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27th May 2022

Halsey vs Capitol Records: Are record labels the bad guys?

After kicking off on TikTok and Twitter, singer Halsey has continued the age-long saga of artist vs record label. But record labels aren’t always in the wrong – here’s why
Halsey vs Capitol Records: Are record labels the bad guys?
Photo: Erin Botten @ The Mancunion

This week pop star Halsey has exposed their record label for withholding the release of their new song. Following a series of tweets, IG stories and TikToks, the star revealed their frustrations with their label (Capitol Records) and their marketing strategies. This isn’t the first time a major record label has been criticised by fans and artists alike for prioritising profit over art. But are they as cold and calculated as artists make them out to be?

As TikTok has taken over as the place for viral sensations (RIP Vine), the music industry has flocked to the platform desperate to get viral hits. Doja Cat is a prime example of how having viral songs can launch your career with the artist raking in millions from ‘Moo’, ‘Say So’, and ‘Streets’. Without her TikTok (and YouTube) success, her sophomore album Hot Pink wouldn’t have gotten the recognition it has today.

It’s unsurprising that labels are encouraging artists to follow her lead, especially pop stars. Not only can stars connect to their fans by showing off their talent, TikTok also humanises the artists, making them more appealing to listeners. Lil Nas X for example managed to do this flawlessly with both his debut album release and singles like ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’. People enjoy the music for longer, giving it more weeks in the charts and career longevity for the artist.

That being said, TikTok isn’t for everyone. The platform works well for young pop artists with catchy hooks to offer. For alternative or older artists, any attempts to seem cool or relevant feel uncomfortably awkward. Yet, record labels are still willing to try this cheap marketing strategy purely because, for them, there’s nothing to lose.

That’s where Halsey comes in. With their career spanning eight years, the singer arguably has yet to become an established artist like the industry titans such as Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, who can guarantee substantial sales regardless of what they put out. Even Katy Perry, who’s been around for yonkers, flopped in 2017 with Witness. For Halsey to strop on social media about being held back artistically whilst asserting that they are “way too established to stir something up like this for no reason,” not only makes them look unprofessional but ignorant of their own privilege.

Time and time again musicians complain about being held back artistically or being locked down in contracts. The main struggle for most artists is not owning the masters to their songs, hence why they’re forced to be held back from releasing them. They want that ego boost and adrenaline release now, not considering everyone that’s depending on them financially.

The role of record labels in the music industry has always been clear: they’re the middleman. They provide artists with material resources, project investments, industry connections, marketing, managers, tours and ultimately a career. In return, they own your creations. Why? Because they paid for all of it! If the artist invested in all these resources themselves, then yes, they have every right to the profits their masters make. They’ve made millions thanks to the success record labels provide them, so suddenly being held back artistically rather than financially doesn’t seem so bad…

Don’t get me wrong, you can be successful as an independent. But the main reason people sign to major labels is because of the promise of financial security. When Halsey signed their contract aged 19, they’d been homeless several times and dropped out of college. They weren’t in a position to consider turning down a deal for the sake of owning your art. That’s the case for almost every artist. It’s only when they’re secure financially that they start turning on their labels.

Labels have to prioritise profit over art because otherwise, they’d be out of business. If they allowed every artist to spontaneously release music without strategising or marketing the release, they’d lose millions. Without a return on investment, they’d have no money to invest in their other clients, sacrificing the quality of the music they then produce.

What Halsey wants in this situation is to release their new music now, just nine months after the release of their fourth album which they’ve just started touring. A new song wouldn’t make sense right now, but would in the near future.

Halsey loses nothing by releasing a song early. If it flops, at worst they look like a fool. For Capitol Records though, they would lose millions. That’s something neither the company nor the employees can afford and something wealthy artists easily forget.

Understandably not every 27-year-old wants to be prancing around on Tik Tok trying to go viral. In fact, Halsey’s complaints using their unreleased track have gone viral… just not viral enough for Capitol Records. If anything, Halsey’s frustrations have highlighted the turbulent relationship artists share with their labels. It’s a harsh reminder to them that they’re part of an industry, sometimes having to become puppets to make a profit.

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