I started making music full time at the age of 18. Arctic Monkeys had just exploded and the idea that you could be from Sheffield and become a global superstar was floating in the air. I believed that if I worked hard enough, I could be a star too: it was only a matter of time. But it was also the dawn of MySpace. Suddenly, years of playing, writing and recording wouldn’t be what broke you; it could happen overnight if you played a set from your bedroom and had a song about being a punk rocker with flowers in your hair. I remember watching an article on Look North about how Lily Allen was signed after being spotted on it. I realized I had put my energy in the wrong place, and the gnawing feeling that I might be missing the boat started.
Fast forward 17 years and your ability to understand and work with social media is the #1 way to increase your reach as an artist. Every record label subscribes to this idea, and to be fair to them, the numbers speak for themselves. It can be said, however, that numbers have come to mean more than the creativity that creates them in the first place. This has left many artists, mostly women, frustrated at being asked to create content for platforms such as TikTok in addition to making personal and thoughtful music: just in the past few weeks, twigs FKA, Halsey, Charli XCX and Florence have gone viral for protesting their respective labels’ insistence on manufacturing a viral moment.
I’ve always used social media as an extra arm to my art. I need to be completely seen and understood because it is the gray areas in life that have always given me the most trouble. Being able to tweet and Instagram the realities of what it’s like to be me only acts as a great companion brochure to my creative agenda. I do it on my terms, when I want, as a woman in her thirties who has pretty good self-esteem. I fear for artists without it. It might seem quite demeaning — not to mention psychologically dangerous — to tie your only chance of success to your ability to play the kind of personality that plays well online, and not your job.
I think it’s no coincidence that recent examples of artists who say their labels forced them onto TikTok are all women. My pub psychologist theory is that the music industry sees social media as an inherently feminine thing – it’s just another patriarchal idea that women and gay men are interested in the details of other women, while that men are just too busy and important to care. in this thing. Just like male artists are just too big and busy to create it. I’m generalizing – Ed Sheeran also expressed ambivalence about TikTok – but there’s something darker and more invasive about the way women are encouraged to use it. It only reinforces the nagging feeling that as a female artist, your music and your art are not taken seriously.
But what if sharing parts of yourself isn’t for you? In my twenties, I would have blindly believed in the authority of labels and management and would have done anything to grab what might be a ticket to success, without thinking about the consequences it might have later. . It’s as if the artists who speak out against TikTok (and the many fans who tweet their dismay about it as well) are seen by the industry as either too valuable or outdated. But ultimately, artists who have a good hit on TikTok will prevail in the ever-hungry endless machine, at least for now. It moves without you. So you have no choice.
Despite the industry’s total focus on TikTok, it still seems too early to know if throwing shit on a wall and hoping something goes viral will actually result in a lasting and engaged fan base; and following that, a space for the artist to create and experiment. (By the way, that’s the dream we’re all chasing, not the fame.) Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen built careers from early forms of virality, though by 2005 their local success was something the labels couldn’t afford to ignore; now, apparently no amount of actual success or career longevity gives an artist a free pass to retreat from the trenches of virality.
All creative industries must be able to adapt. In my opinion, what really engages consumers across a broad demographic are great songs, and artists need to have a space to write them and then share them in a way that’s true to their art.
More importantly, a fan must be able to trust an artist. As the “label made me do it,” TikToks become a grotesque, meta way to go viral, we find ourselves further from the authenticity of art than ever before.