When Halsey posted on TikTok saying that their record label is making them fake a viral TikTok moment before releasing a song, the internet split into two opposing factions.
The first, citing earlier posts from Charli XCX and Charlie Puth, noted that an increasing number of artists have been open about how much pressure they feel from their labels to post on TikTok. People were surprised when artists who aren't typically linked with the app, like FKA Twigs and Ed Sheeran, also chimed in.
"This application is literally creating a generation of digital junkies addicted to novelties, to the point that many children and teenagers can no longer watch a whole movie, listen to a song that is longer than 3 minutes," @TullerMarcela wrote on Twitter.
The second group assumed that the fact so many stars started hopping on the trend and complaining about their labels making them post meant that the complaining had become a clout-chasing meta trend in itself. Five different social media managers who have worked with musicians confirmed to BuzzFeed News that this is the most likely interpretation.
"I have definitely pitched this exact idea to artists’ labels and management before and gotten it approved," said Charlie, a social media manager who has worked with artists across four different music labels and asked not to use his last name for privacy reasons, told BuzzFeed News via text. "It's often more difficult to get the client to actually act on making the posts because they sometimes think it’s corny."
Regardless of how sincere the complaints about record label pressures were, Halsey's post about not wanting to have to go viral ended up going viral. When the artist complained that "it's all marketing," the extensive industry research explored by NPR, Rolling Stone, and Billboard confirmed they were right. Music is a core part of TikTok, and music industry marketers are aware that the app has 1 billion users, and thus 1 billion potential new fans of the music they're trying to promote.
George Howard, an associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music, told BuzzFeed News that artists' complaints about having to make TikToks reminded him of what happened decades ago when artists initially weren't thrilled to make music videos for MTV.
"There were a lot of artists like REM that said, Hell no, I'm not going to make videos. That's demeaning, and I didn't sign up for this," Howard said. "But there were other artists, like Duran Duran, who said, OK, I'll do it, hold my beer."
He said that artists need to decide whether they want to attempt to create viral moments on TikTok, but they don't have to do it if it's against their values. The job of the label is to make sure people listen to that music, Howard noted, and for a certain song, the label might want to generate interest on the internet before releasing it. Record labels are dedicated to marketing because that's the agreement they came to with the artist when both sides signed a contract.
"Anybody that thinks labels in 2022 have the slightest concern for artistic whatever is out of their minds. That's never been the case," Howard said. "I find it disingenuous for artists to go, Well, I don't think it's right for my label to push me in a direction that the culture clearly wants to go."
Howard added that artists can't just release music whenever they want when they've used label resources to make it because they have to abide by the terms of their contracts. But artists have the power to stay offline, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who still have lots of fans even if they don't sell records like they used to.
"This seems like a made-up controversy. If you want to speak about inequities between artists and labels, we can do that for days, but this isn't one of them," Howard said. "To me, this seems like a tempest in a teapot."
Nell Cochrane, who managed social media accounts for a number of indie bands, told BuzzFeed News she remembered when social media was considered a huge opportunity for artists to get discovered on a low budget. Even then, there were still artists who "just wanted to play shows and make music," and many were concerned about how the public might perceive them.
"Taylor Swift changed all the rules. Once she made it clear that it was OK and not selling out to be in direct contact with fans, that was a game changer," she said. "Social media should always be genuine. I never ever wanted to fake it. People can smell the fake a mile away."
The TikTok audience resents artists who appear to be fake or "industry plants" for views, like the Tramp Stamps, a band that stopped posting on the platform after accusations of seeming insincere.
At the same time, a viral TikTok argued that the comment that launched Gayle's path to a No. 1 hit with "ABCDEFU" was planted by a label marketing executive — and still succeeded.
Artists who prioritize authenticity might not want help from a social media manager, and then they'll have to do the work themselves, or at least film footage that can be turned into a TikTok by someone else. Creating content for social media is still considered labor, even if you're rich and famous and the work doesn't seem that hard.
Though artists complaining about having to post TikToks to promote their music may not be an earth-shattering revelation about the industry, it is eye-opening to the new hurdles artists face as media evolves. There's no evidence that a record label would cancel the release of a song because the artist failed to go viral, but the pressure is still there.