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Memes Are the New Pop Stars: How TikTok Became the Future of the Music Industry

Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ is both a chart-topping phenomenon and a turning point for the music business. Here’s what happens when a social media platform becomes a label.

Ringer illustration

Sueco the Child has been making music his whole life. As a preteen growing up in Pasadena, the blue-haired rapper learned how to play the drums via the video game Rock Band. In high school he fronted a local screamo band. And in college, he taught himself how to make beats after downloading the production software Reason. But despite his various musical talents, he began to visualize a career as an artist only a year ago, when he made a crucial decision: asking not what kind of platforms would be the best for his music, but what kind of music would be best for his platforms.

Scroll down on the 22-year-old’s Instagram long enough, and you will see the answer. Sueco (née William Schultz) first caught the attention of the internet via stunt music production that doubled as highly shareable video content. He made a beat in under five minutes. He made a beat from iPhone recordings of women twerking against keyboards and Pepsi machines. He even made a beat while blindfolded, in honor of the short-lived Bird Box challenge. He often sold his creations for cash, leaning on meme aggregators and YouTubers to promote his work. And at the end of each video, he’d slip in a full song or a link to his SoundCloud page, to piggyback on the views.

But Sueco’s true ah-ha moment came in April of this year, when he watched Lil Nas X vault to overnight success with his joyful country trap song “Old Town Road” using the challenge-driven social media platform TikTok. The song’s Wild West imagery struck a chord among its young users, inspiring them to include it in 15-second challenge videos where they cosplayed as cowboys. The groundswell of enthusiasm on the social network bled out into the public and eventually launched the song to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“When I saw TikTok, I instantly went: This is how it’s done,” Sueco told me on the phone earlier this month. “They don’t need to make the content, they have other people making the content for them. It blows up and becomes a meme organically on this app.”

And, well, that’s exactly what happened. Sueco made an account and posted a video set to his moody trap tune “Fast.” He asked a friend of a friend, a pouty 16-year-old skateboarder named Lukas Daley, to share the song in a video with his hundreds of thousands of followers. Soon enough, other TikTok influencers lifted the track, using the first bass-heavy 15 seconds of the song as the backdrop for lip-syncing, loosely choreographed dance moves, and surprise outfit changes—among many other things.

Nearly three months later, the song has been used in more than 3.2 million TikTok videos and streamed on Spotify more than 16 million times. After what was reportedly a seven-figure bidding war among major labels, Sueco signed with Atlantic in May. Last week he released a cheeky music video. For Sueco, the difference between pulling stunts on Instagram and a full-blown rap career was a memeable tune and the right platform to showcase it on.

“Now it wasn’t me that was going viral,” Sueco said. “It was my song that was going viral.”

Much like porn, rap—and the people who consume it—has a tradition of driving consumer technology forward. The genre capitalizes on cultural flashpoints and lends itself to audacious personalities, making it an ideal match for modern online platforms, which are programmed to prioritize the same qualities. As hip-hop has eclipsed rock to become pop music’s dominant genre, its artists have also fallen into subcategories based on the video-centric social networks that helped vault them to fame. In 2007, Soulja Boy’s ultraviral “Superman” dance made him the crown prince of YouTube. In 2014, Bobby Shmurda re-created that fervor on the deceased social network Vine, where six-second clips of his Shmoney Dance multiplied. And Lil’ Yachty and his lo-fi brethren will forever be defined as genre-bending SoundCloud rappers. Now TikTok—a Chinese-owned social network with an app that has been downloaded 950 million times—has minted a new class of trap-heavy rappers like Lil Nas X, Sueco the Child, and Supa Dupa Humble. Its apparent power as a marketing tool may very well shape a new genre of music and present a new set of challenges for traditional record labels.

Whereas YouTube, Vine, and Instagram are all platforms that lend themselves to music discovery, TikTok demands it. Thanks to the machine learning that powers the app, formerly known as Musical.ly, TikTok needn’t rely on a user’s social circle to generate recommended content. “Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person,” The New York Times’ John Herrman recently wrote. “That’s TikTok.” Instead of personal connections, the network thrives on a constant flow of so-called “challenges,” or prompts that encourage disparate users to participate in a momentary trend, be it “eating to a beat” or a dance move called “the woah.” Similar to the “Superman” or the “In My Feelings” dances, challenges capitalize on a cultural moment. But on TikTok, less credence is given to the originator, and users are often rewarded for adding their own personal spin on an existing action.

In short, they’re like any old meme, except the user—not a single static image or video—is the star. And, as is the case with most social networks, most of the “stars” on TikTok are simply young people who have gained massive followings for being good-looking, meme-savvy, prolific, and occasionally charismatic. (See: Alex from Target or Damn Daniel.) Aside from giving bored teenagers something active to do with their phones, challenges establish a fleeting sense of community. In the same way a catchy pop song can momentarily meld together a handful of strangers on a dance floor, the right TikTok challenge will connect young people from Los Angeles to Moscow. (The app even includes features that encourage dialogue among multiple videos.) “What I think is truly so special about the platform is the community aspect, which the challenges perfectly harvest,” Cosette Rinab, a TikTok influencer with more than 320,000 fans, said via email. “Seeing every creator take on a challenge with their own spin is what makes the app so much fun.”

Whatever activity a challenge is centered on, its mood and parameters are almost always set by music. A key feature of the app is the ability to lift an exact snippet of audio from any given video and paste it onto your own. It’s for that reason that the uniting emotional force of trending TikTok videos is almost always the audio that accompanies them. Because teens are often looking to set a dramatic mood in the span of a few seconds, brevity and bombast are rewarded. According to John, a recent high school graduate who coruns the TikTok compilation page @toktikcringe (who requested The Ringer use only his first name), the sound of a potentially viral challenge song usually has specific qualities: minimal lyrics, a bass drop, a double meaning you can make into a joke (see the “Flip the Switch” and “Pretty Boy” challenges), and, most important, it should “be epic.” Sueco credits these requirements for bolstering his type of music, in particular.

“It’s an app that is mainly inhabited by young people,” Sueco said. “Young people want to hear something new and something different and something they can dance to. Trap music, and a lot of new wave music is perfect for it.”

TikTok’s one-two punch of discovery and engagement has made the app a crucial conduit in how young people discover artists. Lizzy Pey, a 16-year-old based in London who runs a TikTok compilation page on Instagram, keeps a Spotify playlist of all the music she discovers on the platform. (It currently contains 335 songs.) Sometimes she’ll find a track via TikTok’s built-out song search hub, but more frequently it will enter her purview through one of the many viral challenges on the app. “I didn’t really listen to rap before I got really invested into TikTok,” she said. “But I’ve been listening to a lot more starter rap because of it.”

The recent success of Lil Nas X is proof of this phenomenon. The 20-year-old rapper was a virtually unknown Tweetdecker when “Old Town Road” was embraced by TikTok influencers as the background music to something called the “Yeehaw challenge,” where users transformed into cowboys at the drop of a beat. Soon after the song went viral, Billy Ray Cyrus joined the track for a remix. In the three months since, their collaboration shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, where it has spent 12 weeks, matching the record of Drake’s similarly meme-fueled “In My Feelings.” After signing with Columbia Records, he debuted a high-budget, star-studded music video and announced a brand collaboration with Wrangler. He released his first EP last week.

“I should maybe be paying TikTok,” Lil Nas X said in an interview shortly after going viral. “They really boosted the song.”

Amid this flurry, TikTok has recognized the promotional value of its platform. Last month Bloomberg reported that it was planning to launch its own music streaming service, with the goal of focusing on emerging global markets like India. Recent LinkedIn postings by the company’s Los Angeles office show that it’s hiring people to work with the licensing team and manage “the creation of music, playlist, and recommendation [sic], as well as artist partnerships management.” It should have no problem expanding its reach into music. Its parent company, a Chinese conglomerate called ByteDance, is worth $75 billion, making it one of the most valuable businesses in the world and worth three times as much as Spotify. (A TikTok representative declined to comment.)

The network’s new, explosive power is just the latest complication in an industry where constant change is now the norm. As of 2018, streaming accounts for more than 75 percent of music industry revenue. And a surge of social-media-driven fandom has left corporate pop powerhouses like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift struggling to keep up with new, dynamic online natives. In response, record labels are revamping their marketing techniques, analyzing streaming data, and trawling for potentially viral talent by any means possible. Including, in the case of Columbia Records, its president sliding into a 20-year-old’s DMs.

The emerging class of TikTok rappers represents a new wave of music made to burn fast and bright in an era of smartphone-first media consumption. It also magnifies the outsize power of social media in the music industry and all the issues of attribution and payment that come with it. Both from a cultural and business perspective, TikTok is poised to hypercharge the increasingly global listening landscape.

“The beauty of platforms is that they mold how art gets created,” said Jack Krawczyk, who has worked as a product manager for Pandora and the music startup UnitedMasters. “Netflix opened up an entire creative class of high-production-value episodic content. YouTube created a class of five-minute content. I’m curious if TikTok will create the 15- or 60-second song.”

The era of the TikTok single is upon us, and it’s as fast-paced and disorienting as ever.

“This right here is TikTok gold,” Supa Dupa Humble told me.

We were sitting in a dark, cramped recording room in Rockwall Studios, a multipurpose space for creative types in Ridgewood, Queens. The DJ turned rapper played me an unreleased track called “Disconnected,” a prickly, syncopated trap ditty arranged around chest-jiggling bass and an old-school landline tone. The meaning behind the chorus slug—“I’m so disconnected”—is open for interpretation. “You could perceive it as, I’m talking about a girl, but I could also be talking about, just society,” said Supa, whose real name is Tarique St. Juste. It might not be something you’d want to dance to, but he imagines the gradual pace of the song will be ideal for lip syncing or some kind of phone-related TikTok challenge. Or maybe it’ll just be another song to hit “the woah” to.

Catering to the TikTok crowd has been Supa’s modus operandi since the start of 2019. The 27-year-old has learned to promote his music track by track, by whatever means possible. He released his breakout single, “Steppin’,” in June 2017 and willed it into the mainstream by pairing it with meme after meme, often watching his creations spike in traffic and translate into streams on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. “Songs and memes are like rockets and space shuttles,” he said. “Obviously, the space shuttle needs the rocket to get to space, and then it breaks off. So that’s what the meme is.” His relentless marketing eventually earned him a deal with Roc Nation. And then, in early 2019, TikTok users discovered the song’s rambling intro—on which Supa repeats the words “I dunno” over and over again—and used it as the backdrop for a challenge in which they sort the types of people they’re attracted to. The boost was encouraging enough that he began shaping his future tracks accordingly.

“Especially after understanding how memes work, we understand TikTok could be really vital when it comes to the success of a song,” he said. “Now it’s like, ‘All right, let’s make more fun stuff that we could use.’”

In a way, TikTok users are both the new A&R and publicity team, supplanting many of the functions traditionally performed by record labels. When Supa first discovered “Steppin” had blown up on the platform, he reached out to request that it officially be placed in its song-tracking system. (Before that, users were ripping the audio from YouTube, which made its growth hard to track and hurt the flow of listeners to streaming platforms like Spotify.) It was then that Mary Rahmani, TikTok’s director of music content and artist relations (and previously a director of A&R at Capitol Records), welcomed him with open arms. When I visited Supa in May, he’d recently returned from a trip to TikTok’s L.A. office. There, the company ran through his growth and numbers on the platform and offered him tips on how to better engage. He recited what he learned to me as if he’d memorized it via flash cards: “keep videos between 11 and 15 seconds,” “make sure you have a clear thumbnail,” “great lighting,” “keep up with trends and hashtags,” no more than three hashtags. In return, he played TikTok some new music.

“It’s good to have support from them, especially because the record is doing well,” Supa said. “Nobody from Instagram reached out or even cared to help us. So, that’s a major plus. For them, and for us as well.”

It was clearly TikTok, not Roc Nation, that helped Supa break through. And this kind of artist outreach is likely just the beginning in TikTok’s quest to capitalize on its newly earned role in music. ByteDance’s streaming prototype is far enough along that it is being demoed to music executives and has already secured licensing rights from two of India’s largest music labels, according to Bloomberg. Last year Facebook did the same in Australia and New Zealand and doesn’t yet have anything to show for it. But TikTok is especially well-positioned to make a dent in the listening habits of poorer countries, where music is largely available for free online and paid subscription services have yet to catch on. “That’s a strategy, to become an important player amongst super active, very young music fans in emerging markets, and then maybe back their way into the developed world,” said Larry Miller, a music business professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School.

Old-school labels still maintain a few clear advantages over the tech-driven companies that have recently begun encroaching on both their marketing and distribution services. Unlike disruptive entertainment companies like Netflix or Hulu, the majority of streamed music is not new material. Record labels still have tight control over much of the world’s most popular music—a defining aspect of the industry that has made it difficult for tech startups or major streaming services and social networks to go around them altogether.

“With music, songs that are 18 months or older is the majority of what people listen to and what they relate to,” Krawczyk said. “And that catalog of music is almost all entirely owned by the record labels and not the artists themselves.”

Nevertheless, record labels have adapted their businesses to revolve around digital-first listeners. According to a recent paper by Miller, they have dedicated considerable resources to collecting and analyzing the endless stream of data that comes from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Shazam, Spotify, and Apple Music. (Billboard recently revamped how it calculates its chart rankings to reflect those numbers as well.) Labels now work closely with both streaming services and influencers to place new music on playlists and social feeds. And, as demonstrated by the signing of TikTok phenoms, they have also learned to act quickly when an act strikes a nerve on social media.

“Every year since the beginning of my A&R career, there has been a new technology that the kids are using,” Ian Hunter, a vice president in Atlantic Records’ A&R department, said via email. “TikTok has recently been a starting point for discovery and a launching pad for artists. The community on the platform is constantly surfacing new and old music to use in videos. For us, it is always a great sign when you see millions of people interacting with an emerging artist and their music in a meaningful way.” Put another way: The proof of concept is right there in the pitch.

Because labels rely on the marketing and distribution services of major tech companies more heavily, they now emphasize their holistic value. “Services break tracks,” Michael Nash, UMG’s executive vice president of digital strategy, recently told Miller. “Labels break artists.” But as labels have begun transforming TikTok phenoms into full-on pop stars, they have followed a formula that seems to have very little to do with artistic development. Columbia aided Lil Nas X in milking the success of “Old Town Road.” It facilitated remixes of the song with well-known artists like Cyrus and Diplo. It brought him to Stagecoach. It funded a music video that featured cameos from Chris Rock, Vince Staples, and Rico Nasty, and heavy product placement from Snapple. It even enabled a now sold-out brand clothing collaboration with Wrangler. But the label wasn’t able to ensure that his recently released EP matched the success of the viral track. Neither his recent single, “Panini,” nor a collaboration with Cardi B broke into the Hot 100 charts this week, and the album has been critically panned.

“If Lil Nas X is selling out Madison Square Garden a decade from now, dinner’s on me,” Miller said.

Sueco the Child may very well be the next test case in this dizzying cycle. This week he premiered a remix of “Fast” featuring Offset and Boogie Wit Da Hoodie on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 radio show. When we spoke, he said he was working with Atlantic on a plan to release the three albums worth of music he has “ready to go.”

“They understand the grand scope of what I will accomplish, because me and my team are poising ourselves to be next-level,” he said. “Like superstars, pop stars, the biggest things on earth.” It’s possible that, in a time when the social utility of a song matters far more than the person who sings it, individual superstardom is now that much more unreachable.

But given the direction that TikTok is leading the music industry, Sueco probably doesn’t need three whole albums to achieve that level of fame. For now, one song will do.

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