The Tiktok Effect: Why Record Labels Are Forcing Their Artists to Make Viral TikToks

The Tiktok Effect: Why Record Labels Are Forcing Their Artists to Make Viral TikToks

Raenelle Manning is a IPilogue Writer and 2L J.D. Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

TikTok’s effectiveness, as a music marketing tool, became apparent during the early COVID 19 quarantine period, at which time a TikTok influencer created choreography to rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s newly released single, “Savage.” The dance quickly went viral as thousands of TikTok users, including Megan herself, uploaded videos of themselves performing the original choreography.  The virality of  “#Savagechallenge” contributed to the song’s commercial success. Besides being the most played song on Tiktok in March 2020, it garnered 42.1 million US streams and peaked at No. 1 on Hot 100 and the Digital Songs chart. Other songs like Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” and Doja Cat’s “Say So Remix” have also achieved remarkable success after being featured in viral TikTok trends.

However, not all artists are intrigued by the idea of using TikTok to promote their music despite its proven value. In a viral TikTok post, singer-songwriter Halsey, expressed that her record label would not release her new song unless they could “fake a viral TikTok moment” for promotion.  She later added, “I just want to release music, man. I deserve better tbh.” Florence Welch from Florence & the Machine voiced similar frustrations in a TikTok video of her singing acapella with the caption “[t]he label are [is] begging me for lo-fi TikToks so here you go. Please send help.” Charlie XCX and FKA Twigs also released similar videos suggesting that their record labels were forcing them to utilise the platform. These recent claims have sparked discussion on whether it is fair for record labels to hold artists’ music hostage in exchange for TikTok content.

A Record Label is a Business

TikTok’s rise in popularity has undoubtably reshaped the music industry. Record labels, like several companies, have turned to TikTok and other social media platforms to market their products. As a business, their priority is to profit from their artists’ music — their products.  As mentioned, TikTok virality translates to increased streaming and sales. TikTok has become one of the most efficient platforms to promote new music, albums release dates, tours etc. It has also been used to gauge songs receptibility prior to release. In April, rapper Jack Harlow, released a TikTok video of himself accompanied by a snippet of  his new single, “First Class.” This evolved into a viral TikTok trend of users using the song in the background of their videos. By using TikTok, the record label could guarantee that the song would be a hit before officially releasing the single. “First Class” earned a No.1 spot on Billboard Hot 100, produced over 420,000 sales and achieved 54.6 million streams in its opening week. Since radio and television have mostly lost their influence among the younger generation, it is important for record labels to utilise social media platforms, like TikTok to engage their fanbase. TikTok functions like any the other promotion strategy to cultivate familiarity around newly released records.

What about the Artists’ Creative Control?

From a label’s perspective, marketing is equally as important as music production. When artist sign recording contracts they surrender the rights to their music in exchange for the label’s professional services. Resultingly, they have limited input on marketing and distribution matters.  In the second part  of this article, Michelle Mao discusses the impact of copyright on artists’ creative control, in further detail.