I’m always slightly hesitant to criticize new trends and technologies because there’s a lot we don’t know about and a lot we’re still only beginning to understand about their potential. Innovation is a complicated process and for every Instagram and iPod, there’s a Google+ and a Microsoft Zune. With an abundance of stimulation in the form of our screens, the collective attention span of society and pop culture is wafer thin and what seems like the next big thing can often be forgotten about and abandoned and cast out from the zeitgeist in an instant.
Short format video has been popular for over a decade now, with the now defunct ‘Vine’ first popularizing it and showing creators that you needed neither fancy equipment nor significant financial backing to create compelling pieces of ‘content’. All you really needed was a smartphone and an idea. In fact, it was possibly the first time that we began seeing the democratization of ‘content’. It was no longer just the Youtubers, musicians, writers videographers and other professionals who could dictate the mass media we consumed. The public as a whole now had a platform and a medium to not just create ‘content’, but conceptualize and implement what for all intents and purposes were fully fledged artistic endeavours.
And while Vine had a number of limitations due to the technological restrictions of the time, over the last few years TikTok and Instagram Reels have taken the basic tenants of the platform and added a whole host of new features that have allowed short-form video to once again rise to the top of the cultural consciousness across multiple artistic domains. From cinema to music to art to fashion; everything that’s marketed today now must do so through TikTok or Reels in order to stay relevant. The format of Reels is deceptively addictive; with the algorithm and its infinitely scrollable design ensuring that it keeps you hooked for as long as it can with its short digestible doses of dopamine that conform to your interests.
One of the key aspects of Reels & TikTok is how it incorporates music and sounds into the videos you can make, with trending songs becoming almost overnight success stories. Every time a song goes viral, it finds its way onto global music charts and sees a massive uptick in both sales and streaming numbers. Artists and songs that may have otherwise faded away have also seen a massive resurgence in popularity; with a whole new generation being introduced to their music; or at least 30 seconds of it. We now see artists, both Homegrown and global, capitalizing on both the reach and the viral nature of the format; creating videos, audio clips and series that are dedicated to ensuring that their music reaches as many people as possible.
And while all of this isn’t a problem in itself, we’re inevitably starting to see the marketability of Reels take precedence over creativity and artistic merit. Record labels are pushing their artists into making content for the sake of content; to forgo any semblance of synchronicity with the album or EP that a single comes from; to use viral trends to promote artists rather than have them rely on the strength of their music alone.
Globally, we’ve seen the likes of Halsey and Florence Welch come out and say that they’ve faced Reel pressure from their label with Halsey’s label later backtracking after receiving significant public backlash.
In India, record label culture isn’t quite as clear-cut or restrictive and Reels have offered a means for a less saturated music landscape to dramatically widen their fanbases. Solo musicians like Leo Kalyan and Ambika Nayak have used Reels to promote both their music and their own unique aesthetic. It’s largely given them the space to be the artists they want to be, while still giving their fans an insight into their lives and artistic personas.
So while a number of artists have been able to thrive through the use of Reels, there’s also been an inevitable dilution of the quality of music people are consuming due to its democratization. Reels only allow you to listen to a finite amount of a song. As soon as you chop it into a clip or a format, it becomes almost inextricably linked to that memetic format going forward. Artists have very little say in terms of how the identity of their song is shaped and at times even twisted by Reel formats and meme culture as a whole.
Musicians put an enormous effort into every project they work on, whether it’s a single or an entire album. While going viral via Reels provides a short-term gain in followers, you have to ask yourself; at what point does the Reel identity of a song or clip become bigger than the real-life and real-world identity of an artist? Imagine spending years chipping away at minor shows and building a robust, multifaceted artistic identity, only to then have your entire persona subsumed by a 30-second clip.
That’s not to say that this is an inherently bad thing, as a number of artists from a time before something as accessible and viral as reels would’ve given anything for any sort of recognition to build off of. You can’t pay your bills with artistic integrity and in order to survive musicians need to use whatever’s available and popular. Every new trend is met with scepticism and alarm and it may well be that the music landscape evolves in tandem with Reels; providing enough space for both commercial viral marketing appeal and the artistic integrity that purists claim is losing importance.
Nonetheless, it is important to be aware of the shifts that are happening and encourage listeners to dive deeper into the albums and artistry of the musicians they love, rather than just the singles that become popular via trends.
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