Musicians and artists are pressured to become TikTok-viral.
Just about every single thing that is “trending” these days finds its origins on TikTok in one way or another. That song you have been listening to on loop for the past week? Millions of people are dancing to the same song on TikTok. The necklace you see everyone wearing and the books your favorite influencers are reading are also likely TikTok’s doing.
We have already discussed how TikTok trends can get brands more customers, but what deserves special attention is how the social media platform influences the lives of musicians who are contributing to some of its most used music. Let’s delve into the world of TikTok musicians and how the platform has shaped their careers and the music industry.
The rise of the TikTok singer
Have you heard the song “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals? It goes a little something like, “sometimes all I think about is you, late nights in the middle of June…”—does it ring a bell now? Well, this song started picking up steam on TikTok last year because of that exact line with people making videos about unrequited love with it as background music. These videos catapulted the song into mainstream popularity, with “Heat Waves” topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts for four weeks in a row in March 2022.
Glass Animals aren’t the only artists who have seen success because their song went viral on TikTok. Others, like Doja Cat, Olivia Rodrigo and Tai Verdes, have all had their songs blow up on the platform.
TikTok has such a massive influence on the popularity of music that artists are going the extra mile to make their songs viral on it. For instance, most K-Pop artists today start TikTok dance challenges for their songs to reach more listeners and thus grow their fan base. Zico is one of the Korean artists who has seen the positive impact of these dance challenges. His 2019 release “Any Song” topped Korean charts after going viral on TikTok.
What makes an artist popular on TikTok?
Despite TikTok’s power, not every song posted on the platform will blow up. The reason isn’t quite as complicated as we might think.
If you look at songs that caught fire on TikTok, there is a formula—memorable, punchline-y lyrics that people can quote in multiple situations and danceable choruses (and in the case of K-pop, dance challenges that are easy to follow).
The song “Heat Waves” is a pretty good example of this. It has the first half of this equation down, which, in its case, was good enough to make the song viral. And if you look at Doja Cat’s songs, they often capture both parts of the formula pretty well. Take a look at her hit song “Woman”: The song has a popular dance challenge on TikTok and also has relatable lyrics like “They wanna pit us against each other, when we succeedin’ for no reasons, they wanna see us end up like we Regina on Mean Girls.”
The problems with TikTok’s virality
Pressuring artists into becoming content creators
TikTok is giving artists a chance to be popular with a clear-cut formula they can follow. So far, everything sounds positive right? But because of this easy ticket to popularity, many record labels today are adding to their artists’ workloads, forcing them to create content on TikTok for their music.
In May this year, the American singer Halsey made a video on TikTok to express her frustration. She discussed how her record label, Capitol Music, told her they wouldn’t release her single “So Good” until it had a viral moment on TikTok. Ironically, this TikTok video helped her get that viral moment, and the company decided to release the song on June 9, 2022.
Not only is this additional workload too much for the artist, but it probably also ends up stifling their creativity. Record companies know that there is a formula to becoming TikTok famous and invariably force artists to create songs that either fit that niche or market their music in a way that makes them TikTok famous.
Paying your way into virality
Music marketers today are paying TikTok creators to make videos with an artist’s song to fake their way into virality. This includes not only TikTok celebrities but also non-influencers. Using non-influencers makes the algorithm aware of the song and gets people gradually hooked on it. Suffice it to say, the average TikTok user is becoming aware of how music is being marketed and has been quick to call out “industry plants”—musicians who give off the quality of an independent artist while being associated with a major record label.
In 2021, TikToker and musician Gayle was called out for being an industry plant. All of it stemmed from her creating the song “ABCDEFU” as a response to a comment asking her to write a breakup song using the alphabet. What made people so suspicious of Gayle was how “ABCDEFU” was released by Atlantic Records only a week after the TikTok video gained traction.
So, is TikTok all bad?
Despite what it may seem, TikTok isn’t all that bad for the music industry since it enables artists to be discovered by more people. Also, with the introduction of its distribution service Sound On in March of this year, TikTok is opening doors for more independent artists to have complete control over their music. Sound On will allow artists to easily upload their music to TikTok and other streaming platforms, like Apple Music and Spotify. The artist will not only retain complete rights to their music but will also get 100% royalties from their songs for the first year (and 90% thereafter) from using the distribution service.
Even for artists who work with labels, it makes sense to become “TikTok famous”. The social media platform’s user base has been known to be extremely supportive of artists, with 40% of TikTok users paying for music platform subscriptions and 17% buying artist merchandise. This is significantly higher than that of the general population, as only 25% of people in this group pay for subscriptions, and 9% buy artist merch.
Given the response to the trend of calling out industry plants, it is fair to say forcing artists to adhere to the TikTok-inspired, cookie-cutter pop formula won’t work—artists need creative freedom. Hopefully, the industry will consider this going forward so that both record labels and artists can make the most of what TikTok has to offer.
- How to Market Your Brand on TikTok
- YouTube vs TikTok: Which Platform Pays Its Creators Better?
- Explaining TikTok’s Machine Learning Algorithm
Header image courtesy of Freepik