May 24, 2022 - Economy

TikTok pressure machine is going viral

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A growing number of musicians, authors and actors say their management is pushing them to find ways to go viral on TikTok, even if it requires faking a "viral moment."

Why it matters: Viral posts can be very effective for marketing, but for some artists, manufacturing those moments is a slippery slope.

Driving the news: Halsey, a Grammy Award-winning pop star, said Sunday on TikTok that their record label won't let them release a new song "unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok."

  • "I've been in this industry for 8 years and I've sold over 165 million records."
  • "Everything is marketing," she said. "They are doing it to basically every artist these days."
  • Halsey's TikTok with the allegation against their label has gone viral itself, with 8 million views. A follow-up on the topic also went viral with 3.8 million views.
  • Axios has reached out to their record label, Astralwerks, for comment.

Be smart: Other artists have been speaking out about issues they've had with being pressured to use TikTok.

  • Charli XCX posted a TikTok that suggested her label asked her to make her eighth TikTok in a week.
  • English singer-songwriter FKA Twigs said “all record labels ask for are TikToks. ... I got told off today for not making enough effort.” The video is no longer available on TikTok.
  • Florence And The Machine added that her label was asking for “low fi TikToks” — a reference to social media posts that have unpolished or rough sounds.
  • Author Margot Harrison wrote in December 2021 for Seven Days that she joined TikTok to spread awareness around her work. She said she faced self-esteem issues when her posts wouldn't go viral.
  • Comedian Kyle Gordon, who has seen 56.9 million likes for his comedic videos, told Fast Company that he has been concerned viral posts won't translate into people attending his live shows. He also said he's struggled to find a consistent form of success.

What they're saying: "A lot of artists still have the stigma that TikTok is a dance/lip syncing app. But once their fyf catches up and they invest more time on the platform - they embrace the app and community behind it," tweeted Constance Chan, creative lead for TikTok Canada.

  • Case-in-point: Drake's "Toosie Slide" — released in 2020 — was a song named after social media influencer Toosie. The song’s lyrics explained a dance move and Toosie posted viral posts performing the dance.
  • Axios has reached out to TikTok for comment.

The other side: Viral TikToks have helped older artists reclaim some spotlight.

  • Stevie Nicks, for example, saw her Fleetwood Mac hit "Dreams" become a viral sensation. “This TikTok thing has kind of blown my mind,” Nicks told "CBS Sunday Morning" in October 2020.
  • "Dreams" — which originally hit the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1977 — was heard in a viral TikTok song that had more than 65 million views, per Billboard.
  • This led to Fleetwood Mac's album "Rumours" hitting No. 7 on the Billboard 200.

Music industry analyst Tatiana Cirisano told NPR that TikTok has become a two-way relationship for music.

  • "It's changed music listening from being a one-way relationship where a song comes out and you listen to it on your own, to something that you participate in," Cirisano told NPR. "I mean, I don't think that any other social media app has done that to this degree. TikTok is peak UGC in that way."

The big picture: People have long used manufactured scandals or drama to help boost sales or hype new products, but the social media era has put more pressure on artists to do it consistently to break through.

  • “I can’t risk possibly affecting the the growth of my account,” Gordon, the comedian, told Fast Company. “My end goal is TV and other things; it’s not to forever be making all my money on TikTok. So the growth of my account is important to me.”
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