On Sunday, Halsey posted a video to TikTok claiming that unless their label “can fake a viral moment on TikTok,” it won’t allow Halsey to release their new song. “Basically I have a song that I love that I wanna release ASAP, but my record label won’t let me,” they captioned the clip. “I just wanna release music, man. And I deserve better tbh.”
Playing in the background of the video (which has now been viewed nearly eight million times) was, seemingly, the yet-to-be released track. It looks like Capitol Records got their viral moment after all! Halsey insists that this wasn’t the plan, but whether it was a social media stunt or a sincere expression of artistic pique, they’re far from alone in complaining about pop superstardom’s newest social media job requirement. In fact, it seems like one of the simplest ways for an established singer to create a newsworthy TikTok moment is to complain about being forced to make TikToks.
Last week, FKA twigs posted a video that she captioned with, “It’s true all record labels ask for are TikToks and I got told off today for not making enough effort.” (She later deleted the clip.) In March, Maggie Rogers shared a video with a caption that included, “someone is gunna yell at me in the morning to post on TikTok.” And yesterday, Ed Sheeran posted a video of himself eating chips to the social media platform, accompanied by the caption, “When you are supposed to be making promos for your song, but you just really want a snack and you decide that eating a snack can be promo for a song because everyone loves snacks.”
“Labels can fake a viral moment easy on TikTok,” tweeted culture writer Shamira Ibrahim Monday. “They’re doing it right, with these posts.”
Halsey followed up with another video about the situation, one in which they recorded their face during a conversation with an offscreen figure during a discussion of marketing strategy for the new song. “The song title—because it would be Halsey “So Good”—and they would get the art on TikTok,” says the unknown speaker in a captured fragment of the conversation. At the end of the clip, Halsey, who looked pretty pissed throughout, says, “I just hate this, it sucks.” It’s kind of impressive: Halsey managed to complain about marketing their song while forcing me to learn the title of said song!
It’s true that TikTok virality is now often key to music industry success. The platform’s young audience is nearly twice as likely as the general public to pay for music and artist merch, and has helped make viral hits like Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” and Gayle’s “ABCDEFU” into genuine chart-toppers. It’s also true that, despite the fact that the idea of selling out is pretty well dead and buried, music fans sometimes don’t take kindly to naked corporate maneuvering. (Remember Tramp Stamps, the band whose nascent career was kneecapped by accusations that they were industry plants?) Maybe all these anti-TikTok TikToks are born of some lingering expectation that even pop stars at the very top of the industry—people who’ve seen the corporate music business inside and out, who’ve racked up endorsement deals and used their music to sell, say, Jeeps—put on the occasional show of striking out against The Man.
Halsey insists that any resemblance between her viral TikTok and the viral TikToks her label is pressuring her to release is purely coincidental. “I’ve been minding my own business on tour taking care of my baby. Four albums deep. Coasting,” they tweeted. “I’m way too established to stir something like this up for no reason or resort to this as a marketing tactic but now I’m in too deep so there’s no going back.”
Still, videos like Halsey’s have become a pretty proven recipe for success. In March, Florence Welch posted a video of herself singing a cappella, along with the caption, “The label are begging me for ‘low fi tik toks’ so here you go. pls send help.” It’s been viewed 1.8 million times, while the five videos she’d posted to the platform immediately prior averaged about 588 thousand videos. Last fall, Charli XCX posted a clip in a similar vein that garnered 842 thousand views. Her five videos immediately before that had averaged 250 thousand views. And Maggie Rogers’ moment of TikTok venting got nearly twice as many views as the average earned by her other recent posts. (There are exceptions—Ed Sheeran’s chips video is garnering similar views to his prior recent TikToks. Stunt harder, Ed.)
Honestly, these stars should be commended for breaking new ground in having their cake and eating it too—striking a blow against the suits while seemingly achieving exactly what the suits wanted. Could it all be totally heartfelt expressions of frustration at one of the more annoying aspects of their jobs? Absolutely. Does it seem likely that all of these pop superstars know that these expressions of frustration will help achieve the metrics their labels are looking for? Almost certainly. As Halsey herself put it in the caption to her Sunday TikTok, “everything is marketing.”