In a TikTok post last month, singer Halsey shared a message with fans: “Basically I have a song that I love and want to release asap,” the musician wrote, “but my record label will let me Not.” Despite eight years in the music industry and over 165 million records sold, Halsey said, “My record company says I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on Tiktok.”
Several other artists had recently expressed similar frustrations with labels always chasing the next “Old Town Street” or “Driver’s license” – Singles who have taken off on TikTok and climbed the Billboard charts. “All the record labels are asking for TikToks,” FKA Twigs wrote in a since-deleted post on the platform. Florence Welch, Doja Cat and Charli XCX have also referenced their labels’ TikTok fixations. (Just over a week after Halsey posted those Tiktok videothat became his own “viral moment,” Capitol Records announced in a Twitter post address the artist that it is “committed to a June 9 release of ‘So Good'”. “We are an artist-first 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 we hope to continue having these critical conversations.”)
Complaints by record artists about publicity demands are as old as the music industry itself, and have often sprouted into public feuds. But these latest complaints aren’t aimed at the labels themselves. They’re direct calls to fans (in Halsey’s case, 4.6 million of them on TikTok). And while they describe very specific scenarios—world-famous artists squabbling with their labels over marketing strategies—they also evoke an experience familiar to almost anyone with a presence on social media, where aspects of the experience of fame have been formalized and made available to all.
All of this is to say: being told how to market yourself is no longer just a celebrity problem. It is a basic requirement to be online.
cogs in the machine
A way to envision contemporary pop stars as de facto social media influencers. Some relish the opportunity to communicate 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 places their complaints about TikTok in a more recent tradition: hitting social platforms.
Like musicians, professional social media influencers sometimes get at odds with their business partners. They, too, are under contract to the big companies on whom their livelihood and self-esteem depend and who are not afraid to make demands.
YouTube creators, for example, rely on the platform for publishing, maintaining a relationship with their audience, getting paid, and distributing. For all but the greatest YouTubers, YouTube’s management style is indirect. Instead, their suggestions and demands are delivered through comprehensive and frequently updated guidelines guidelines for creators and direct prompts in its interfaces. Another way YouTube reaches its creators is through the analytics dashboard, which provides them with constant feedback from Google on how they’re behaving within the Google ecosystem.
Popular art has often related to the conditions under which it was produced, and musicians’ most devoted fans have always formed an image one way or another – that their favorite artists were stressed about sales, or uncertain about reviews, or unhappy with the conditions are in their industry or mad at their label. However, fans don’t have to look for clues on YouTube. Across the broad spectrum of YouTube content types, creators are often vocal about the task of being a creator on the platform. Subscription milestones are openly tracked and marked, and fans are routinely thanked — directly and personally — for their support.
Aspiring YouTubers, whether makeup tutors, comedians, product critics, or political essayists, speak directly to viewers about their goals and progress: how many subscriptions it would take to quit their normal job; how it would help them if you bought goods; and to subscribe to, comment on, and turn on new video notifications. They talk about how hard they work, what the job demands, what the platform wants and what it gives back. Even casual YouTube viewers will eventually become familiar with it growth-related jargon: CPM, copyright strikes, view speed, demonetization. Ultimately, every YouTube channel is at least a little bit about YouTube.
The closest comparison to how recording artists talk about their labels is how a YouTuber refers to “the algorithm” — a shorthand way to talk about the unspoken instructions the platform gives them. This is often suffused with folksy theories from YouTubers that combine official YouTube guidance with patterns drawn from individual achievements.
YouTubers share and criticize what they think YouTube requires of them: to post very often; to maximize “playback time” at all costs; Engage with new features like YouTube Shorts, regardless of whether YouTubers or their fans are attracted to them or not. You have criticized the company for doing so offer Advice on how to avoid burnout while leaving them feel insecure about the material consequences of a posting break. While some of these videos are aimed directly at YouTube, most seem to seek recourse by targeting fans who, by watching more together or engaging in different ways, can actually make a significant difference in a YouTuber’s situation. It’s a familiar but modified message: We’re in this app together.
You are just like us
TikTok, which has quickly become a major cultural influence, is enforceable 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 incessant marketing interventions don’t sound as lofty or unreasonable.
It’s also an environment where folk theories abound about the algorithm, specifically what it takes to appear in other users’ feeds, known as “For You” pages. In an upcoming article, researchers Elena Maris, Hibby Thach, and Robyn Caplan suggest that users have organized themselves on TikTok to draw attention to and try to influence the opaque ways that not only draw attention, but actual money is distributed on the platform. (In December, TikTok Introduction of new monetization tools for creators, including a tip feature.)
“At TikTok, we’re seeing this transition from folk theories about algorithms to folk theories about compensation,” he said Mrs. Chaplain, Senior Researcher at Data & Society, a non-profit research organization. An awareness of TikTok’s priorities — what it demands and how it assigns value — “is something that’s penetrating the general population of users,” she said.
Maybe it’s been a while. Millions of people can feel the tension of using Instagram with different potential audiences (e.g. friends and family) or with a sense of professional responsibility (e.g. people working for themselves or in industries to which a professional reputation is bound) understand an online presence). Noticing that your numbers are lower than usual and wondering what other people are doing that you aren’t are common experiences, as is declining or following a recommendation about the latest feature or trend on a platform : Instagram Reels or close friends; Twitter Sections; YouTube short films; TikTok avatars. Haven’t posted in a while? Expect a notification about this, or 20.
In 2022, you don’t have to be a famous musician to get unwelcome audience research recommendations, unsolicited instructions on how best to promote your brand, or regular updates on how many people are liking your latest release. Joining a social network for personal reasons only to use it for material gain is actually the standard experience. Bringing it up, even as a world-renowned recording artist, isn’t just a request for sympathy from fans on social media — in a way, it’s an attempt at building a relationship.
For Context is a column exploring the frontiers of digital culture.