On Sunday, popular American singer songwriter Halsey shared a video on TikTok with tinny music in the background, the on-screen text reading:
Basically I have a song that I love that I wanna release ASAP but my record label won’t let me. I’ve been in this industry for 8 years and I’ve 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. Everything is marketing. And they are doing this to basically every artist these days. I just wanna release music, man. And I deserve better tbh. I’m tired.
The 30-second video did what Halsey’s label wanted – though probably not how they wanted. It gained over 8 million views in 24 hours and sparked massive interest among fans, TikTok users and industry observers.
Comments on the video were divided between those expressing support for Halsey’s predicament and indignation at the record label, and those who saw the post as the actual marketing scheme the label wanted all along.
In a second video shared two hours later, Halsey pushed back against accusations of fake outrage with a recording of someone speaking off screen, ostensibly a label representative, explaining how the viral TikTok campaign would need to play out for the song to get scheduled for release.
Throughout the explanation, Halsey stares despondently into the middle distance before finally saying “I hate this. It just sucks.”
Whether staged or not, the fact that these two videos went viral so quickly shows people are willing to believe a major artist would be so frustrated with their label forcing them to “do TikTok” that they decided to expose their label on TikTok.
Like MTV or top 40 hits radio stations before it, TikTok is where popular music lives right now. Labels understand that.
To them, the allure of TikTok is that musical content can go viral quickly, offering the potential to save millions on other types of marketing campaigns.
An uneasy relationship
Halsey is not the first high profile artist to vent about this on TikTok.
In his first video posted last month, American singer songwriter, Gavin DeGraw shared a parody version of his 2003 hit, singing “I Don’t Want to Be on TikTok but my label told me that I have to.”
Just last week, English singer-songwriter FKA Twigs claimed her label was not only making her create and post TikTok videos but they wanted her to post videos multiple times a day.
In some cases artists do seem to enjoy being on TikTok.
Lizzo regularly shares memes, vlogs and recipe videos on TikTok, and heavily promoted her most recent release It’s About Damn Time. She even participated in a dance challenge for the song choreographed by another TikTok creator.
Going viral on TikTok can be a double-edged sword for musical artists. It can catapult them to unprecedented visibility in markets around the world, but the content making them famous could be the video, not the music.
In 2019, Australian singer Inoxia went “accidentally viral” when a passer-by recorded her performing on the street and uploaded it to TikTok. The street-performer-turned-TikTok sensation was offered deals that seemed too good to be true and told by her manager she’d need to become more of a content creator to maintain her success.
Her passion was singing, not making videos to post on social media. Ultimately, she returned to busking on the street.
Is all publicity good publicity?
Halsey’s self-described “TikTok tantrum” tests the shock advertising theory that any and all publicity is good publicity for brands.
Star power is an effective bargaining tool to create change for artists who command it.
For independent artists without the same leverage, a viral venting video could be the very thing they need to ditch their label and share their music on their own – provided they aren’t locked into the kind of exclusive record deal that has become standard in the music industry over the past decade.
Fake or genuine, Halsey’s video shows fans and artists are willing to have a conversation about how labels exert influence over artists when it comes to marketing, the nature of obligations artists contractually owe to their labels and the power artists wield to push back against labels if they feel they are being treated unfairly.
Viral rants on TikTok are not going to become the new normal for selling songs, just like video never actually killed the radio star. Label executives watching this unfold are likely more nervous about their own artists publicly airing grievances online than they are excited about a new trend in viral music marketing.
Regardless, as long as audiences continue discovering new music on TikTok, labels will continue searching for new ways to promote their music to the top of the feed.
The core job of the artist – making music – remains the same. Only now the video needs to go viral.