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The viral spiral

In a TikTok post last month, singer Halsey shared a message with fans: “I basically have a song that I love and want to release ASAP,” the musician wrote, “but my record label won’t let me.” Despite eight years in the music industry and more than 165 million records sold, Halsey said, “my record company says I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral tiktok moment.”

Several other artists had recently expressed similar frustrations with labels always chasing the next one. “Old Town Road” or “Drivers License”, singles that took off on TikTok and climbed the Billboard charts. “All the record labels asking are TikToks,” FKA twigs wrote in a since-deleted post on the platform. Florence Welch, Doja Cat, and Charli XCX have also alluded to their labels’ TikTok fixations. (A little over a week after Halsey posted the tik tok videowhich became his own “viral moment”, Capitol Records announced in a Twitter post addressing the artist that he was “committing to the release of ‘So Good'” on June 9. “We are an artist company that encourages open dialogue,” the label said in a statement. “We have nothing but a desire to help each of our artists succeed, and we look forward to continuing to have these critical conversations.”

Recording artist complaints about promotional demands are as old as the music industry itself, and have often developed into public disputes. But these recent complaints aren’t directed at the labels themselves. They are direct appeals to fans (in Halsey’s case, 4.6 million of them on TikTok). And while they describe very specific scenarios — world-famous artists in dispute with their labels over marketing strategies — they also evoke an experience familiar to almost anyone with a presence on social media, where aspects of the experience of fame have been touched upon. formalized and made available to all.

All of which is to say: being told how to market yourself is no longer just a celebrity issue. It is a basic condition to be online.

One way to think of contemporary pop stars is as de facto social media influencers. Some relish the opportunity to connect with fans online, and many found fame there first (including Halsey). Others are less enthusiastic, but understand that their fans, or their labels, appreciate an authentic online presence. All of this places his complaints about TikTok within a more recent tradition: calling out social platforms.

Like musicians, professional social media influencers sometimes find themselves at odds with their business partners. They too have contracts with large companies that they depend on for their livelihood and sense of self-worth, and they are not shy about making demands.

YouTube creators, for example, rely on the platform for publishing, engaging with their audiences, payment, and distribution. For all but the biggest creators, YouTube’s management style is indirect. Your suggestions and demands are instead delivered through comprehensive and frequently updated policies. guidelines for creators and direct notifications in their interfaces. Another way that YouTube reaches its creators is through its analytics dashboard, which provides them with ongoing feedback from Google about their performance within the Google ecosystem.

Popular art has often referred to the conditions under which it was produced, and the most dedicated fans of musicians have always caught the image one way or another: that their favorite artists are stressed about sales, insecure about criticism or dissatisfaction with the conditions in which they find themselves. their industry, or angry at their label. On YouTube, however, fans don’t have to search for clues. Across the wide spectrum of content types on YouTube, creators often talk about the job of being a creator on the platform. Subscription milestones are openly pursued and marked, and fans are routinely thanked, in direct and personal terms, for their support.

Rising YouTubers, whether they’re makeup tutors, comedians, product reviewers, or political essayists, speak directly to viewers about their goals and progress: how many subscriptions it would take for them to quit their day jobs; how it would help them if you bought merchandise; and to subscribe, comment and activate notifications of new videos. They talk about how hard they work, what the work demands, what the platform wants, and what it gives back. Even casual YouTube viewers eventually become familiar with growth jargon: CPM, copyright notices, display speed, demonetization. Ultimately, all YouTube channels are about YouTube, at least a little bit.

The closest comparison to how recording artists can talk about their labels is how a YouTuber might refer to “algorithm,” a shorthand for talking about the unspoken instructions given to them by the platform. This is often infused with popular creator theories that conflate official YouTube guidance with patterns gleaned from individual hits.

YouTubers share and criticize the demands they believe YouTube makes of them: to post very frequently; maximize “watch time” at all costs; to engage with new features like YouTube Shorts, whether creators or their fans are drawn to them or not. They have criticized the company for offering tips on how to avoid burnout while leaving them feeling insecure about the material consequences of taking a break from publishing. While some of these videos are targeted directly at YouTube, most seem to be seeking recourse by appealing to fans, who, by watching more collectively or participating in different ways, can actually materially change a YouTuber’s status. It’s a familiar but modified message: we’re in this app together.

TikTok, which has quickly become a huge cultural influencer, is assertive even by industry standards. It’s an environment where users are subject to constant nudges and suggestions about how to participate and what to post, an environment where complaints from famous artists about relentless marketing interventions don’t sound all that out of place or unreasonable.

It’s also an environment where popular theories about the algorithm abound, particularly about what it takes to appear in other users’ feeds, known as “For You” pages. In an upcoming article, researchers Elena Maris, Hibby Thach, and Robyn Caplan suggest that on TikTok, users have organized to attract attention and try to influence the opaque ways in which not only attention is distributed, but also the real money on the platform. . (In December, TikTok introduced new monetization tools for creators, including a tipping feature).

“With TikTok, we see this movement from popular theories of algorithms to popular theories of compensation,” he said. Mrs. Caplan, principal investigator for Data & Society, a nonprofit research organization. The awareness of TikTok’s priorities, what it demands and how it assigns value, “is something that is filtering through to the general population of users,” she said.

Maybe it has been for a while. Millions of people can understand the strain of using Instagram with different potential audiences in mind (for example, friends and family) or with a sense of professional responsibility (for example, people who are self-employed or in industries to which one is tied). professional reputation). an online presence). Realizing your numbers are lower than usual and wondering what other people than you are doing are not widely shared experiences, as is dismissing or heeding a recommendation about the newest feature or trend on a platform: Instagram Reels or Close Friends; Twitter Spaces; YouTube shorts; Tik Tok avatars. Have you not published for a long time? Wait for a notification about it, or 20.

In 2022, you don’t have to be a famous musician to receive unwanted recommendations from audience research, unsolicited instructions on how best to promote your brand, or regular updates on how many people are on your latest release. Joining a social network for personal reasons only to find yourself using it for material purposes is, in fact, the standard experience. Mentioning him, even as a world-famous recording artist, isn’t just a bid for fan sympathy on social media; in a way, it is an attempt to relate.

For Context is a column that explores the limits of digital culture.

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