The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Record labels want viral TikToks. Artists are pushing back.

Singers such as Halsey, FKA Twigs and Charli XCX have made TikToks about being upset that their record labels expect them to make TikToks.

Clockwise from top left: Artists FKA twigs, Halsey, Charli XCX and Ed Sheeran have all made TikToks expressing discontent over labels expecting them to post on the platform. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images; Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images; Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images; Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
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Halsey posted a TikTok this week with the effect of a hostage video. In it, she gazes blankly toward the camera as words appear on-screen: “basically i have a song that i love that i wanna release ASAP but my record label won’t let me. ive been in this industry for 8 years and ive sold over 165 million records and my record company is saying that i can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on tiktok.”

Ironically, that very TikTok went viral — attracting the attention the label wanted, but with indignation at its core. Some wondered whether this was the marketing ploy. Others rallied behind Halsey, who uses she/they pronouns, arguing they “should be able to release music how you want.” Fellow performer King Princess wrote, “Tell the girls !!!!”

The relationship between musical artists and their labels has always been tenuous as they often butt heads over creative desires and business strategies; Sara Bareilles said last year that her 2007 hit “Love Song,” in which she sings that she is “not gonna write you a love song/ ’Cause you asked for it, ’cause you need one,” doubled as a frustrated response to “feeling invisible” to her label, which she told Glamour magazine she felt was being “withholding” because she didn’t have a big radio-ready single.

But Halsey’s complaints shone a light on the specific strain some artists experience when expected to produce additional content for TikTok, a platform that tends to reject artificiality. Teams of people contribute to marketing campaigns, but viral TikTok moments often hinge upon the authenticity of the artists themselves creating the videos. It works for artists such as Doja Cat, who is particularly adept at performing for an online audience, while others find it a more unnatural task.

“When music is finished and you’re a major label artist, it’s traditionally quite a while before it comes out,” said Marc Plotkin, a music business professor at New York University who has run marketing campaigns for both independent and major labels. “They’re not waiting so long because they have to manufacture CDs, like in the ’90s. They want to tee up enough attention. The shortcut to that is if you have millions of followers on TikTok.”

After Halsey’s TikTok, social media users began to circulate other instances of major artists speaking out against similar expectations. Months ago, Charli XCX mentioned her label asking her “to make my 8th tiktok of the week.” In March, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine posted a video singing a cappella because “the labels are begging me for ‘low fi tik toks.’” In a since-deleted post, FKA twigs said she “got told off today for not making enough effort.”

Ed Sheeran filmed himself eating chips for 15 seconds straight, adding in an overlay of text: “When you are supposed to be making promos for your song, but you just really want a snack and you decide that eating a snack can be promo for a song because everyone loves snacks.”

According to Plotkin, TikTok dominates marketing conversations more than other platforms did in the past, whether Facebook or Instagram. But the attention can be a little misleading, he said, adding that he is “entirely concerned with conversion to platforms like Spotify or Apple Music. We could have a TikTok video that gets 4 million plays, and 15 of those people want to go listen.”

Brandon Stosuy, a music manager who co-founded the company Zone 6, found the intense focus on TikTok to be a natural extension of how labels have always operated. He recalled when, in the early 1990s, labels scrambled to sign grunge bands in response to Nirvana’s massive success.

“Some things got signed that were good, some were terrible, some made no sense,” Stosuy said. “That’s the trend you see with major and independent labels over the years, where something works for one person so they want to re-create that success for another person. You can’t predict TikTok, if something is going to go viral or not. It’s hard to re-create that.”

Having grown up with the Internet, young consumers tend to be savvier than older generations when it comes to sensing whether content online is manufactured. Stosuy pointed to this as why unexpected viral sensations have the most impact. The Belarusian post-punk band Molchat Doma, for instance, became a meme when teenagers used its music in TikToks to channel what Pitchfork described as “Soviet vibes.” Surely, the independent label Sacred Bones didn’t plan this.

But smaller artists still face pressure to chase this unlikely success, especially when trying to grab the attention of labels tuned in to TikTok. Plotkin described the dynamic as “an early stage A&R cheat code,” an easy way to scout for talent based on a quantified level of interest.

None of this is very romantic, and singers looped into the marketing process — especially those who have already amassed a following and could arguably succeed without TikTok fame — argue that these considerations take away from the artistry involved. In a November interview, Adele said she responded to her label’s request for her to make TikToks with, “Tika Toka, who?”

“It was like, if everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making the music for my generation?” Adele continued. “Who’s making the music for my peers? I would do that job, gladly.”

The singer-songwriter Vérité, who has released music independently since 2014, said it is “really disheartening when technology and culture shift in a way that … is so blatantly focused on pure consumerism.” Deciding to remain independent was difficult, she said, but ultimately came down to her desire to maintain autonomy and control over her music and overall vision.

“The major-label system is a gamble,” she said. “When it pays off and works well, it’s brilliant and you can become extremely successful. You can become famous and you can have No. 1s and all the dreams come true. If it doesn’t go well — which is, let’s be honest, most of the time — a lot of artists are stuck. They’re unable to monetize and don’t have ownership over their work.”

Some artists end up leaving labels altogether, an easier choice when they already have a following. John Mayer announced in March that he decided not to renew his contract with Columbia Records and “hasn’t signed another one because he doesn’t really need to,” according to Plotkin.

Artists bound by agreements with their labels may envy this freedom, but some, including Halsey, don’t seem to have been barred from saying as much. The day before Doja Cat posted an exceedingly silly, soon-to-be viral TikTok lamenting the loss of Taco Bell’s discontinued Mexican pizza, she shared another warning viewers of the “terrible” video to come.

“Just know,” she said, “it’s contractual.”