A genuinely exciting part of witnessing a song break into the mainstream is that anyone can join the journey. It can take the form of watching Instagram Stories, where artists take their fans behind-the-stage in increasingly larger venues. Fans can create TikTok videos with the music of those artists, which thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones is far easier than what was possible in the early days of YouTube.
Still, this path is just another retelling of the myth of success that obscures the fact that while the immediate material lives of artists improve, it’s not to the extent portrayed through an Instagram filter. This kind of lottery system is well known to legitimate lottery winners
, professional athletes
, and musicians in often rather grotesque forms
. Yet without a dramatic shift in how society treats those who suddenly come to a large sum of money, I hold little fault in the situation of these chosen and highly exploited few. Rather, the bigger issue with viral success is who is truly in control of the direction of an artist’s career.
The trend at one point in the music industry was to sign artists, often black and young ones, to 360 deals that would sign away nearly all of the money
they could potentially make in exchange for an upfront sum loan. In the streaming era, this is now shifting in the towards distribution deals
, where companies are simply vampiring money out of acts by promising playlist placements, industry connections, and setting up a more solid career path. The fact that this model optimizes towards streaming (rather than digital or physical sales) isn’t the issue; rather, streaming just further abstracts an artist’s labor to potential fans.
If one can’t make money off TikTok, there can be a boost of streams from YouTube or Spotify; if one can’t make money from YouTube, then create a Patreon. Even if an obscure song by an artist goes viral on TikTok, one must hope that the interest generated can jump across to a platform that will properly compensate them. Not exactly the best system for building a career.
My goal this week isn’t to tear down the still-developing career of Lil Nas X, whose debut EP is arriving this Friday
. Rather, it’s to ask what I often wondered when reporting stories on viral-hit artists like Silento, ILoveMemphis, or the dancers Ayo and Teo: What’s the next step? After one is no longer distracted by the massive numbers attached to a viral song, what is going to be done to sustain the careers of these artists beyond existing for others to extract profit?
Sudden, unplanned, viral success is a danger to one’s career and is framed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In my opinion, the collective joy that songs like “Watch Me Whip” or “Old Road Road” bring could be best considered as moments not of individuals but of the broader culture. Yet, it’s the labor of young black men (labor that’s quickly absorbed and easily forgotten) that often makes me fantasize about a world where virality is used as a foundation for establishing an artist’s career rather than as a scheme for maximizing profits.