Why #Hashtags Are So Damned Irresistible to Record Companies

This "human hashtag" is proof that even a great idea can get out of hand.
This "human hashtag" is proof that even a great idea can get out of hand.

Picture this: you are in a Capitol Records executive meeting. Katy Perry is sitting at the table with her big shot manager L.A. Reid right next to her. It's the final meeting before the label drops the press release announcing Katy's huge comeback single, and there are papers with different versions of the single cover scattered all around the table, white boards with graphs predicting one of the largest first week sales in music history, and Ms. Perry with pen in hand, ready to sign the papers that will give the label the "go."

But right before she touches pen and paper, a scruffy intern with three empty cans of Red Bull next to him stands up with the most groundbreaking look on his face. "Wait, wait, wait everyone...should we add a hashtag?"

The room goes into a frenzy. Suddenly, what was once a regular, boring song title has now turned into a game-changing marketing extravaganza that will take over the Twitters, Instagrams, and Facebooks of Perry's fans and not only get the youth endlessly posting about the hashtag (teens love hashtags) but also increase numbers by more than 500 percent.

If you like listening to music and are one to surf the Internet from time to time, you have probably noticed this weird #trend increasing in popularity over the past few years. It really came to the forefront about two years ago, when Mariah Carey released a single featuring Miguel entitled "#Beautiful." Then came will.i.am and Justin Bieber's attempt at trending-topic status with " #thatPOWER," and Jennifer Lopez's banger "#liveitup."

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It has become a habit to hashtag anything and everything that has even the slightest potential to be marketed, but these little number signs have now infiltrated popular song titles in a way that is unnecessary and pretty absent-minded. For the record, I really do feel like "#liveitup" was pop perfection and should have been a bigger hit than it was, and "#beautiful" was actually one of my favorite songs of 2013. But Mariah, you are beautiful. You don't need a pound sign to validate that.

That's really all a hashtag used to be: a pound sign. You would put it before numbers, maybe at the end of a code to open a gate. Then in 2009, the growing social-media site Twitter adopted the number sign as its own, creating a way for users to make words or phrases clickable so that you only saw tweets that had that certain word in them. And with the hashtag, and the steep ascent of social media in general, the scope of music marketing changed forever.

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Before Twitter and Instagram, artists had limited options for promoting their new music. In the late '90s and early 2000s, it was all about releasing that one song and going on TV for interviews and live performances, or perhaps hitting up the coveted afternoon time slot of Total Request Live. Now, artists can run their own personal social-media pages, hold live Q&A's, post ten selfies a day on Instagram, and ultimately reach anyone around the world who has an Internet connection. This immediate connection to your market makes you constantly thinking of new ways to get people interested in your music, which is where the hashtagged #songtitles started to come into play.

It seems like a pretty clever concept: people would post about the song using the hashtag, and it would create a place where fans could have passionate discussions about the song and get the latest news on that artist, all while adding to the song's social-media clicks. Almost every social-media Website has converted to a hashtag search system; luckily for J.Lo and Mariah, their clever scheme worked immediately following the release of their songs.

Upon its release in 2013, the "#liveitup" hashtag on Twitter grew to 22,000 uses a day, an increase of 4,300 percent. Unfortunately, a number of other setbacks come with hashtagging your latest song, ones that risk invalidating your music and destroying your credibility as an artist. Most of them stem from the fact that listeners simply don't care.

Tomorrow: is it possible to #OD on hashtags?

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