Words by Luna Zabala and Cyrene Roque
Art by Cyrene Roque
What do Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, and Lil Nas X have in common? One word: TikTok. These music giants got their big breaks thanks to the Chinese-owned app that allows its users to upload three-minute-long videos of themselves doing just about anything: drawing fanart, cleaning swimming pools, making ice cream sundaes, sewing dresses, and of course, dancing. It’s an avenue to share our daily lives and interests in the pandemic-safe bubble of our own homes. But at the background of every trending video is music – ensuring that even virtually unknown tunes have a chance of blowing up alongside the TikToks they accompany. Meg, Doja, and Nas are a testament to this power.
TikTok is music’s next big thing, and it’s slowly shaping the industry one hit at a time. If you’re still skeptical, hit the pause button on Castaways real quick and we’ll tell you why.
As an app, TikTok stands out from its competitors Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube due to its specialized algorithm. While the latter three also tailor content to the user’s habits, they rely on your search terms and followed accounts. TikTok, however, takes personalization to a whole new level: it observes how long you watch a video before swiping away, the number of times you’ve let a video loop, if you check out the original poster’s account, and a myriad of other parameters which exist to breathe life into your For You Page, or FYP for short (Forbes 2021). Kinda crazy, right?
In a nutshell, this algorithm sees you. Because of this, even less-viewed TikToks can wash up on your FYP as long as it aligns with your interests, no matter how niche they seem. Even smaller content creators can make it big and take their background music with them on their 15 seconds of fame.
TikTok’s editing interface also lends itself to music discovery. While editing a video, the app suggests pre-made and pre-uploaded audio as background music or dialogue to lip-sync. Just looking for the right song to fit a video’s vibe could lead a user to discover a budding artist. In a recent music perceptions study conducted by MRC Data, it was revealed that a whopping 75% of TikTok users discover new artists on the app, while 63% say they use TikTok as a music resource, similar to Spotify (Haulix 2021). This equates to more than half of its user base utilizing TikTok as a way to actively look for fresh, trendy talent.
Music, then, is easily transmittable throughout the app and even beyond it, thanks to its algorithm and its dedicated users–with emphasis on its users (because, obviously, the algorithm alone can’t launch the careers of a thousand artists). Honestly, there’s nothing more digitally powerful than a bored teenager stuck at home because of the pandemic.
"Music, then, is easily transmittable throughout the app and even beyond it, thanks to its algorithm and its dedicated users"
Just picture yourself watching a TikTok of someone dressing up as a cowboy with a catchy yet still-unknown song playing in the background. You decide to search for the song on Spotify; you share the song with your friends and they make TikToks with the audio, crossposting it on Twitter and Instagram. More and more people use the song in their videos until it gets popular enough that Billy Ray Cyrus wants to remix the track, then it wins two Grammys. Congratulations! You’re one of TikTok’s millions of users who just helped Lil Nas X’s career take off with his song Old Town Road. This quick pipeline from obscurity to fame is why aspiring musicians have their eye on TikTok as a viable promotional tool.
TikTok and Artists
Because TikTok is an app that recommends personalized, user-generated content to its users, it essentially becomes a platform to promote music free of charge to a wide, young audience who crave new content on the daily. Artists looking for their big break can just open the app, upload videos of them performing their songs, and hope for the best — that a curious viewer will like their music enough to look it up on other platforms and use it in their own TikToks. If a song gets enough traction, the artist can even try to contact a music distributor to get their song on TikTok’s audio library (Openmic 2020). At this point, the artist can expect some form of virality in the coming days, but this is only achievable if their song actually resonates with TikTok’s audience.
But — and it’s a very big but — you can’t really predict which songs and trends will blow up on TikTok (INSIDER 2021). So it’s still very much about luck, a kind of “right place at the right time” situation for many promising artists. It’s easy to assume that only songs with danceable beats become popular, like Filipino underground hip-hop group 1096 Gang’s Pajama Party or Popp Hunna’s hit Adderall (Corvette Corvette). With infectious hooks like “pamparampampam” and “Corvette, Corvette”, it’s understandable that these are the songs that everyone remembers. Tracks like these trend because they’re the core of “dance challenges”, which are a set of funky dance moves executed in time (usually) to the chorus of a song. Dance challenges boost the popularity of tracks because 1) dance challenges are fun to watch, and 2) everyone wants to try their hand at them. If you have over a hundred thousand people dancing to your song on TikTok, it’s definitely obvious that you’ve made it big.
But fame isn’t limited to artists who churn out high-energy club bangers. Slower, sentimental tracks like Olivia Rodrigo’s drivers license or Conan Gray’s Heather also found their footing on the app, due to their potential as background music for dramatic acting videos, storytimes, or lip-syncs.
"On TikTok, it’s honestly anyone’s game, as long as your song is catchy enough. And if it is, someone big might even notice."
Sometimes, even well-established acts can get their songs revived on the app. Take Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 song Dreams which shot up again in popularity in 2020, over forty years after its release. This is credited to a viral video of a man swigging cran-raspberry juice on his skateboard while the song played in the background (TikTok 2020). Simple Plan’s I’m Just a Kid from 2002 also made a comeback in 2020. TikTok users and their families would recreate childhood pictures to the song, often resulting in ridiculously-posed outcomes: adults being lifted upside-down by their now much older fathers, or adult-sized siblings cramming themselves into a small bathtub (Time 2020). The trend, born out of the excessive time we’ve been spending with our families during the lockdown and our want to reconnect with our sunnier pasts, tugged at the heartstrings of the Internet, causing I’m Just a Kid to skyrocket back into popularity.
On TikTok, it’s honestly anyone’s game, as long as your song is catchy enough. And if it is, someone big might even notice.
TikTok and the Industry
When looking for fresh, new talent, record labels really don’t need to look any further than their TikTok FYP. Because of its rising popularity, the app has become fertile ground for talent scouts to meet artists looking to seal the deal and take their blossoming careers to new heights. Finding artists to sign on TikTok is also convenient during a time when lockdowns limit our physical contact with the outside world. An example of this phenomenon would be Claire Rosinkranz, the singer of the 2020 TikTok hit Backyard Boy. She got signed with Republic Records that same year she made it big on the platform.
TikTok is also a great way to supplement artists’ income. Take Popp Hunna, for example. His track Adderall (Corvette Corvette) earned him a whopping $35,000 on TikTok, just 90 days from its release (USwitch 2020). He now earns an average of $300 per ten thousand uses of his music, not even counting his profit from other streaming sites like YouTube.
This profitability is something music labels find attractive. It’s common knowledge that many record labels form teams dedicated to monitoring TikTok’s trends and trying to fashion their releases to reflect the sensibilities of the current time. They ask questions like “which of our tracks are being used the most?” and “which types of sounds do the TikTok userbase like the most?”. But since it’s impossible to accurately predict what TikTok will be fawning over the next day, it’s “better to cast a wider net”, says Zach Friedman, the co-founder of the record label Homemade Projects (INSIDER 2021). This means using any and all ways to make a track blow up, regardless of how new or well-established their artist is.
"Because of its rising popularity, the app has become fertile ground for talent scouts to meet artists looking to seal the deal and take their blossoming careers to new heights."
Music labels can opt to start their own dance challenges on the app, like BTS’ #Dance_Dynamite challenge, which asked their fans to dance to the chorus of their single Dynamite. Labels can even partner their artists with content creators for the sole reason of boosting their sales; they pay these TikTokers to use their artist’s most recent single in their videos or create a dance challenge out of its chorus. And what’s cool is that these content creators don’t even have to be mega-TikTok stars, because the algorithm favors anyone and everyone. Sometimes smaller, less-known TikTokers are the ones who shoot up on everyone’s FYP, which can make marketing on the app a “low investment but high yield” situation. At its core, TikTok’s versatility and opportunity for experimentation are its greatest allure for labels looking to make some extra cash.
For now, TikTok seems like a mainstay in music, but no one knows for how much longer. Statistically speaking, apps like TikTok have a very limited lifespan. Just look at its predecessor, Vine, which ran for a solid 4 years before getting axed by Twitter after the company purchased it back in 2012. Maybe people are really just getting bored staying at home or maybe people just genuinely love creating and watching new content. Whatever the reason may be, as long as people keep using the app and exploring its content creation capabilities, music and its artists will keep blowing up on TikTok. Who knows, if you’re on the app — maybe you’ll be the next person to help a small artist achieve their dreams.