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The Continuing Saga of Art Meets Commerce

There are some new rumblings being heard that are getting a lot of attention from music performers, contracted music labels and a social media platform that is recently reported to be edging towards 850 million monthly global users. It should not be surprising to anyone in the marketing and advertising sector that TikTok is, once again, at the center of controversy. It could be that notoriety, good or bad, often follows those who are perceived to be the winners in a competitive venture against a bevy of challengers. Leaders, no matter the competition, must get used to being targeted or choose instead to fall back amongst the also-rans. But, it wasn’t all that long ago that TikTok, the hottest social media app in the world at the time, was predicted to be on the verge of being forced out of business in the United States for being suspected of sharing the personal information of its users with the Chinese government. However, the current upheaval centers around the artists and the top three record labels in the music industry.

The debate between art and commerce is not new; it has been raging between producer and promoter almost since the first sonnet was pressed into a wax disk. Composers and songsters have traditionally been all about the music and the record labels all about chart position, record sales, and profits. It is a marriage between two extremely focused and tenacious parties who must coexist to thrive together. The current battleground is just another dramatic saga being played out; this time on a unique platform in a sea of digital mediums that is becoming essential for marketers to make connections with consumers.

A few prominent performers are complaining that the contracted record label is imposing requirements on them that are counter to best interests. Promoters argue that getting out in front of the artistry by making the artist famous and trending in the marketplace, before releasing the newest offering, shortens the production cycle and fans the flame of potential fame. Clearly, the labels are enamored with digital media’s newest outlet. TikTok has demonstrated the ability to successfully get a song to trend before it is released. The process has many performers asking, “What should come first; fame, fortune, or talent?”

TikTok is also dominating social media platforms with the ability to deliver millions of followers quickly. But the question becomes, are they the right followers? The optimal benefit to digital marketing is its ability to deliver specific and targeted connections with consumers. Once again, the argument revolves around clicks or conversions. The Big Three record labels — Universal, Sony, and Warner Music — are betting that the emphasis on TikTok is just a smart business strategy that protects them from investing in overly-risky songs and performers who may not transition quickly from unknown to ably famous and profitable. MRC Data, a music-analytics company, says that a recent study reveals that 67% of TikTok users are more likely to seek out songs on music-streaming services after hearing them on the platform.

Many artists complain about the time and effort it is taking to develop and produce a personal effort to tell their own story for TikTok. “TikTok has really become a critical part of artist storytelling,” says Kristen Bender, SVP of digital strategy and business development at Universal Music Group. “Our labels have been extremely leaned into the platform.”

In a medium that promises influencers to be genuine and authentic, some conduct by song promoters is calling into question just how honest and genuine influencers’ endorsements are when they take direct payments from record labels. Those experienced enough to remember when radio personalities, the media influencers of the time, received payments from record executives to increase the playtime of the newest offering. The act coined the phrase “pay for play.” Back then it was considered illegal and resulted in some brands being tarnished for the effort to tilt the scale.

The popularity of social media platforms like TikTok is encouraging everyday people to produce creative videos and online performances, reinvigorating the art of endorsement marketing. Studies indicate that consumers are more likely to trust an influencer who endorses a product they use and like themselves, particularly when the product message fits the influencer’s public persona. Credibility, authenticity, and transparency are the major factors determining the continued viability of influencers’ future impact on consumers. The failure to reveal the cozy pay-for-play relationship between many influencers and a record label may threaten the future credibility of influencer marketing.

The dilemma has some performers circumventing record labels entirely. Singer-songwriter Vérité, who has released music independently since 2014, said it is “really disheartening when technology and culture shift in a way that is so blatantly focused on pure consumerism.” The benefit of digital communication is opening the door for many performers to do it themselves. “Musicians can upload songs onto a streaming platform without a label. If they still want to sell physical albums, Bandcamp has made it very easy — no label required. They can deal directly with fans, journalists, promoters, booking agents, etc. without a label. They can set up a publishing company with almost no trouble. Getting royalties from [the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers] is simply a matter of filling out a few forms.” says music historian Ted Gioia.

The age-old arguments between artists and marketers will continue to dominate the music industry so long as talented artists seek the approval of an audience. Technology will certainly alter the dynamics of the relationship but for most performers and record labels, mutual interests assure the existence of a co-dependent relationship.