Is the Music Industry Wasting Money on Viral Artists? “People Are Signing These Artists and They’re Screeching to a Red Light”

Disney Music chief Mio Vukovic speaks at Musexpo in Burbank, CA on March 21st.
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Disney Music chief Mio Vukovic speaks at Musexpo in Burbank, CA on March 21st.
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Disney Music Group Head Of Creative/Publishing/A&R Mio Vukovic (c) speaks at Musexpo’s Creative Summit in Burbank, CA on March 21st, flanked by moderator Ritch Esra, Publisher, Music Registry (r) and Sas Metcalfe, Chief Creative Officer at Kobalt (r).

Last month, Big Machine Label Group topper Scott Borchetta splashed cold water on the music industry’s TikTok obsession. Now, others are echoing Borchetta’s sentiments and questioning the industry’s unhealthy penchant for signing viral ‘artists.’

Perhaps the billion-dollar question is this: can artists that have gone viral — on TikTok or elsewhere — transition into becoming long-term superstar acts? That is becoming a more serious question as a hangover settles in over a string of knee-jerk viral signings.

Now, seasoned music industry leaders are increasingly saying it out loud. Last month in Nashville during CRS, Big Machine Label Group chief Scott Borchetta offered a bleak assessment on a frenzy of TikTok signings. “Not any of those [TikTok artists] that got signed to big deals have worked,” Borchetta stated soberly.

“Not one of them, not yet. I’m not saying it won’t, but not one of them yet.”

“And I’m not including ‘Fancy Like,’ that was a huge moment, Walker [Hayes] God bless him, he’s been doing this for a long time, everyone’s very excited about that. But he had been working on that. I’m talking about a brand-new artist who got a big record deal because of TikTok in that moment.”

More broadly, others are now questioning whether the industry is simply doing it wrong when it comes to viral ‘artists’.

That includes longtime Disney Music Group A&R exec Mio Vukovic, who added to the skepticism on Monday at Musexpo’s Creative Summit in Burbank, CA. “There are so many moments in which my staff will come to me and say, ‘this person’s having this incredible streaming spike — then I’ll meet them, and I’ll hear the other songs and think, ‘What happens next? After this wave is done, none of the other material even comes close.'”

“It seems like people are signing these artists and they’re screeching to a red light. Because perhaps this artist isn’t even equipped to have the talent to repeat this event that’s happened.”

According to Vukovic, the current process for signing artists has shifted dramatically over the past few decades. And the current process often overlooks critical aspects related to long-term sustainability.

“In the past, you had artists that were getting signed regionally because they were the biggest thing in their city,” the Disney A&R continued. “They had proof of concept. Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses were the biggest bands in LA. They were selling out multiple nights and they were unsigned acts. They had been refining their songs and their talent for years, they’d played hundreds of shows and then they got signed.”

Contrast that to today, when an artist blowing up on TikTok triggers a major label bidding war. That shift alone offers one possible explanation for why catalog artists are dramatically out-streaming contemporary acts.

Vukovic further deconstructed ‘viral’ by pointing out that the sources of a viral surge are often unclear.

That’s a critical problem, especially given the difficulty of determining if there’s any ‘there there’. “You don’t know where it’s from,” Vukovic continued. “Spotify supports a lot of independent acts and shows the power that they have through playlisting, people get a shot. But you really have to vet them out and see for yourself and see if this is real.

“Does it speak to me? Does it feel like a real artist? Is this somebody that can draw people and sell tickets? You have to see if they have that culture of people wanting to sign up for their world — instead of just that moment.”