Halsey at the 2022 Grammys in Las Vegas. Credit - Frazer Harrison—The Recording Academy/Getty Images
The pop star Halsey lambasted the role of TikTok in modern pop music on Sunday, saying that their label wouldn’t let them release a new song without an accompanying campaign to make it go viral.
“Everything is marketing. And they are doing this to every artist these days,” they wrote, ironically, in a TikTok video, as their unreleased song played in the background. “I just want to release music, man. And I deserve better tbh. I’m tired.” (Halsey uses she/they pronouns.)
Over the last few years, TikTok has emerged as a crucial way for artists to share and market their music. Many of the biggest recent pop hits, from Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves” to Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” owe a large share of their success to their virality on TikTok, where users dance, lip sync to the song, or use it to soundtrack a wide array of activities.
But as the app has risen in importance, a growing contingent of artists have started chafing at the content they are expected to create for the platform. FKA twigs, Florence and the Machine, and Charli XCX have all posted complaints about the pressures they’ve received from their labels to post more. Their statements, along with Halsey’s, reveal a tension between the platform’s ability to both elevate artists’ music while shackling them more tightly to the industries’ financial incentives.
TikTok’s increasing importance in the music industry
When TikTok gained momentum about four years ago, its democratizing, freewheeling nature allowed smaller or independent artists to build their audiences, including Lil Nas X and Doja Cat. More recently, however, major labels have figured out how to strategically deploy the app for their own benefit, using their marketing campaign budgets that might have instead gone toward billboards or magazine spreads. Record labels pay prominent influencers to post videos to their songs. Some, like Universal Music Group, have even signed deals with TikTok to cross-promote content, or hired teams to track TikTok data.
“At first, labels would throw some additional ad spend at TikTok, as a kind of test to see if it would work. But now it’s definitely proven—and it’s a line item on their budget when it comes to how they spend their marketing money,” Jesse Callahan, who runs the marketing agency Montford Agency, which works on music marketing campaigns with labels and artists, says. “You’re really starting to see actual salaried positions at these labels in charge of managing and running that aspect.”
Callahan is part of a cottage industry that has emerged around labels and creators to aid them in their quest for virality. Marketers will help connect labels to influencers, help come up with dance routines or viral challenges, and use data to ensure that a song is being seen by the right demographic.
And Callahan says that he has seen labels manufacture viral campaigns. “The fake stuff does happen: that’s just kind of the way some of this marketing goes,” he says. “In general, I think music labels are pretty cutthroat and ruthless.”
In April, pop star The Kid Laroi staged a feud with his ex-manager Scooter Braun in order to promote his new song “Thousand Miles.” Other high-profile influencers including Bella Poarch and Charli D’Amelio jumped onto the trend of revealing their “last mistake,” leading to 23,000 videos containing The Kid Laroi’s song on TikTok overall. “Thousand Miles” debuted at No.15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Why artists like Halsey are speaking out
Some musicians have unabashedly embraced this new pathway to success, creating music that is particularly suited to the platform’s all-important fanbase. The Kid Laroi had a huge boost earlier in his career after penning the song “Addison Rae,” named after one of TikTok’s foremost influencers. And the rapper Tiagz writes songs that reference memes or trends on the platform.
But other artists have begun speaking out against the pressures they feel to put more time and effort into marketing. “It’s true all record labels ask for are TikToks and I got told off today for not making enough effort,” FKA twigs wrote on the app. In March, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine posted a video of herself letting out a big sigh before singing an a capella rendition of her song “My Love.” Below the video, she wrote, “The label are begging me for ‘low fi tik toks’ so here you go. pls send help.”
Halsey, up to this point, has thrived on the app, accruing 4.5 million followers and 17 million likes. They have posted on TikTok sporadically but in bunches, whether to show off new merch, participate in lip-synch challenges, or offer makeup tutorials. But on Saturday, they posted unhappily that their label, Capitol, was stopping them from putting out a new song if they didn’t agree to “fake a viral moment on TikTok” first. In a subsequent video, they showed themselves listening to someone talk through the label’s wishes for their marketing rollout, before responding, “I just hate this.”
Last year, Halsey criticized their label for the way that they responded to the singer’s pregnancy, saying in an interview that they viewed it through the lens of their “profitability or your productivity or your assembly line.”
Ironically, Halsey’s tirade produced its own viral TikTok moment: it was seen 7 million times over its first 24 hours, and other users began to use the underlying song in their own videos. “It’s interesting the way it came back around to be maybe more powerful than the campaign they were planning—and they’re not spending any money on that,” Callahan says.
Halsey denied claims that the video was itself a marketing campaign: “I’m way too established to stir something like this up for no reason or resort to this as a marketing tactic,” they wrote on Twitter. They also wrote that their label had actually responded positively to their “tantrum” and the number of views it had received.
Talked to my label tonight after my tiktok tantrum. They said “wow the tiktok is going really strong!” I was like ok cool so can I release my song now? They said “we’ll see!” 🙃 tell me again how I’m making this up.
— h (@halsey) May 23, 2022
Erin Jacobson, a music attorney, says that while Capitol might have legal grounds to take action against Halsey for publishing the unreleased song snippet on TikTok, it’s unlikely they will do so. “It is rare that a label would sue one of its own artists, especially when the label plans to continue working with that artist. Further, using such a short piece of the record could also be seen as a promotional use,” she wrote in an email.
A Capitol Music Group spokesperson wrote in a statement that “Our belief in Halsey as a singular and important artist is total and unwavering. We can’t wait for the world to hear their brilliant new music.”