There sat Halsey, practically in tears as she shared, via a Tik Tok video of all things, that the label is withholding the release of her new music. According to her, they are hesitant to go forward with a single that she knows her fans will love, unless she can make a “viral moment” via the clock app to get people excited enough to stream and buy.
It’s a similar story to what Adele’s label wanted for her, as she shared in an interview:
Apparently, execs had the audacity to tell this music icon that she needed to make music for TikTok so “the 14-year-olds will know who you are.” It’s true that Adele hadn’t released an album since 2015, which would be about half their lifespans, but she countered that “They all have moms.” She also asked a good question: “If everyone’s making music for TikTok, who’s making music for my generation?”
Of course, the music industry can’t be bothered with anyone older than 18; they are too busy trying desperately to hook their claws into the next generation of music listeners. And some research appears to suggest that the kids on TikTok are more likely to buy music and merch than “the general public.” This information, featured in a recent NPR piece, was pulled from a third-quarter music consumer survey by Midia Research.
I engaged the piece and the research, hoping they would answer some questions, or even reverse some of my ongoing theories about the state of US music. But NOPE!
Instead, I saw attempted inferences and incomplete data (I’m not paying $3,000+ for information that I’m not confident will give me the answers I’m looking for…) that came together to drive me up a wall.
First, this statement at the top of that Midia Research blog post linked earlier:
“The majority of music consumers spend little time and money on music, while a small minority account for the lion’s share of music revenue and activity.”
So, this is just laid out so matter-of-factly that there’s nothing more to say, apparently. “Sure, most people don’t buy music. Only a concentrated minority. Never mind breaking that latter group down by age, ethnicity, earnings, etc., or anything. Let’s just focus on the maaagic of a social media platform that could go the way of MySpace in a few years.”
So anyway, ever since Lil Nas X broke through with Old Town Road, which rose to prominence through viral attention (admittedly calculated by the rapper), there has been overt clamoring by labels to repeat his success using the platform. More recently, and brought up in the NPR article, a song called “ABCDEFU” by Gayle took off thanks to some unexpected support on TikTok.
“They [Gayle’s label] promoted the song on TikTok a lot, but it didn’t really take off until months later when the sign language sub-community of TikTok got a hold of it in the middle of Gayle’s tour.”Mia Venkat, NPR
So the assumption is that by labels paying TikTok influencers and forcing artists to make a bunch of videos for new music, the bait will inevitably trap the prey, and profits must surely follow.
There are just a few little things wrong with this logic, and they’re why I remain highly skeptical that it will pan out as planned.
#1 – An Organic Viral Moment Does Not Guarantee The Success Of An Inorganic Viral Moment
I know the music industry loves itself some astroturfing (industry planting, payola, and marketing to built up artificial hype), but it is extremely arrogant to look at the work of independent artists and communities acting on their own, outside the immediate influence of any record label, and assume there is a magic formula or set of steps to automatically duplicate that with just any other song.
Additionally, it is illogical to assume that even if astroturfing antics are successful once, they can be replicated across AN ENTIRE GODDAMN INDUSTRY with EVERY LABEL for EVERY GENRE!
I must also add that the insane viral success of “Old Town Road” was due in large part to M A S S I V E backlash after Billboard pulled the song from country music charts. Did, did everyone just completely forget that happened? And that the public wasn’t having it? And that Lil Nas X dropped the collab with Billy Ray Cyrus immediately following this?
While Lil Nas X’s OTR would probably have done well without the controversy, it was abundantly clear that it went super-viral thanks to the actions of Billboard. Actions that, might I add, could NOT have been deliberate. Otherwise, they would have been admitting to screwing every other single up against OTR on purpose.
And let’s go back to the “ABCDEFU” song. It was available on TikTok. But had a sub-community not decided on the song, would it have done anything more than languish?
It makes absolutely no sense to look at moments of chance, luck, or unintended domino effects and treat them as if they signal the ability to track similar outcomes and manufacture or control them. Just because a group of people or an individual decide on one song does not inherently mean they will decide the same on the next song. Especially if you are hoping to hook them through cynical and transparently manipulative means.
It is absolutely smart to track trends. To do focus groups and surveys. But it feels like the industry has doubled down on desperately chasing trends rather than focusing on releasing music that doesn’t suck. Because when most people would rather consume catalog music than new music, you can safely say that new music is not what it should be right now.
That desperation, putting the industry’s salvation in the hands of a social media platform, brings me to point two.
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#2 – The Music Industry Is Still Shoving All Eggs Into One Basket And Giving Power Away To The Detriment Of Itself (And Especially Artists Everywhere)
When Adele dropped her previous album, 25 she did so with the understanding that she would have several months to reap the benefits of actual sales. She forced Spotify to wait several months before they could host her album. Flash forward to 2021, and Spotify holds most of the cards these days. Adele may have said no to TikTok, but she wasn’t able to keep 30 off the mega streaming platform.
The impact is apparent. Though Adele’s recent effort sold respectfully well in the streaming era, 30 will likely not hit the heights of 25, and it currently laggings behind her debut studio album, 19.
This isn’t down to Adele; every major star that previously sold well prior to the dominance of streaming suffered a similar drop-off. But labels do not care what these figures do to the bottom dollars and reputations of artists. As long as they get paid, they’ll gladly continue to sell them out.
This is why nobody seemed to have thought much, in the panic following the freefall of CD sales, of putting everything in the streaming basket. Even digital download-related sales are seemingly out the window now. This energy, this desperate mad dash to save bottom dollars has had far-reaching consequences.
Rather than focus on story-telling, quality, and aiming releases at the appropriate demographics…it’s all about “throwing every possible song at those teens on TikTok and seeing what sticks.”
But what happens if everyone fully commits to letting TikTok dictate what songs get released or held? What happens when everyone in the industry pivots their strategies to social media rather than understanding that social media followers are not automatically interchangeable with music fans?
The best question of all: What happens if the industry puts all of its eggs in the TikTok basket and then TikTok is suddenly over and the teens move on?
- How many millions or billions of dollars must now be wasted to rewrite whole strategies around watching the kids from the digital bushes to try to figure out what is the best way to inorganically get them to care about some subpar pop song you spun up from an industry plant?
- How many artists will have their hopes and dreams shelved while waiting for their label to try to attract a demographic not remotely related to their style of music or existing fan base?
And on that note —
#3 You Need Fans For Continuous Music Success. Fans, Not Social Media Followers
This isn’t Iowa; if you build it, they might not necessarily come.
From the field of dreams, let’s focus on a waking reality: Social media is designed to keep people on the platform in question, and most people want to stay on their chosen platforms. Streaming services and social media sites are streamlined for the passive comfort of visitors. Endlessly scrolling or zoning out as a pre-determined playlist goes on in the background.
That said, there does seem to be some research suggesting a significant TikTok users are bucking this trend:
Consumer behavior data compiled by Cirisano shows TikTok users are more likely to spend money on music, and be more invested in it. 40% of active TikTok users pay a monthly subscription for music, compared to 25% of the general population. And 17% buy artist merchandise monthly, compared to 9% of the general population.Mia Venkat, NPR
This all sounds hunky-dory, but again, I have questions:
- How does buying a music subscription guarantee support for any particular artist or group?
- How does one’s willingness to buy merch signal support of music
when the bundles era signaled that this isn’t inherently true?
Also, who exactly is the “general population” in a world where billions of people use social media? I’d argue that this doesn’t even account for the other billions using lesser-known, local social media platforms. So if we’re speaking of a majority, I’d say most of the general public is on at least one social networking site. So it makes more sense to compare buying and streaming habits between platforms.
Again, speaking of the general public that has stopped spending money on music, I am still aghast that nobody is trying to figure out how to get people back to buying music proactively, but instead are trying to fish from a vanishing pool and hope for the best.
ARMY IS PROOF THAT YOU CAN GET PEOPLE TO BUY MUSIC. HELL, WE TAUGHT OURSELVES TO STREAM TO SUPPORT BTS!
Rather than assume that the 10-14 demographic on TikTok is all one needs to generate sales, it is imperative that artists begin to build up a genuine connection to fans. Because it is active fandoms that buy music. I’d argue that the percentages they’re seeing are from engaged communities, including ARMY, who are without a doubt the most engaged community in all of music right now.
Having said all of that, I now must share my sincere belief that it’s not fans that the industry’s seeking, but an easy-to-manipulate consumer base. Fans have opinions, and most have standards. Also, fans aren’t going to sit back and silently let a label mistreat their faves. In this vein. I doubt they want genuine fans who these people want to lead the charge in spending money.
Alternatively, I believe labels hope that social media will spit out a demographic with low to no standards, who are so immature and pre-occupied by clout, that they don’t think about what they’re buying beyond what everyone else on TikTok thinks of it. While it is possible such people exist, I am not convinced that there’s such an audience, certainly not one that can be relied on over the long-term.
The bottom line: TikTok is not the salvation the industry is seeking. At least, if they aren’t looking to empower yet another online platform to take most of the profits, leaving artists out to dry. Yet again.
Rather than yet another industry-wide mad dash to put all the eggs in a single social media basket, let artists and teams with an innate understanding of social media and organic connection to fans work their magic and others not be forced to fit themselves into a box to act out some cynical ploy.
Some can make the most of TikTok. Others get by just fine through word of mouth. Just ask Adele.