. “There’s this expectation of: ‘If you’re not creating content at the kind of pace we’re seeing some of these TikTok stars have risen, you’re going to miss the opportunity to continue to make music in a real way.’ And that’s just so counterproductive to making great art.”

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