Chelsea Cutler Starts a Conversation About the Untenable Nature of the Modern Music Industry

"This rapid cyclical culture that has emerged feels like a tornado"

 - Chelsea Cutler  

Chelsea Cutler finally said what we've all been thinking last night on Instagram. In a series of Notes App thoughts hidden behind a press photo matching the rest of her feed, Chelsea share 3 slides about how expectations on artists in the social media era is unrealistic and unsustainable. Her message clearly resonated as fellow artists from across the industry reshared the post to their own stories and left supportive comments underneath the post. 

While one post isn't going to make much of a shift in a difficult culture, this seems to be a clear start to a conversation and builds on other vocal artist's past statements over the last year such a Julia Michaels calling out her label for not prioritizing her music without a TikTok hit and Raye pleading with her label on social media for the chance to release music. While social media has created a plethora of issues for artists, it has allowed them more of a voice to speak on industry specific issues than ever. 

In the post, she starts by discussing how the constant clip of music consumption is getting increasingly difficult to keep up with, especially with its chief format being TikTok. "It seems like so much music is being released and consumed so rapidly," she notes, a nod towards the heavy implication that the music industry is now a singles game with the album being an antiquated formality to possibly pull all the singles released together at the end of a cycle. I've never been a fan of this outlook on the music industry's future as someone who loves to trace storylines over an entire album's length, and there are many artists who still place an emphasis on an entire body of work as a painstakingly edited and refined collection. Just because TikTok is one method of music discovery doesn't mean that the entire industry has to be dictated by the short form audio clips and ever increasing output rate. 

Chelsea goes on to pin down one of the key detrimental aspects of this new model-a persistent disconnect between artists and their listeners. "Even as a consumer of music," she continues, "I hear so many songs nowadays, particularly through TikTok, but something is missing. In the last year I've only discovered a handful of artists I feel connected to and passionate about." This is a problem I've found in my own listening life as well, and I think it ties back to the fact that TikTok constantly deemphasizes the artist in the process of presenting songs. There is so much music I've now heard in passing that I would recognize but not be able to tell you the title or artist which was never the case for me in years prior. For some formats of music consumption, that works, but for others, it leaves a deep dissatisfaction. It also prioritizes certain genres and more upbeat music while leaving other styles out of the conversation. 

In the next slide of the letter, Chelsea turns the focus to her personal struggle to keep up with the demands of building a social media presence and the implication that creating heaps of content is the only way to stay successful in the industry. This is a huge issue that seems to unite many artists. While some might have secondary passions that branch away from music into video, photo, marketing, design, or brand management, many artists got into the industry to simply write songs and play shows. That's simply not an option anymore. 

"I don't feel like a content creator, I feel like a music performer. Instagram and Twitter have always felt like a place to share pieces of my life at a level that feels comfortable and a rate that feels manageable. With the way social media has evolved in the last year, I don't know how to keep up with how insatiable our content culture has become," Chelsea writes. This particular issue comes up time and time again. More than ever, the weight of marketing music and building a fanbase is squarely shouldered on the artist, at least until they can gain enough virality on their own to recapture their label's attention. But fewer and fewer artists are getting the in-house support they're owed

While fans love receiving a look into their favorite artists' lives, there's a certain point where it isn't even fun for fans anymore. When an artist is forced to make daily TikToks with their new song, just hoping the sound will go viral, the fans can feel that the artist's heart isn't in it, and they quickly grow tired of the same fifteen seconds of the song. The fundamental misunderstanding of how these platforms work is only getting worse in the music industry, and it's burning artists out in the process. Fans would rather get more occasional, more genuine posts than get the impression that the artist truly isn't happy being on the platform. More than anything, the immense focus on TikTok shows a lack of prioritization of serving existing fans and cultivating a community in the name of immediately looking for the broadest reach possible. And more often than not, this constant pressure and expectation of ceaseless content often ends in the artist ultimately quitting the platform from sheer overwhelm. 

The best artists' aren't always the best influencers, and that should be okay because they never signed up to be. If social media stats are going to dictate what music gets heard in the future, it's going to create a very bleak landscape. Social media should be the cherry on top of the ice cream Sunday of experience, not the entire basis for a major label artist. 

Chelsea continues to discuss how these expectations could potentially become detrimental for her music making process as social media content creation soaks up brain space, energy, and even a sense of good mental health. "It feels exhausting to be constantly thinking of how to turn my daily life into 'content' especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone," she writes. This piece speaks to a larger reckoning with social media that an increasing number of people are going through. The apps are a nearly inescapable facet of life, but the expectation to constantly be present isn't what is truly best for their lives. As we're pressed to live our lives more and more online with the push of NFTs and the metaverse, there are many people who are finding they need the exact opposite. Disconnecting, at least to a certain extent, should be an option. 

She concludes by stating that this impression comes from a pervasive narrative in the music industry that is often loud enough to overshadow her own management team's more sustainable approach to her marketing. She hits at one of my biggest irritations with the music business as she closes, "It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now." This is the unfortunate reality. From all angles, there is a pervasive idea that being hyper-online is the only path to success, ignoring more traditional strategies that don't put as much of the full weight of marketing on the artist. While social media is an amazing tool, it is far from the only, and oftentimes it feels like a scapegoat in the industry to avoid much of any investment to support artists on their rise up the charts. 

"I've always loved my management team's approach to marketing my music slowly and sustainably, creating a long term fan base that feels like a community," she adds in contrast to the most pervasive industry practices of the moment. That sustainability and community she mentions is what creates careers with longevity, and the emphasis on building a devoted fandom will serve any artist far better in the long run than any viral TikTok song. It's the difference between a one hit wonder and a decades long career. 

Social media is definitely a huge facet in building that fanbase and creating devoted fans, but it's not the only way, and it can be done completely on the artist's terms. Artists like Halsey and Taylor Swift built up their early listener bases by being active and responsive Twitter and Tumblr. While those are major instances of social media paying off, it was the genuine connections and relationships they built with their first fans that created such tight-knit fandoms, not robotic, forced "content" in the sense we know it today. I also think that it's worth noting that neither of these artists feel as at home on social media as they once did, which is partially owing to having much larger platforms, but to some degree also points to a similar culture shift to what Chelsea is noting in her letter. 

These sentiments resonated widely across the industry with Chelsea's peers like Jeremy Zucker, Luz Corrigan, and Ella Jane sharing the post to their stories and even more artists commenting their support. JP Saxe wrote, "ya that shits very real" while Sasha Sloan chimed in with, "feeeeeel u" and Lizzy McAlpine added, "yes. 100%." Sody, DYLAN, Adam Melchor, Carlie Hanson, and many more artists had similar comments of their own. Boy in Space noted the complete disconnect between what artists are saying works for them and what they are being made to do that was made even more apparent by the comment section. "This is very relatable. Weird how so many musicians agree, yet the industry wants us to make forced TikTok content," he wrote, crystallizing the most frustrating point.

"It's exhausting and it's a race to the bottom creatively"

- Noah Kahn 

It's also important to note that fans showed up in the comments to give their support and also offer their own perspectives on the industry and what drew them to Chelsea. Words like "refreshing," "genuine," and "authentic" often came up in the discussion of why her approach to music resonates with them. "Connection" was also another major point both in their love for Chelsea and what they feel is lacking across the industry. It further proves that connection is fostered through true moments of sharing online and music that resonates with the audience, not a constant barrage of content. Also, many fans pointed out that they'd rather get real slices of life more occasionally than posts they perceived as forced, which rings true to every fandom I've ever been a part of. 

The internet is an amazing tool for music to reach wider audiences and is certainly the dominate one, but it is far from the only. Artists should not have to be social media stars to get their music recognized, and they especially should not have to manufacture a viral trend on the internet to get the support that should come with being signed to a major label. 

Every one of these small conversations that get sparked further contributes to the realization that both fans and artists aren't alone in what they feel is missing from the music industry in its latest phase, and while individually, we can't change much, it might start emboldening artists to find ways to break this newest mold. 

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