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Charli XCX, FKA twigs, Halsey, via TikTok
Via TikTok/@charlixcx, @fkatwigs, @halsey

Are record labels holding musicians hostage to post ‘relatable’ TikToks?

Halsey, FKA twigs, and Charli XCX have spoken out about pressure to go viral on the app, spawning a new, meta sub-genre that pitches artists against their labels

In the last month or so, FKA twigsTikTok presence has taken a noticeable turn. Where the musician previously posted snippets of new music videos and behind-the-scenes clips (see, for example, her antics with Yung Lean while filming “Bliss”) she now posts self-shot videos with text overlays about her love for malnourished men with mummy issues, or her unhealthy work habits. It’s out with the choreographed dance routines and studio footage, and in with the handheld videos from Hare Krishna gatherings.

You might wonder what sparked this shift in content. Does it reflect twigs’ new, more approachable persona, which has seen her move away from the untouchable, ethereal vibes of the Magdalene era? Or is she simply letting loose and posting whatever she wants? Unfortunately, according to a since-deleted TikTok she posted last week, the real reason is quite the opposite.

Posted May 18, twigs’ video consisted of a duet with another TikTok post that suggests the path to success on the platform is posting four to five times a day. “It’s true,” the musician added. “All record labels ask for are TikToks and I got told off today for not making enough effort.”

Depending on which pop stars have cropped up on your FYP in the last few weeks, you’ll know that this situation isn’t unique to FKA twigs. Lately, Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine) has also complained about her label “begging” her to put out lo-fi TikToks in the caption to a… lo-fi TikTok, where she films herself singing a capella.

Late last year, Charli XCX also took to the platform with an apparent protest against her label’s insistence on more #relatable content. “When the label asks me to post my 8th tiktok of the week,” she wrote, lipsyncing to the “didnt want to be here” sound (although she now claims she “was just lying for fun”).

Going one step further, Halsey posted a TikTok earlier this week, in which they allege that their new song is being held hostage by their label, which wants to wait until they generate a viral TikTok moment to pair with the release. “Basically I have a song that I love that I wanna release ASAP, but my record label won’t let me… my record company is saying that I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok,” they write. “Everything is marketing, and they are doing this to basically every artist these days.”

Of course, it’s understandable that labels want to leverage the outsized impact that TikTok has had on the music industry since it took hold in 2019, quickly becoming an invaluable tool to drive record sales and establish uniquely engaged fanbases. Dictating their artist’s social media presence isn’t anything new for labels, either – we’ve seen the same conversations play out across older platforms such as Instagram in the past. To some extent, it’s just part of the job in 2022.

So why are so many musicians publicly exposing their labels on TikTok right now, and labelling their contractually-bound selfies as such? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that – as Halsey points out – labels are starting to tailor their entire rollouts to the platform’s dysfunctional attention economy. Following on from this, it doesn’t require much of a stretch to imagine that there’s pressure for artists to tailor their actual songs, videos, and style to the platform either.

Then, there’s the “lo-fi” (or, more accurately, “faux-fi”) aspect of the TikToks: a marketing ploy that presumably stems from more well-intentioned trends that have emerged over TikTok’s lifespan, from casual posting to messy makeup. (Hey, maybe it’s better than feigning enthusiasm for Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza musical, à la Dolly Parton and Doja Cat.) But the fact that this is a marketing ploy becomes painfully obvious when multimillion-dollar labels are outed for specifically requesting a lo-fi aesthetic from the artists on their roster.

An even more cynical interpretation would suggest that the artists are in on the scheme themselves, and that we, the audience, are being double-bluffed – the trend of calling out their labels on TikTok is the viral post, in and of itself.

These types of post do seem particularly lucrative, in terms of the attention they draw. Florence Welch’s a capella videos that feature complaints against her label have earned millions of views – more than almost every other video on her TikTok. The same goes for Halsey, whose original post stands at 8.5 million views, and would presumably apply to FKA twigs if she hadn’t pulled her complaint. We all love a David and Goliath story: a pop star standing up for themselves against a faceless corporation.

However, Halsey has dismissed this narrative in subsequent tweets about the standoff with their label. “At this point I don’t know what to do because I told the truth about what’s happening and now I STILL don’t have a release date AND some of you think I’m lying about this whole fiasco,” they write. “So I’m double fucked lol.”

I value the expertise and work of all the amazing people at my label. There are so many talented professionals there. But surely we can have an opinion on the entry point of consumption they’re trying to enforce?! A suggestion is great, an ultimatum? Not so much.”