Artists have previewed unreleased songs during live performances and with radio stations for decades, but thanks to the rise of TikTok and a handful of successful DIY social media campaigns – the heavily teased and remembered efforts of Lil Nas X for “Old Town Road” on Twitter and Triller is an early example — the practice has become de rigueur for artists. And not everyone thinks that’s a good deal.
What started out as an inexpensive method for unsigned talent to casually test out audience reaction and create streaming service pre-saves for their songs is now the norm, even for household names hoping to break their next. hit before committing to a release date on streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. The Billboard Hot 100 contains plenty of evidence of the method’s success: SZA made his first top 10 solo debut with his 2021 single “I Hate U” and Charlie Puth peaked at No. 27 with “Light Switch.” earlier this year, as did Jack Harlow’s first No. 1 debut with “First Class.” Each of these established artists first teased the songs on TikTok, as did newcomer GAYLE, whose unlikely Hot 100 No. 1 hit, “abcdefu,” began as an acoustic performance video that took off online before. the official release of the single.
This teasing comes in many forms. Some are as simple as a selfie video, asking fans for feedback on a newly minted track. Others are more involved. With “Light Switch,” for example, Puth walked his fans through the creation of the song, from defining his vocal harmonies to sampling the click of an actual light switch.
And although the teasing started out as a form of guerrilla marketing, labels have become increasingly reliant on using it to pick singles and break records. Lucas Keller – a critic of the practice and founder of management company Milk & Honey – paraphrased the chairman of a major record company, who recently told him that teasers are now a “major part of their marketing strategy”. The exec also advised Keller, who manages a number of major producers, to “comply with it.” Keller’s claim is bolstered by complaints on social media from artists including FKA Twigs, Charli XCX, Florence Welch and most recently Halsey, who took to Twitter on May 23 to claim that her label, Capitol Records , “will not give [her] a release date at all” if it doesn’t achieve “an imaginary goal of views or virality” on their latest song on TikTok, before its official release.
Asked to comment, a representative for Capitol Music Group said Billboard“Our belief in Halsey as a singular and important artist is total and unwavering. We can’t wait for the world to hear their brilliant new music.
Teasers and previews have also become a point of contention with the songwriters and producers Keller works with because, he says, they put his clients’ earning potential at considerable risk.
Many artist teams neglect to lock in songwriter shares and producer fees before teasing a song, leaving those collaborators in a situation where their pay is tied to preview performance. If the song explodes, these creators may be able to negotiate higher fees and splits. But if the track doesn’t catch fire, the song won’t be released.
This is where the real disparity between artists and songwriters-producers comes in, says Benjamin Groff — founder of Brill Building Publishing. While “the artist still gained followers, created additional exposure, and may even have secured a recording contract” by trying out the song, the songwriters and producers are not compensated or credited.
Although dropping a teaser on TikTok isn’t seen as as official as releasing the song on audio streaming platforms, legally speaking, it’s similar. The social app has licensing agreements with all major music companies and the National Music Publishers’ Association to pay for music usage on TikTok. Uploading a song for the first time to the app requires a first-use mechanical license, like any other streaming service — a strong argument, says Keller, that songwriting deals and production fees must be paid in advance, and that producers should be paid as soon as a TikTok teaser of their song goes live.
But in many cases, splits and fees are not determined in advance, leaving songwriters and producers vulnerable to the “try before you buy” process, as it has been dubbed in the industry. “Sometimes you see songs die on a hard drive because of the results of a TikTok that lasted 48 hours and [wasn’t viral enough],” said Christian JohnsonSenior Director of Hipgnosis A&R and head of The Monsters & Strangerz production team.
These “dead copyrights”, as Groff calls them, are particularly damaging to songwriters and publishers when they release “pitch” records (songs that are often pitched to multiple artists in the hope of find a match) and for producers sending hip-hop records. hop beats. Sometimes artists will share a recording of a pitch recording online before the song has been fully claimed. In the worst case, if the song doesn’t stick and the artist throws it away, the song can be considered property damaged by other acts.
‘Nobody wants another artist’s sloppy seconds,’ says lawyer Todd Rubenstein. In a time when fans are often led to believe that their favorite artists write their own music, any other interest in cutting the track evaporates. “It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” says Groff, especially when viewers start using the song in their own user-generated content.
There is, however, a flip side to the coin. Teasing a track without a chord in place can also hurt an artist. If an unreleased, unauthorized song goes viral, songwriters and producers can now negotiate with the artist for a bigger salary, as they have the option to hold the song back from a full release. But as the founder of This Is Noise Management Dan Petel explains, exercising excessive leverage risks putting songwriters and producers in an adversarial position with collaborators that can negatively affect future business. “Some people might say it’s great,” he says. “But that’s not the kind of relationship I want to have with record companies and artists.”
Now that teaser campaigns have become a standard part of a label’s marketing and promotion toolkit, the question remains: what can be done to protect producers and songwriters from the pitfalls of song teasing? There aren’t many answers yet, but Keller, Petel and others say they are considering solutions. A source suggests that songwriters and producers receive a ‘killing tax’ when a preview song doesn’t get a full release. Others interviewed for this story say they are hesitant to ask for any changes for fear of retaliation from artists and labels.
“TikTok has done a great job of taking music and injecting it into people’s lives. I think we all embrace that,” Petel says, echoing sentiments also expressed by Johnson, Groff and Keller. “But now we have to find a system for that that takes care of everyone.Our industry has to adapt.