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The record label addiction to virality is about the attention recession, too

Cover image for The record label addiction to virality is about the attention recession, too
Photo of Tatiana Cirisano
by Tatiana Cirisano

In a painfully-of-the-moment twist of irony, Halsey went viral on TikTok this week for speaking out about the pressure to do just that. “Basically I have a song that I love that I wanna release ASAP, but … my record company is saying that I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok,” they said. “Everything is marketing, and they are doing this to basically every artist these days.” The video spawned a dozen articles about record labels holding artists “hostage” until they go viral.

The pressure on today’s artists to be social media famous is enormous and unsustainable. But this situation is not explicitly TikTok’s fault, nor is it the fault of record labels. It is yet another side effect of the attention recession. 

The attention recession is the problem

Back in 2020, MIDiA predicted an oncoming attention recession. Now that the attention economy has reached peak, and the extra time afforded by pandemic lockdowns is receding, consumers cannot allocate additional time for entertainment. Instead, they must prioritise between apps, platforms, and content, and new growth can only come at the expense of others. This means artists are increasingly competing not only with other artists, but with the entirety of entertainment, for consumers’ limited attention.

In this hyper-competitive landscape, record labels can no longer simply release a song and roll out the traditional marketing tricks, even for a star like Halsey. They need something outside of the music itself to latch onto, which is why every label marketing executive’s new favourite phrase seems to be pour gasoline on the fire. Right now, TikTok fills that need because it is the hot app of the moment. But if it was not TikTok, it would be something else. 

Of course, no one would blame Halsey for complaining. The lowered barrier to entry for music-making, combined with the attention recession, has created a paradox: It is easier than ever to be an artist, but harder than ever to be a commercially successful one. Today’s artists face the pressure to be full-time content creators in addition to everything else already on their plates — and they are right to feel frustrated. Labels could handle the traditional marketing tools — billboards, targeted ads, etc. — without artists’ involvement, but because social media requires the artist to create and post content, artists are often taking on the labels’ job of marketing themselves. But it is the current landscape that is the root of the problem, not necessarily any one app or entity. The artist VÉRITÉ, well-spoken as always, hit the nail on the head when she tweeted that “the idealism of ‘artists being artists’ needs to meet the reality of 60k+ songs being released a day.” What artists need are better strategies to meet this reality. 

‘Going viral’ is a misguided solution

As the attention recession meets the fragmentation of listenership, viral moments will become fewer and further between and have less of a sustained impact. This is because there are increasingly fewer massive cultural moments for everyone, and more, smaller moments for individuals and their niches. Targeted social media algorithms only accelerate this fragmentation. ‘Going viral’ in 2022 is a struggle as it is, but it is likely to become even more difficult. 

What artists need are more ways to directly engage with their listeners, differentiate between levels of fandom (and monetise each level accordingly), and focus on building fanbases, not just audiences. Mass, monolithic, monogamous fan bases are becoming a thing of the past, so going small may be a better strategy than trying to go viral. There is also an incentive to trim the long-tail with better curation mechanisms. Universal Music Group’s decision to make its distribution platform Spinnup invite-only may be the first sign of that. The sooner the music industry can awaken to the new reality, the sooner they can begin to form better strategies. If nothing else, Halsey’s unintended viral moment might serve as that wake-up call.

Learn more at MIDiA's free-to-attend webinar, The Attention Recession: How inflation and the pandemic are reshaping entertainment, taking place Thursday 26th of May at 4.30pm BST / 3.30pm CET / 11.30am EST / 8.30am PT. Sign up here.

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