The rise of streaming and short-form social media has led to artists mass producing more content than ever before solely intended to go viral online rather than as part of a long project or album.
By: Ari Morris
I want you to know
I'm a mirrorball
I can change everything about me to fit in
You are not like the regulars
The masquerade revelers
Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten
"today i am your champion, i might have won your hearts,
but i know the game — you'll forget my name and I won't be here in another year if I don't stay on the charts!"
Taylor Swift at the 2021 Grammys after winning Album of the Year for folklore.
Recently, I was scrolling through the browse tab in my Spotify and came across a playlist called Viral Hits. As I looked at the songs in this playlist, I realized that it was composed only of “TikTok songs” that had gone viral on the app. In addition, I couldn’t help but notice that the overwhelming majority of these songs were singles. This made me think about how pop music today seems to have strayed away from the two year album cycle of decades prior.
The rise of TikTok has permanently altered the music industry. On TikTok, most users use specific viral clips of popular songs to follow a specific trend. If a song becomes a trend on this platform, it will likely go viral on other music platforms such as Spotify. However, I can’t help but notice that the song itself is not viral — the clip of the song used in TikToks is viral. (This makes for some awkward, unfamiliar moments in between the fifteen viral seconds at TikTok-themed parties.) One of the songs on the Viral Hits playlist is called “Billie Eilish.” Once I played the song, I immediately recognized the clip that had gone viral on TikTok (“Bitch I’m stylish! Glock tucked, big t-shirt, Billie Eilish!”), but I knew nothing about the rest of the song. In addition, this song specifically capitalizes on the fame of widely-acclaimed artist Billie Eilish to achieve a viral status promoted by Billie’s fans. Likely, the artist, Armani White, wanted to release a viral song, so he promoted it on TikTok prior to its release and included references to one of the biggest pop stars in the world. This leads me to my next point: since TikTok is based on high volume, short-form media consumption, artists strive to constantly put out music intended to go viral on the platform.
Trends on TikTok are constantly changing, so the musicians are pushed to release music more frequently to remain relevant on this dynamic social media platform. This brings me back to the point that almost all of the songs on this playlist were singles, rather than parts of a larger album. If an artist’s intention is to go viral and stay in the spotlight, it makes more sense for them to release individual singles consistently than to wait months or years between larger projects. Many artists tease their music on TikTok, hoping to go viral before their song is even released. However, this can also backfire on artists because of how quickly trends cycle on the app. Often, by the time the song is released, fans have already moved on from that trend or are disappointed when they hear the parts of the song not included in the clip teased on TikTok (the first examples I can think of to demonstrate this are First Class by Jack Harlow and Unholy by Sam Smith, both of which received lackluster reviews upon release despite going viral on TikTok before the songs were out).
Obviously, this is not true for all artists. — but those that have maintained the two-year album cycle tend to be larger artists who have a level of fame that is not likely to be threatened by not attracting public consciousness for a year. In pop music, the first artists that come to mind are Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Billie Eilish. Eilish, for example, has released a critically acclaimed project about every two years since 2017. However, she has cultivated a large fan base that will wait for and listen to whatever she releases. Smaller artists without an established musical career must continually re-enter the public consciousness to ensure their music is listened to.
Taylor Swift and Harry Styles have somewhat strayed from the two-year album release cycles. Taylor Swift surprise-released two original studio albums (folklore and evermore) in 2020, two re-recorded albums (Fearless (Taylor’s Version)) and Red (Taylor’s Version)) in 2021, and recently announced an upcoming original studio album (Midnights) during 2022. This album release cycle — even considering her re-recorded albums — is far from typical, showing that artists are releasing an increased quantity of music overall. Harry Styles has somewhat maintained the cycle once typical of the music industry, but when one considers his touring schedule in tandem with his release schedule, it seems as if he is also hesitant to leave the public’s consciousness. Just after wrapping up the first leg of Love on Tour in North America in November 2021, Styles revealed that he had finished his next album before the tour began and planned to release it just six months after the last show. Immediately following this, Styles announced performances at major music festivals (Coachella, Radio One’s Big Weekend Music Festival), a European tour ending in July of 2022, another North American leg (which is currently ongoing), and a second European leg of Love on Tour scheduled for June of 2023. Whether it be album releases or public appearances, even the most popular artists in the world are increasing the quantity of their content output. If one considers musical artists as a brand rather than as a person, it seems obvious why managers would want to capitalize on an artist’s fame when they are considered a hot commodity especially since success in the entertainment industry is notoriously short-lived. Is this to remain relevant to a general public with increasingly smaller attention spans — likely a partial result of social media platforms such as TikTok? Continuing this example, if one considers Harry Styles to be a product, allowing him to exit the public consciousness for extended periods of time limits the amount of product (albums, concert tickets, etc) to be sold.
A larger question here is if releasing music intended to go viral on platforms such as TikTok decreases its quality. If considering quality music to be the traditional album experience, this is definitely a marked decrease in quality. Smaller artists are not releasing albums as they did in the past because they are prioritizing social media performance over album outputs, seeing it as a more likely path to recognition. This is in no way a criticism of these artists, but of music consumption today. I’m sure there are many artists that would love to spend the time and energy to create an incredible album but are forced to release and promote more frequently to achieve enough success that they are then able to put out an album.
If one determines artistic quality as the satisfaction of music consumers, there would not necessarily be a decrease in quality here. Regardless of whether or not the music that goes viral on TikTok is “good,” it entertains its intended audience in one way or another.
However, in my opinion, there is a difference between music intended to go viral on TikTok and music that happens to go viral on TikTok. For example, Doja Cat’s music often goes viral on the platform. However, she also creates critically acclaimed albums. In contrast, another song on the Viral Hits playlist I mentioned before is called “Doja.” A five second clip of this song went viral on TikTok, and like Armani White’s single “Billie Eilish,” the title is obviously intended to garner the attention of Doja Cat’s fans. I see a clear difference in production quality and songwriting ability between songs from Doja Cat’s album Planet Her that happened to go viral on TikTok and this song “Doja” that seems intended to go viral on TikTok.
Something else to consider is how music has become dominated by streaming. Rather than relying on physical album sales and radio plays to make money and for charting purposes, artists now focus on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services. This disincentivizes artists from taking the time to create a cohesive project when they could simply release singles whenever they want and encourage fans and viewers to stream it without any negative impact on their chart success. Through the lens of considering artists as brands, since success through streaming metrics requires constant engagement, constant brand engagement is best obtained through content saturation, in this case by releasing content in frequent bursts (e.g. a new single every few months) rather than intermittently (e.g. a new album every few years). In fact, releasing an album can hurt an artist’s streaming performance since fans have multiple new songs to choose from, rather than one new single to stream constantly. This new medium disincentivizes artists from releasing larger projects if they want to be successful on the charts.
However, this does not mean that bigger pop artists have stopped creating albums. Rather, they have focused both on creating albums and on releasing singles not intended for an album. An example of this is Taylor Swift who has released four albums and counting in the past two years and has also released singles that do not belong on any of her albums (think of her most recent single release “Carolina” made for the movie Where the Crawdads Sing). Another example is Billie Eilish releasing “Happier than Ever - Edit” after seeing on social media that her fans wanted to listen to the second half of the song as its own entity. With the advent of digital streaming services comes the freedom to release singles and edits without the pressure of creating a larger project.
In conclusion, there has been a shift in the pop music industry where artists have focused more on the quantity of music they release rather than the quality. In a society where music trends come and go in the span of weeks or days, many smaller artists striving to make a name for themselves focus on releasing singles with a particularly catchy hook very frequently to attempt to go viral. This is also somewhat due to the rise of streaming as the main method of music consumption. Even more established pop artists have adopted a release schedule that is much more frequent than in years past. Although this does not necessarily mean that the quality of pop music is decreasing — some of the most creative and critically acclaimed pop music by any standard has been released in the past few years! — the quality of music solely intended to go viral on social media is not comparable to music created as art. It concerns me that the music industry has become more of a race of who can produce more content more quickly rather than a result of creativity. Although many artists are creating music solely for social media success, there are still many pop artists releasing critically acclaimed projects while releasing them at much quicker rates than ever before.
Links to playlists: