Below is an article on the state of TikTok, the effect it had on the music industry in 2020, what its future could look like. This week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show examines success on the app from another angle: What do artists do after they get their first viral hit? Listen for free on Spotify and subscribe for new episodes every Tuesday.
As the music industry continues to adjust on the fly to the technological innovations that change the way we consume songs, power players have come and gone, some have increased leverage, and, in some cases, others have dissolved into nothingness. The lineage is pretty straightforward. First, there was the MP3, then, eventually, the option to stream uninterrupted for a fixed cost or free with advertisements, and now, there’s … the snippet?
Virality has intruded into every aspect of our lives, and with the staggering popularity of TikTok, seemingly random moments can make artists superstars off 15-second clips and a healthy dose of luck. And with the Trump administration currently in courts fighting to ban the app from American phones, its future is far from certain. But in 2020, nothing altered the music landscape like TikTok. Whether or not you’ve embraced the world of viral dances, lip-synch videos, and 16-year-olds making themselves very rich, the fast-paced rise of the app raises a number of questions about the music industry’s future.
With any app―no matter how big or small―the first question to be asked is, What does it do? Yes, TikTok is a short-form video streaming platform, but so was Quibi. We all know how that turned out. What is the mission of TikTok and why do we need it? Based on TikTok’s first-ever “Year on TikTok” report, it seems as if the app’s goal is to seamlessly blend the popularity of music with the videos created on its platform. The information is clearly a way to grab the attention of label heads and any aspiring artist looking to make it big, but the breakdown is also revealing in what it suggests about TikTok’s mission.
There were 176 songs that were featured in 1 billion unique video views on the app in 2020 alone. It’s a staggering figure, but it also brings up a chicken-or-egg situation: Did artists like Drake, Megan Thee Stallion, and Billie Eilish accrue the most video views because their music was the most popular? Or were they made more popular because of the app? The answer is likely a bit of both. TikToks are merely a marketing tool, a way for A&Rs and label strategists to peg which songs to put money and momentum behind. Elsewhere on the report, you can find the up-and-coming artists turned megastars, like Sech, who boasts 1.7 million followers on the app, and Avenue Beat, a pop trio whose hit “F2020” was first teased in a TikTok video that has since accrued 16.7 million views. This is what TikTok aims to be: a place where anyone can be a star, at any moment. Of course, a label, and a strong social media team will help.
The app is quickly becoming an echo chamber for popular songs, but it began with more modest intentions. In 2014, musical.ly, a lip-synching platform and short-form video site, hit app stores. Fans uploaded renditions of their favorite songs without sound, and the original versions would be used for the audio. By June 2016, the app had over 90 million users, a number that ballooned to over 200 million less than a year later. That same year, Douyin, an app available in mainland China, was launched with a similar aim. In 2017, TikTok was created for audiences outside of mainland China. ByteDance Ltd., the Chinese company that owned both Douyin and TikTok, purchased musical.ly in November 2017, which it merged with TikTok on August 2, 2018.
ByteDance Ltd. is one of China’s largest tech firms, estimated to be worth roughly $140 billion. The company ran into trouble when TikTok’s data-collection service was caught acquiring information from users under the age of 13, which is strictly prohibited in the U.S. under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. This is partly what led to President Trump’s impromptu decision to demand the app be taken down from digital stores across the United States, but lengthy appeals and pending hearings make it unlikely that any issue regarding TikTok and its parent company will be resolved any time soon.
TikTok has only grown in cultural cachet in the face of haphazard demands from the president of the United States. It was far and away the most downloaded app in 2020, with a reported 800 million active users worldwide. Despite being banned in India, the second-most populated country in the world, the number of people across the globe who are using the medium every day to browse, post, and comment is staggering.
At its core, TikTok blends music with videos. It’s a simple concept, but you’d be surprised how tricky it is to post a video to your Instagram feed with an accompanying song. With TikTok, music is an essential feature, an integral aspect of the app’s formula. The creators of the app saw an opportunity, and the marketplace rewarded this with feverous devotion. Although TikTok’s user base is about 2.4 times the size of the United States based on population, TikTokers still fancy themselves a community, and fans flock to the site because, in theory, anyone can create the next big thing.
Last year, Rolling Stone’s Elias Leight reported that rapper Flo Milli offered $200 to a TikTok celebrity to make the dance to her track “Beef Flomix” more popular. The video clip created by @nicemichael gained over 100,000 views, and shortly after, Milli signed to RCA Records. The idea of pay-for-play may make some queasy, but Milli made a marketing investment that happened to pay off. The song was clearly a hit. It just needed to find an audience.
Leight’s story also looked at TikTok’s biggest celebrity, Charli D’Amelio, and how she’s able to reportedly charge between $30,000 and $40,000 to make a dance for any particular song. D’Amelio is far and away the biggest player on the app, with 105 million followers. (In second is Addison Rae, with just under 75 million.) These pay-for-play purchases—which occur outside the app itself—aren’t even deals for D’Amelio to create a dance. She merely has to record a video of herself dancing to an already trending track and post it to her page. From there, she shimmies all the way to the bank, and the song has a new, massive audience. Songs that explode on TikTok often shoot up the Billboard charts, as tracks by sensations like CJ and 24kGoldn have dominated the Hot 100 in the past year.
If the goal of any app is to get users onto the platform, and once there, spend as much time on the app as possible, it’s curious that we still measure TikTok success through chart success and streams on other platforms. One million streams on Spotify is a lot easier to digest than 1 million video views on TikTok. It’s simply more straightforward to quantify because we already have the language to contextualize that metric. For TikTok to truly dominate the music landscape, the company has to figure out a way to keep users on the app after they’ve made discoveries.
For this story, I wanted to interview people who believe in TikTok as a platform for aspiring artists. I’m an admitted TikTok skeptic. Catering songs to a 15-second video could spell doom for mainstream music as an art form. But for people like Corey Sheridan, TikTok’s head of music partnerships and content operations, the app is simply another way for artists to showcase their work, not something designed to supplant other mediums.
In recent years, ByteDance has worked to develop a music streaming service, and this past March, the company debuted a product named Resso in India that carried music from Sony and Warner, among others (though it lacked the Universal Music Group catalog). The power TikTok’s parent company potentially holds is large enough to move the markets; when outlets initially reported on ByteDance’s plans, the common stock for Spotify, The Ringer’s parent company, dipped 3 percent, while Tencent―a Chinese technology conglomerate that develops streaming services under its Tencent Music division and owns 9 percent of Spotify―fell 2 percent. There’s clearly a sleeping giant here, and a fully integrated TikTok could inexorably change the music-streaming landscape. Sheridan, however, says TikTok is content with its current role.
“We’re not a streaming platform, we don’t have aspirations to do that. What we’re hyper-focused on is really elevating the moments that happen on TikTok and trying to create further success for the artist as well as for the labels,” he says.
As of now, though, Sheridan and his team use analytics to help show labels and artists how they can target markets previously thought inaccessible. If you want to showcase a song to music fans under the age of 21, for example, there’s no better (or more dangerous) place to go than TikTok. Sheridan’s role is to facilitate relationships between labels, artists, and the app. “We spend a lot of time listening to music and understanding the opportunity [for artists and labels]. Then … we’ll let them know what [we think] will work on the platform. In addition to that, a lot of the work that we do internally [revolves around] understanding what’s driving engagement and what’s creating viral moments.”
The idea of “virality” in and of itself is interesting, because, by definition, something “viral” is a rapidly disseminating moment that often defies the inherent logic behind popularity. The most obvious recent example is the story of @Doggface208, known to the government as Nathan Apodaca. Although Doggface has had a social media presence for years, a fairly innocuous selfie video of him riding on a skateboard while drinking cranberry juice out of the bottle became a national sensation in late 2020. On TikTok, the video was backed by Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” a 1977 track that peaked at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year. There’s absolutely no reason why this video in particular broke through the noise, but after Apodaca’s video went viral on—and beyond—the app, “Dreams” reentered the charts, eventually landing at no. 12. This means that after people discover Doggface’s video on TikTok, they leave TikTok and head to their preferred streaming service to listen to the song. For Sheridan, this isn’t an issue.
“The fact that it’s driving discovery and it’s driving engagement for the streams, we celebrate that, we love that, we love seeing it,” he says.
TikTok then circles back by contacting artists like Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks to get them to engage with the app, who post their own versions of the video. In a perfect world for Sheridan’s company, there’s a continuous loop between TikTok, streaming services, and major labels. Labels provide the hits, TikTok provides the virality, streaming services provide the accessible content. All parties are happy. But what happens if one gains too much leverage? Who gets to run the show?
A world where TikTok dictates what music gets heard, plus how and when it gets heard, has already changed the lives of many artists. Take Sada Baby, for example. Sada has been one of the figureheads of a thrilling Detroit rap scene for a few years. As artists like Boldy James have ascended from Motor City icons to national figureheads, the importance of the city’s scene has only become more apparent. Sada is a party rapper who will bite your head off, a street-smart wiseass who knows as much about basketball as he does the inner machinations of his neighborhood. The scene has been covered exceptionally well by Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre, who has helped unveil the underground spitters that prop up the community. Sada was long considered a step above the up-and-comers taking center stage, floating between being a regional legend and a national presence. That is, until his song, “Whole Lotta Choppas” got the TikTok treatment and became an absolute smash.
“‘Whole Lotta Choppas’ is another great example, something that just came out of left field. It wasn’t on the general industry’s radar but it was an opportunity where we said [to the label], ‘Hey, take a look at what’s going on here,’” Sheridan explained. He later added, “This is a really great opportunity for them to lean in, both as an artist and you, as a label, to invest in this because this is really becoming a big moment.” Essentially, TikTok tracks and notes which songs are naturally percolating on the app, and then uses their resources to convince labels to use their resources to boost certain songs into the stratosphere.
The song was initially buoyed by a TikTok user named @ohbukster, who uploaded an accompanying dance for the track in late August 2020. It found massive success, and, according to Hypebeast, the song had accrued “over 5.8 million videos created and 1.3 billion sound plays” as of mid-October. Those numbers exist in a bubble, though. Anything that racks up numbers in the millions and billions is obviously a needle mover, but the song reentered the Billboard charts only after the label parlayed the viral success into a Nicki Minaj remix. TikTok is a tool for labels. It’s not yet clear whether it can be the creative engine in and of itself.
The disconnect between the song, its context, and the 15 seconds that gets extracted from the rest of the work to soundtrack a viral dance makes for a disorienting experience (see: 16-year-olds dancing inside their parents’ mansions to “They wanna see me do my dance / In these thousand-dollar pants / Don’t disrespect me and my mans / Bang, whole lotta choppers on your ass”). Sada Baby isn’t more popular because of “Whole Lotta Choppas” and its viral run; the 15-second dance and the celebrities who copy it are. All this means for Sada Baby is an extra zero in his bank account and what will likely be label pressure to replicate this success. For a street rapper like Sada Baby, the experience is divorced from anything relating to his mission as a musician.
Other artists have had experiences where they leverage virality into sustained success. One of the biggest artists of 2020, 24kGoldn, has been constantly in the spotlight thanks to how his songs have been propped up on TikTok. 24k makes a generic sort of post-trap pop music, with a high-pitched voice heavily affected by Auto-Tune and a knack for hooky choruses. 24k took a unique approach to TikTok, fostering his presence as both a content creator and a songwriter whose work would be used by others. His label, RECORDS, put his song “Valentino” on SoundCloud at the top of 2019, and during that time, 24k was building his fan base on all social media platforms, but with an eye on TikTok in particular.
David Enriquez is the senior vice president of marketing at RECORDS, a label started by industry veteran Barry Weiss. He explained the approach to 24k’s career as such: “During those first seven months that ‘Valentino’ was out, he cultivated his base on TikTok. As it goes, you just never really know when that moment is going to hit, but then it hit, and ‘Valentino’ started going,” he said. “It’s a platinum record, and it put the industry on notice. We released an EP called Dropped Outta College [shortly after]. On Dropped Outta College, there’s a song called ‘City of Angels.’ The same thing happened with TikTok embracing it, and it became a hit.” His latest smash, “Mood,” came out in July of this year and has been a TikTok mainstay ever since.
But it’s hard to separate 24k from his TikTok dominance. He’s a mainstream star, but only to a specific audience. Typical rap fans may discover him through Spotify playlists or on the radio; TikTok serves a very specific market. Granted, that market’s huge, but there’s a vast group of music fans who do their discovering on streaming services. How does TikTok get a piece of this pie? How does an artist like 24k escape his role as a TikTok star, if he has any desire to do so? And, lastly, how does a label like RECORDS continue to push for artistic development when it’s easy enough to throw money at a TikTok influencer and make any old song the next big hit?
Regarding “Mood,” Enriquez had this to say: “TikTok was just a small portion of everything that was happening around that song. That song broke records. It went no. 1 at Pop Radio for two months. With that being said, the content lends itself perfectly to TikTok.”
The idea of music as content is both depressing and the reality of the situation. Lil Yachty, for example, released his 2020 LP, Lil Boat 3, to little fanfare. It peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard charts, which is a nice showing, but far below expectations for someone as popular as Yachty. On TikTok, though, his music has had an amazing run this calendar year. His Lil Boat 3 track “COFFIN” wasn’t released as a single until five months after the album release, presumably because it was doing so well on the app. In this case, it’s as if TikTok is totally divorced from traditional music consumption. It’s the rare example of TikTok and streaming services coming to blows. Yachty is everywhere on TikTok, but his album hasn’t produced anything louder than a whisper since “Oprah’s Bank Account’’ was released back in March.
“It’s a place for you to be yourself,” explains Sheridan. “In doing that, you’re going to start driving bigger moments for you than you probably thought were possible. In thinking of artists that have been successful on TikTok, particularly in 2020, Lil Yachty is the first artist that comes to mind,” he adds. In that context, it makes perfect sense that Yachty has become a TikTok sensation. His music is best delivered in small, bite-size clips. There’s not much to hold on to outside of a catchy chorus here, a clever bar there.
Perhaps it’s not worth thinking about TikTok as a feeding system to the mainstream consumption conglomerate. Rather, it’s helpful to view it as its own island, where occasional ferries move passengers on and off. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which artists stop making full songs altogether, instead creating slivers of moments for young adults to dance to. As our collective attention spans continue to decline, this seems like a logical conclusion. Songs longer than three minutes might one day just be a radical act.
I asked Enriquez about artists on the label requesting the 24k treatment, and how it may affect the way his songwriters approach their craft. “Using TikTok as the only basis shortchanges the project and the artist,” he says. “TikTok is so massive and it’s so oversaturated that every artist is doing it. Every label is doing it. I think that’s what gives Goldn, in particular, the competitive edge, because he was an early adopter.”
TikTok is still the great unknown in music’s constantly shifting landscape. The rules are still being written, and, as Sheridan explained, his job is focused on educating labels and artist reps on how to best utilize the app. That said, it’s hard to imagine a world in which the battle for streaming supremacy doesn’t end with an ugly fight. Having the slightest understanding of how capitalism works suggests that TikTok will certainly want a bigger slice of the pie as it continues to control which music gets heard, and which songs become popular.
As it stands now, though, TikTok exists in its own universe, somewhere in between YouTube and Spotify. The celebrities on the app are arguably bigger than the app itself, and when they become successful independent of the app, everyone may be demanding a bigger cut. The Kid LAROI, for example, became famous after his song “Addison Rae” got the attention of TikTok celebrity Addison Rae. Now the 17-year-old from Australia is a rising star and has collaborated with artists like Marshmello, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and the late Juice WRLD. TikTok is betting on the staying power of the world it’s created. But since it doesn’t dominate the means of consumption, it’s hard to bet big money on that thesis. TikTok was the darling of 2020, but as long as the content its stars create utilizes music they don’t control, the impact it will have on the future of music is murky. Spotify, Apple Music, and the competition can rest easy, unless the ByteDance Ltd. streaming aspirations continue to grow, in which case, the race to an industry-wide monopoly is on.
Will Schube is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He regularly contributes to GQ, NPR, and Texas Monthly.
This article was updated after publication with information on Resso, ByteDance’s streaming app that launched in India in March.