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Music | Opinion

The Big Topic: Why has the music industry become obsessed with creating "viral" moments?

@josephtaysom

Halsey, the internationally recognised American pop singer, has ironically “gone viral” after posting an emotional video about her record label on her social media channels. The singer claimed that Astralwerks-Capitol records had prevented her from releasing a track because they wanted to create a “viral TikTok moment” first. It is a worrying glimpse into how the music industry works in 2022.

Halsey looked tearful in the video posted on TikTok which was captioned: “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 eight 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.”

So far, the video has racked up millions of likes and almost nine million views on the platform. The clip has also opened up a debate about the concerning direction the industry is heading toward and, more specifically, how art has now become secondary to social media trends.

Is TikTok a force for good in music culture?

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Of course, marketing has always been a crucial part of pop music, and TikTok is just the latest tool that those in powerful positions use as a preferred messaging device. There’s nothing wrong with using all of the devices in your arsenal to promote music, but there remains something unsettling about a group of suits sitting in an office, dreaming up fake viral moments.

Recently, Manchester rapper Aitch managed to swindle the same social media platform into believing that he was in a relationship with Chicken Shop Date comedian Amelia Dimoldenberg ahead of releasing his single, ‘Baby’, and it worked. The track was used in the background for the videos discussing the topic, and his fans bought into the drama.

A significant impact of the success of Gayle’s number one single, ‘abcdefu’, derived from a TikTok challenge by a ‘fan’ who commented on the singer’s post asking her to “write a breakup song using the alphabet”. However, eagle-eyed followers later worked out the account that posted the original comment was ‘nancy_berman’, which also happens to be the name of a Digital Marketing Manager at Atlantic Records.

Without Atlantic Records allegedly conjuring up that viral moment, ‘abcdefu’ probably doesn’t become a hit, but it does pull the wool over the eyes of the audience.

Meanwhile, The Kid Laroi also took to TikTok in a bid to earn online fame. The rapper pretended to have a disagreement with his manager, Scooter Braun, when promoting his new song, ‘A Thousand Miles’, which created headlines internationally before the Australian later admitted it was a ploy.

This ongoing situation has become increasingly difficult to gauge authenticity. Even Halsey, the artist who emotionally took to social media to plead for artistic relief, has received a backlash for speaking out about the subject, with many believing the video itself is nothing more than a mischievous way of promoting the forthcoming release. However, the singer has denied these claims.

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, better known as Self Esteem, posted a nuanced Twitter thread on the subject and said her social media “has long been another arm of my overall art”. However, she also explained that labels pressure artists with briefs, latching onto viral trends “erodes the very fibre of what the artist set out to do with their work in the first place”. Taylor also added: “The industry as a whole needs to understand the toll it is taking on artists”.

The idea of “going viral” is an extreme pressure to rest on the shoulder of artists, and even with the assistance of digital marketing experts, there’s no guarantee you can create a viral moment. Unfortunately, music is a business, and the barometers have now changed. Due to the economic challenges the industry is now facing due to streaming, it’s understandable why numbers are what industry executives care about most, and viral moments increase streams. However, ultimately, taking creative decisions away from musicians and into the hands of algorithms will dilute artistic expression.