China is changing how we listen to music

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This story is part of our ongoing series on how China is reshaping our world.

“Old Town Road,” by 20-year-old rapper Lil Nas X, has already become the viral sensation of 2019. A Billboard #1 hit merging Atlanta rap with country music, the song was streamed 143 million times in one week, breaking a record previously held by Drake. But the song didn’t go mainstream by making it onto a Spotify playlist or getting on the radio: it was because of a cowboy-themed viral challenge on the Chinese short-form video app TikTok.

“Old Town Road” wasn’t the first track to break out because of TikTok, either. Just a few months months earlier, “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” by the Japanese artist Joji, broke into the Billboard Top 100 thanks to the #microwavechallenge, where users film themselves spinning as if in a microwave, set to a 15-second snippet of Joji’s track.

TikTok is the international version of the Chinese short-form video and karaoke app Douyin. At its core, TikTok is a social media app and part of a wave of apps from China that are changing the way we find, listen to, and interact with music.

In America and much of the rest of the world, we’ve become accustomed to listening to music on dedicated streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music. On Chinese apps, music is part of a larger ecosystem, incorporating social networking, micropayments and fan culture into an integrated package. Music services like China’s QQ Music don’t rely on subscriptions to make a profit. Instead, they rely on add-ons like gaming and in-app gifting to sustain themselves.

In episode five of our video series Because China, we take a look at how Chinese apps are changing the blueprint for how we consume digital music.