In a TikTok post last month, singer Halsey shared a message with fans: “Basically I have a song I like that I want to release as soon as possible,” the musician wrote, “but my record label won’t let me.” Despite eight years in the music industry and more than 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 looking for the next one “Old Town Road” or “Drivers license” – singles that took off on TikTok and climbed the Billboard charts. “All 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 fixes. (Just over a week after Halsey de tiktok videothat became its own ‘viral moment’, Capitol Records announced in a Twitter post address the artist that it was “committed to a release of ‘So Good'” on June 9. “We are an artist-first company that encourages open dialogue,” the label said in a statement. “We have nothing but a desire to help all our artists succeed, and hope we can continue to have these critical conversations.”)
Complaints from artists about promotional demands are as old as the music industry itself, and they have often evolved in public feuds. But these recent grievances are not aimed at the labels themselves. They are direct calls to fans (in the case of Halsey 4.6 million on TikTok). And while they describe very specific scenarios – world-famous artists arguing with their labels over marketing strategies – they also evoke an experience familiar to just about anyone with a social media presence, where aspects of the experience of fame are formalized and available to everyone.
That’s all to say, being told how to market yourself isn’t just a celebrity problem anymore. It is a basic requirement to be online.
Cogs in the machine
One way to think of contemporary pop stars is as de facto social media influencers. Some relish the opportunity to interact with fans online, and many found fame there first (Halsey included). 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: calling out social platforms.
Like musicians, professional social media influencers are sometimes at odds with their business partners. They, too, are under contract to large corporations on which they depend for their livelihood and self-esteem, and who are not shy about making demands.
For example, YouTube creators depend on the platform for publishing, nurturing a relationship with their audience, payment, and distribution. For all but the biggest creators, YouTube’s management style is indirect. The suggestions and requirements are instead delivered through policies, comprehensive and regularly updated guidelines for creators and direct prompts in the interfaces. Another way YouTube reaches out to its creators is through its analytics dashboard, which gives them constant feedback from Google on how they’re performing within the Google ecosystem.
Popular art has often referenced the conditions under which it was produced, and musicians’ most devoted fans have always somehow acquired the impression that their favorite artists are stressed about sales, or unsure of reviews, or unhappy with them. the conditions in their industry, or angry at their label. However, fans don’t have to search for clues on YouTube. Across the broad spectrum of YouTube content types, creators often speak out about the creator’s job on the platform. Subscription milestones are openly pursued and flagged, and fans are routinely thanked — in direct and personal terms — for their support.
Emerging YouTubers, be they makeup teachers, comedians, product critics or political essayists, speak directly to viewers about their goals and progress: how many subscriptions would they need to quit their day job; how it would help them if you bought merchandise; and to subscribe, comment and enable new video notifications. They talk about how hard they work, what the work demands, what the platform wants and what it gives back. Even regular YouTube viewers eventually get used to it growth-related jargon: CPM, copyright warnings, rendering speed, demonetization. In the long run, every YouTube channel is about YouTube, at least a little.
The best analogy to how artists talk about their labels is how a YouTuber might refer to “the algorithm” – a shortcut to talk about the unspoken instructions the platform gives them. This is often infused with creator folk theories that combine YouTube’s official guidelines with patterns derived from individual successes.
YouTubers share and criticize the demands they say YouTube places on them: posting very often; to maximize “viewing time” at all costs; to use new features, such as YouTube Shorts, regardless of whether creators or their fans are attracted to them. They have criticized the company for: sacrifice advice on how to avoid burnout while leaving them feeling insecure on the material consequences of a posting interruption. While some of these videos are aimed directly at YouTube, most seem to resort to appealing to fans, who, by watching more together or engaging in different ways, can materially change a YouTuber’s situation. It’s a familiar but edited message: we’re in this app together.
They are just like us
TikTok, which has quickly become a major cultural influence, is assertive, even by industry standards† It’s an environment where users are subjected to constant nudges and suggestions about how to engage and what to post, an environment where complaints from famous artists about incessant marketing interventions don’t sound so illogical or unreasonable.
It’s also an environment where folk theories about the algorithm abound, especially about what it takes to show up on other users’ feeds, known as “For You” pages. In a forthcoming paper, researchers Elena Maris, Hibby Thach and Robyn Caplan suggest that users have organized on TikTok to draw attention to and attempt to influence the opaque ways in which not only attention but real money is on the platform. is being devided . (In December, TikTok new monetization tools introduced for creators, including a tip function.)
“With TikTok, we are seeing this shift from folk theories from algorithms to folk theories about compensation,” he said Mrs Caplan, senior researcher at Data & Society, a non-profit research organization. Awareness of TikTok’s priorities — what it asks for and how it assigns value — “is something that permeates the general population of users,” she said.
Maybe it has been for a while. Millions of people can understand the thrill of using Instagram with different potential audiences in mind (e.g. friends and family) or with a sense of professional accountability (e.g. people working for themselves, or in industries where a professional reputation is tied to an online presence). Noticing that your grades are lower than usual and wondering what other people are doing that you are not are common experiences, as is ignoring or following a recommendation about the latest feature or trend on a platform: Instagram Reels or Close Friends; Twitter spaces; YouTube shorts; 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 unwanted recommendations from audience research, unsolicited instructions on how best to promote your brand, or regular updates on how many people are using your latest release. Joining a social network for personal reasons only to find yourself using it for material purposes is basically the default experience. Bringing it up, even as a world-renowned performer, isn’t just an attempt at fan sympathy on social media — in a small way, it’s an effort to relate.
For Context is a column that explores the edges of digital culture.