This August, Billboard released an article asking the question: where have all our mega popstars from the 2000s and early 2010s gone? It was met by widespread online conversations, reflecting the deep-rooted concern within the music industry that the number of recognisable faces in pop music have declined in recent years. Labels are no longer relying on these ‘mega stars’ as the foundation for their incoming profit because pop stars are no longer breaking into mainstream media in the same way they had in the decades prior. Steve Cooper, the former CEO of Warner Music Group, stated at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia and Technology Conference: “what we’ve done over the last number of years is reduce our [financial] dependency on superstars.” Even the record labels have been forced to change their tactics to keep up with the developing industry. Now, record labels financially depend on a larger number of smaller artists, helping them to create dedicated, but more intimate, fan bases who will buy tickets and merchandise. This is a step away from record labels funneling their money into a small number of ‘mega pop stars’ and relying on them and their star power to make up the majority of their profit.
So what does it mean to be a pop star in today’s day and age? In the early 2000s, ‘making it’ as a pop star meant being on the front cover of magazines, hounded by paparazzi, winning Grammys, and selling out arenas. But now, an artist’s success is measured completely differently. Having a couple hundred thousand streams on Spotify or blowing up on TikTok are celebrated as huge accomplishments. What defines someone as a successful pop artist has narrowed – international and mainstream fame is no longer the aim. But why and how has this happened?
In the age of social media and ultra-personalised online algorithms, individuals are increasingly being shown content which is tailored to their interests. Gone are the days when we would collectively read the same news from the same tabloids from the same sources. With algorithms as sophisticated as TikTok’s, we see the creation of pop stars or new emerging musical talent, but only to a select audience. Musical-theatre-star-turned-pop-musician Renee Rapp debuted her first album this August. Her first American and European tour saw her sell out venues with capacities of around 5,000 seats. A decade ago, this may have led some to say that she was on the cusp of becoming a major pop star. But now, her tour videos and album press are only being presented to those who want to see it. She is popular among her loyal fanbase, but the previous wide reach that pop stars were able to turn into international fame is not available. Instead, musicians aim to form smaller, but more loyal, fanbases.
TikTok has also changed who record labels sign, and in what way they do it. Record labels have grown to place a huge emphasis on artists having a notable social media following before they can even be considered for contract. Gone are the days of years of artist development where record labels help to discover and support underground artists. This contributes to the lack of ‘once in a generation’ pop talent. Beyonce had her time in Destiny’s Child, her former girl group, before taking the world by storm as a solo act. Taylor Swift was able to release her debut album before international hits ‘Love Story’ and ‘You Belong With Me’ featured on her second album. Without record labels backing artists who might not find instant success, they leave thousands of artists undiscovered.
Instead, record labels are signing the artists with the most followers and engagement, not necessarily the ones with the most artistic promise. What makes this worse is this tactic clearly is not working. One A&R executive stated, “labels signed more and signed worse than ever before in the decade-plus I’ve been at a major”. The problem is that TikTok is not designed to promote and sustain an artist’s career, but rather individual songs. In the 2000s, when streaming was not as widely used as it is today, labels had significant control over what songs were put on the radio. Record labels could control what we listened to and ensure that certain artists had radio play. Now, however, streaming and Tiktok hold much more importance within the industry. Even if an artist has a hit TikTok song, the wider online audience is unlikely to hear the artist’s later singles. The small success which pop artists can grasp onto is hard to transform into a long-lasting career within pop music. For example, Katie Gregson-MacLeod came to TikTok fame when a video of her singing her song ‘Complex’ garnered 9 million views. It became widely shared and talked about on TikTok and led to her being signed with Columbia Record. Despite her strong artistry and compelling lyrics, the majority of her videos now have under twelve thousand views. This is out of MacLeod’s and her Columbia Record’s hands – it is simply the nature of TikTok, proving how risky it is to rely on it.
As an aspiring pop artist myself I can attest to the industry’s growing frustration, especially among independent artists, at how TikTok has grown to play such a seismic role in music today. If you want to be discovered and signed and funded by a label you have to start playing the game, which is no longer about artistry but online numbers. Of course, you cannot ignore the huge opportunity that TikTok and other social media platforms offer to artists, allowing them to promote their music to millions of people for free and fairly easily. However the reliance that the industry now has on TikTok is, I believe, a failure on the part of record labels. This approach to discovering and signing artists is not sustainable, and I’m sure in the next few decades when the influence of TikTok slowly decreases record labels will have to rethink their current strategy.
This is not to say that we will never have a mega popstar again. Olivia Rodrigo released her sophomore album ‘Guts’ this September which topped the album charts in 14 countries and gained her 6 Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. Dua Lipa has just released her first single titled ‘Houdini’ since her second album ‘Future Nostalgia’ which received over 6 million unfiltered streams on Spotify on its first day, her biggest debut yet. We still see pop stars stake their claim in the music industry, all hope is not lost, but the age of a music industry which runs off the monetary power of dozens of rising and established pop stars are over.