Is Getting "Viral" The New "Artist Development"?
Usually I'm casual with my blog, I only post about things that have peaked my interest and usually post at irregular intervals. Basically I post whenever I feel like it. This subject though popped into my feed literally the day I posted my previous blog! What was it? The new Bella Poarch music video!
Now, what's so strange about this you might ask? It's just another young singer that managed to break out..right? Weeeeell the answer isn't that clear anymore. Being a music video director myself and in constant contact with labels and artists, this specific video basically confirmed in my mind a long hidden practice that the music industry is doing, especially since social media proved it's worth. What is it? It's a little thing called "Industry Plants". What does that mean? Well it essentially means that your favorite influencer that went viral might not be so "organic" or "random", and that perhaps labels and corporations are pushing them to viral fame before they release their first song, which will become an instant hit simply because they are already famous! Bella Poarch became famous on TikTok and specifically from this post :
In general, watching her account, I saw nothing more or less special than what other creators on that platform where making. In fact she never even showed her singing skills, she just became... famous. This technique perpetuates the myth of a "self-made" celebrity to give a façade of authenticity and thus raising the hope that one day you too might make it as a singer if only your next post becomes viral. When in reality they pushed and invested into "the algorithm" to artificially make that person "viral" as a part of a multi-phase plan to make them a fully fledged "pop star"! Perhaps even in conjunction with the social media platforms themselves. After All MySpace spawned Lilly Allen and Calvin Harris, YouTube has Justin Bieber, so why wouldn't TikTok want to have a Bella Poarch? There's nothing more profitable than a social media platform responsible for the career of the next major international superstar! The only difference is that Bella might have been intentionally "developed" through social media where as the previous artists might have actually just been discovered there.
This may sound like the rant of a mad conspiracy maniac, but believe me that's not how I see it. I'm simply talking about the business model that is the music industry adapting to a new reality.
Here's the thing though, I used the term "industry plant" which has a derogatory connotation to it - as if its something misleading. But my blog title talks about "Artist development". This subject has many approaches and depending from what angle you are looking at it you might see a different reality. Lets explore the 3 main realities or perspectives, which are that of the industry, that of the artist and that of the audience.
Let's start with the music industry. Let's start with the music ...INDUSTRY! No it's not a typo I'm making it clear that behind the catchy songs, cool images, extravagant music videos and cool lifestyle, there's an entire industry worth billions that has honed it's skills of extracting every cent from entertainment down to a science. The music industry always knew how to make money, it was the artists that were getting a lot of the time the short end of the deals, either because they didn't understand their role in what was happening or because they signed unfair contracts. Whatever the issue was, it was always the music industry that came out on top.
In the past you had artists like Prince and Michael Jackson getting into massive public disputes with their labels, or even recently when Kanye West in one of his usual tirades, posted his entire contract on his twitter feed to prove that the music industry is being "unfair" to artists. There are countless such issues with artists that have had disputes with their record label or management.
These phenomenon, are a problem to an otherwise well oiled machine...and it's a big one too...because it's their own "products" that are backfiring at them. Why "Products" ...well imagine if apple wanted their new iPhone to be purple, but Siri doesn't want that so she causes problems in their manufacturing process. I know it's a dumb analogy, but I'm afraid the music Industry might actually be seeing it that way.
But artists and musicians are not "products", they are the heart and soul of this industry you might say, and you wouldn't be wrong, but that's the artists perspective and not that of the industry. The industry all it cares about is making money. That's it! nothing more and nothing less. I specifically remember in a meeting with a major record label where the label rep told me word for word during a conversation about one of their A-List artists that wasn't having a good run "I only look at the numbers, my only job is to make sure each artist brings in more money than what we spend on them, and if they fail to do that, we drop them!"...and that's the truth as far as the industry is concerned.
So where does Bella Poarch fit in all this? Think about it, the only issue record labels have is the temperament of their artists, which one could claim is what makes them an artist to begin with, it's what helps them write so many beautiful songs..and you probably wouldn't be wrong there too. But wouldn't it be so much better if you had more control over that artist. An artist you literally owned? So you can avoid lawsuits and twitter tirades? So you could mold that artist in any way your marketing department deems fit without having to discuss it with them? Perhaps that's what Bella's music video symbolizes? An artist that is artificially made to be controlled? I wouldn't be surprised if all her social media accounts were made and developed by her label. She probably owns nothing.
Now, some one reading this might think it's horrible, and that this is not "Art" and that that's not how music is made. Really? What if I told you this practice might be as old as the music industry itself? What do you think Backstreet Boys, N-Sync, Take That, the Spice Girls and One Direction are? Pop groups that have left their mark in music history but that we all know were "industry created".
And let's not even get into K-Pop where they have taken that practice to a whole new level! Their artists are so controlled that they are more like an army regiment than pop groups. Where all band members are put in the same house and follow a strict life imposed by the label to ensure they are at peak performance. They aren't even allowed to date, marry or even have a personal life. Remember this?
We already knew that about K-Pop but somehow overlooked it, because, I don't know... South Korea? But this resulted in perhaps a genre that is now a global phenomenon with huge groups such as B.T.S, Super Junior, EXO, Girl's Generation and many more all becoming international stars and raking in millions...and all that under the complete control of their labels! Why wouldn't the music industry in the West look at that and say "Hmmm, that's a good idea!"
If I were to see the first attempts to do something like that, I would have to trace it back to Milli Vanilli, for those of you who don't who they are, they were a a German-French R&B duo from Munich. The group was founded by Frank Farian in 1988 and consisted of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus. They were the hottest thing in music at the time and even won a Grammy until one day at a concert the playback got stuck and that's when their fans realized they weren't singing live. Further investigation revealed that they weren't even the ones singing their songs on their albums - they had ghost singers to do that for them. This literally ended their career and even had to return their Grammy award! They were rightfully condemned as frauds...but it wasn't their fault, all this was the idea of their manager/producer who had them under his control! He made them and controlled them as "products"
I know for a fact from my work, that producing an album and music videos for the artist was the cheapest part their expenses. You want to know what was the most expensive thing? Making them famous! the placements, the ads, the deals and agreements that had to happen just so their song could play on a popular radio station, or have them appear as a guest at a popular late night show..e.t.c. ! THAT was the huge problem...getting them known...no matter how amazingly talented they were, or how groundbreaking their album might be!
You might think that this is "unfair"...but I assure you that "unfair" has always been in the music industry. Your favorite pop star's management probably had a lot of business dinners with radio producers, tv execs with a lot of bribing happening through out the process, just so you would get to hear them on the radio, and now love them! It wasn't even a secret..it was standard practice! Nothing has changed except that now those business dinners are with with streaming service execs and social media managers and instead of bribing it's now called "paid advertising on social media"...business as usual!
60,000 songs are estimated to be uploaded on Spotify PER DAY! So how do you stand out? Well maybe the solution is finding a pretty young singer like Bella, make her famous before she "get's famous" through carefully strategized social media posts backed by massive corporations that would ensure their virality. Once they achieve that, releasing a song and a music video is the easiest thing. And it seemed to work, where in the first 24hrs of releasing her music video it has amassed over 4 million views! After all, Bella Poarch isn't the first artist to be discovered through social media, that has been happening since the days of MySpace, where many artists that are by their own right talented and have achieved great stuff were discovered. But she might be the next generation of artists that are first developed through social media, then moved on to making music, rather than the other way round. It's essentially the new "artist development model" - the manufactured "discovery" of the next pop star! So rather than fight the battle on the billboard and radios, you first win it through social media which is a lot easier and way more controllable!
Long gone are the days when some A&R would be walking to work, discover a street musician that is amazing, sign them on the spot, spend the next 2-3 years developing them to finally release them to the world with unpredictable levels of success. If I could figure all this out now, then certainly the record labels have figured it out years ago!
Now let's see it from the Artists perspective. There are many talented musicians out there and there are certainly plenty that are more talented than your favorite pop star. I understand very well the plight of the artist to get heard, especially without the backing of major labels. It's really difficult and requires a lot of work and persistence. But newer generation artists have understood as well that that working their social media is what "sending your demo CDs" to labels was back in the day. For you young kids, let me tell you that there was a time, where there was no way you could release your music to the public without having a record label! But like I mentioned in my previous blog, this is the best age to be a musician since you can literally do everything from your bedroom and have a much better chance of getting noticed or getting an audience than any other time in music history! You can now release as many songs as you want on the same platforms major label artists do! There are plenty of artists that have managed through persistence and talent to make it to the big leagues without the help of record labels. Perhaps one of the most recent success story would be Russ.
Another favorite artist of mine that is lately blowing up, is Tom McDonald, who is quickly becoming one of the most famous rappers out there. He is garnering millions of views and plays, and all that as an independent artist without any labels to back him up. The fact that he has no label to control him, is what probably gives him the freedom to discuss contentious political issues, and to be able to release at a frequency that no major label artist can. That is what perhaps has given him this rise to fame.
You see, having a label is strong, but being independent is fast! And in this internet age, "fast" can be just as strong as "strong"! There are no meetings upon meetings, no discussions, no back and forth, no marketing departments, no "research"..none of that. Tom has managed to release 7 songs accompanied by music videos that his wife helped shoot in the last 3 months alone! Think about it...7 songs each WITH a music video in 3 months! That's almost one every week. No record label can work that fast, and even if they wanted they couldn't because of their structure and corporate gears that might be big and strong, but take time until they start turning!
That's the great thing about being independent. In fact, by a very crude calculation, just from online stream revenues Tom MacDonald has probably generated over $750,00, I'm assuming that his merch in his website is also selling well...and all that is 100% his and he doesn't have to share with any label or management! In some cases, artists on major labels don't make that much! In fact there are many independent artists that are so successful that they refuse to sign with major labels, and a lot of the time end up being more successful and make more money than signed artists. The logic is "it's better to own 100% of $100,00 in revenue, than 1% of $1,000,000 in revenue"
So even if record labels have changed the way they develop their artist, independent musicians can also benefit big from social media and the freedom to capitalize on their music without having to share their revenue with anyone.
Final part, let's see that from the perspective of the audience. As a kid I remember that I had to wait for hours to hear my favorite song on the radio, or watch MTV for hours until my favorite artists came up! and when they released a new album it cost about $20 to buy it, just to listen to their 10 new songs (probably to recoup all those bribes that helped create the conditions for me to like them and actually want to buy their CD). Finding the latest news about your favorite singer was through magazines and news articles. Generally getting access to their work wasn't as easy as it is now.
Today, with a cheap monthly subscription to a streaming service like Spotify you can listen to new music from countless artists all day every day. There has never been a better time to be a music lover. The options are endless and you will always find something that you will like. This whole drama behind the scenes in the music industry is something that really doesn't affect you! If anything it benefits you! Technology is an integral part of the audio and visual industry, and as it progresses and develops it will continue to shape and reshape how these industries work and survive. But id say that the general trend, at the end of the day is that the playing field is getting more and more even since this technology is free and accessible by everyone.
Even if you as an audience feel that the industry isn't playing "fair" with their new practice of developing their artists, you can always listen and support your favorite independent artist by listening to their songs on streaming services, and posting their music videos on social media...no one is stopping you!
Bella Poarch perhaps signifies a new era in artist development method, where corporations capitalize on the power of social media and the "influencer" fame to make the hardest process of "developing an artist" much easier. They don't even need to be famous as singers, just famous! This is millions of dollars and thousands of work hours saved. Personally I don't see anything wrong with that and wish Bella all the best, but if the industry wanted to "plant" a TikToke creator, why didn't they do it with him?