“Tik-a-Tok-a-Who?” Was Adele’s response to her management’s suggestion to promote her music to younger audiences on Tiktok, the video-sharing platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
“If everyone makes music for TikTok, who makes music for my generation?” She asked.
Adele might resist, but the platform nonetheless popularized and promoted her song Easy on Me, with creators using it in nearly a million videos in the first month after its release, making it go viral on the app alone.
That’s because the culture of the creators on TikTok is changing the way hits are created, the way music is promoted, and the way the world finds music, even for artists who choose not to engage in it. .
TikTok makes hits
In early 2019, an unknown 19-year-old dropout from Atlanta, Georgia made headlines around the world.
Living with his sister and feeling a bit lonely, in December 2018 he bought a simple beat for US $ 30, recorded a song, half country and half rap, and posted it on Soundcloud and on social media. The artist made the news because Billboard magazine removed the song from its country charts, after it took off in popularity, entering both the country and general Hot 100 charts.
The artist name was Lil Nas X and the song Old Town Road, which has since become the most successful song of all time, the first song to reach 15 times the platinum record. Much of this success can be attributed to the fact that the song became one of TikTok’s first “memes”, picked up by millions of users.
Old Town Road became the origin story of a remarkable string of viral musical hits on TikTok. In each case, the artists became popular, as their songs were used by millions of TikTok users in their videos.
Virality on TikTok is powerful but unpredictable. Some of the world’s biggest hits of 2021 gained little in popularity when they first hit a small audience. Africa’s most successful pop song, CKay’s Love, Nwantiti, was released in 2019, but only rose to fame in 2021 and has now been used in over 7 million TikTok videos.
Likewise, the Australian Masked Wolf found himself in the spotlight in 2021, making Barrack Obama’s summer playlist and having been nominated for five ARIA awards. While his song Astronaut in the Ocean became a worldwide hit more than a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been released two years earlier by a small Australian label. It has since been used in over 18 million TikTok videos.
And while many artists, like Lil Nas X, create for virality on TikTok, others go viral even without knowing the platform. We spoke to Masked Wolf who admitted:
I never made Astro on TikTok. I didn’t even know what TikTok was when I released Astronaut.
But it’s not just new songs. Old songs are making remarkable returns to a whole new audience. When a man named Nathan Apodaca went viral after posting a video of himself sliding down a freeway on his long board, casually drinking cranberry juice from a bottle, he was lip-syncing with Dreams, the Fleetwood hit. Mac from 1977. Dreams was then used by millions of TikTok creators and re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 over 40 years after its original release.
How it works
Videos created on the TikTok app are short. Most videos are less than 15 seconds long (although videos up to 60 seconds are possible). Music plays a big part in these videos, many showing dance moves or lip-syncing, although there are others where users are talking, even giving financial advice. When users create their videos, they usually pick a song and pick a short clip, often the catchiest bits in a song, like the chorus or beat drop.
Users can upload their own audio clips, but the app will detect copyrighted material that its owners do not allow on the platform and mute the audio. Instead, the app has built up a vast catalog of music in recent years licensed by major music labels, who have joined us because of TikTok’s role in producing global hits.
Behind this virality lie so-called challenges, in which often millions of users create their own versions of a visual story or dance movement on the same music video, and promoted by the platform using of hashtags. For example, in the #yeehaw challenge which made Old Town Road famous, people would dress in normal clothes and dance until the beat changed in the clip, when they instantly morphed into cowgirls or cowboys.
But videos on TikTok don’t directly contribute to chart success. However, there is a direct correlation between a song that has gone viral on TikTok and its growing popularity on music streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube, all of which in turn contribute to Billboard charts.
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What it means for artists, listeners and the music industry
In our research, we spoke to Ole Obermann, Global Head of Music for TikTok and ByteDance, about the impact for artists, the music industry and music lovers. Ole highlights the diversity of music on TikTok and the new opportunities to find music far beyond your usual tastes.
He also highlights TikTok’s role in discovering artists from all over the world: “I see a pretty deep impact on the global nature of music because of TikTok, but also music streaming in general. It’s so much more possible for a song that comes from Australia, India, Korea, Japan or Saudi Arabia. To eventually become a worldwide success and be listened to by audiences around the world.
The recent successes of Love Nwantiti and Astronaut in the Ocean are just two examples to illustrate this point.
TikTok is a great platform for listeners to get acquainted with new and different music. TikTok’s self-learning algorithm offers new videos as a seemingly endless stream, allowing users to be quickly exposed to a large amount of new music, as the videos are so short. When a user likes a particular song, with just a tap, they can instantly watch more videos set on the same clip.
The music industry is also getting involved, convinced by the viral success produced by the platform. Ole Obermann again:
I think the acceptance has come now because that’s what the fans want. And it’s a way to create more engagement with music, but there was a lot of resistance for many years, because that just wasn’t the way the music industry has traditionally worked.
The initial resistance is not surprising, given that TikTok presents a significant shift from the understanding of the recorded music industry as something to be listened to, to be passively consumed. The engagement with music on TikTok is very different, because music becomes a material of creation, of creative expression.
It’s important to note that what we’re seeing today is probably just the beginning, both in terms of new forms of creative expression and of promoting and marketing music in new ways.
But success also attracts investment, and creating on TikTok will likely become more commercialized over time. So far, much of the virality has happened organically. But music labels are increasingly hiring professional influencers to use their music, or working with consultants to make songs more “TikTokkable,” with the goal of creating the next viral trend.
It remains to be seen whether this will crowd out organic creativity, or whether artists will feel the pressure to create for the virality of TikTok, as Adele foreshadowed.