In October, Fleetwood Mac reached several new milestones in their acclaimed rock career: Their song “Dreams” reentered the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time since its 1977 release. The track reached 8.47 million streams in one week, easily its highest weekly total of all time. And Rumours, the seminal album that includes the song, returned to the Top 40 for the first time since 2013. These numbers were—to name-check another Fleetwood hit—a landslide victory for the band.
They were also an aberration from conventional music industry logic. Usually, such a dramatic spike in an artist’s popularity would result from a deliberate promotional push: an awards-show performance, a tour announcement, an album reissue. However, like every other musical act in 2020, Fleetwood Mac had been relatively dormant; no combination of the famously argumentative group had appeared together all year.
This time, all it took was one man, a skateboard, and a very large bottle of cranberry juice.
On Sept. 25, Idaho warehouse worker Nathan Apodaca had uploaded to TikTok a 23-second video of his morning commute: a leisurely skateboard ride down a quiet highway, soundtracked by “Dreams,” which he lip-synced when not swigging from a jug of Ocean Spray. The serenely joyful clip instantly went viral on the video-sharing platform: By the end of the first day, it had been viewed a million times. Within two weeks, his original video and the nearly 135,000 homages and reactions that other TikTokers had uploaded had reached a total 494.3 million views. Fleetwood Mac was storming the charts again, and band drummer Mick Fleetwood had even joined TikTok to recreate the video himself, down to the skateboard and the juice. (Within a few more weeks, his bandmates Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham released their own tributes to Apodaca on TikTok, too.) Fleetwood also surprised Apodaca with a FaceTime chat.
“The video blew the song up. I told Nathan, ‘You know, Fleetwood Mac owes you big time,’” said Fleetwood. “I think this has been super great, and it’s become an education for me.”
A lucrative education, at that. Even in the era of Spotify, when each stream of a song can earn the artist a fraction of a penny, over 8 million plays adds black to a balance sheet. Apodaca’s video and Fleetwood Mac’s resurgence spread as a feel-good story in a year of hardship, especially when the previously homeless Apodaca (whose handle is 420doggface208 on the app) received enough from promotions and fan donations to buy a house. A few months later, TikTok released its first Year In Music report, which trumpeted Apodaca and Fleetwood Mac’s story and other successes on the platform, including the more than 70 artists who signed to major labels after going viral on TikTok, and the 176 songs with videos that surpassed 1 billion views.
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For a music industry hobbled by a year of shuttered festivals, silent clubs, and canceled recording sessions—an industry that had generally been financially imperiled and uncertain since the invention of Napster—this was yet more evidence of the growing impact of TikTok on the music industry. Three short years after its debut in America, the Chinese-owned app could have been relegated to Gen Z teens who embraced the dance fads and quirky memes that quickly dominated the platform. Instead, TikTok is now considered by many to be a major player in music, with the power to reinvent the path to stardom and upset the long-held power imbalance between artists and executives. But beneath the beats, TikTok has a complex financial structure and formula for popularity that artists and industry insiders struggle to navigate—and that’s just how the app likes it.
Table of contents
Zero to viral | The almighty algorithm | What’s it worth? | Looking ahead
Zero to viral
Four years ago, almost no one in America had heard of TikTok. It’s the international version of a Chinese video-sharing app called Douyin, which debuted in 2016 in China and is still used in the country. (Douyin and TikTok have similar features but different servers, and they do not share content, which helped TikTok shrug off the Trump administration’s attempted ban on the app last fall.) The platform allows users to upload videos up to 60 seconds long that loop automatically, and offers a host of in-app editing tools along with a seemingly infinite catalog of songs that users can easily add to their visuals.
TikTok launched in 2017 and became available worldwide in 2018, after the Chinese company Bytedance purchased the moderately popular lip-syncing app Musical.ly and folded it into TikTok. TikTok was quickly embraced by teenagers in the US because of its irreverent tone and easy interface for uploading and sharing, and it spawned many trends among them: Early users (or “creators,” in TikTok parlance) busted moves to “Baby Shark,” lip-synced to Japanese pop, and pet their cats in rhythm with a British indie-pop song about shrimp. The platform itself makes money through advertising, in-app purchases, content licensing deals, and more.
But steadily, the platform became an incubator for hit songs—an inevitability, given how the record industry has always looked to teens to predict trends. (See: Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, Lil Uzi Vert, BTS, and others) Lil Nas X’s country-rap song “Old Town Road” stormed TikTok in Dec. 2018, sparking a playful dance trend called the Yeehaw Challenge; three months later, the rapper had signed to Columbia Records. Four months later, his “Old Town Road” remix with Billy Ray Cyrus was number one on the Billboard charts, and it dug in its spurs there for a record-breaking 17 weeks before it won two Grammys. Lil Nas X has credited TikTok for the song’s success. In 2019, other artists leapt off the platform into major label contracts, including rapper Arizona Zervas (to Columbia Records), R&B singer Ant Saunders (to Arista), and rapper Flo Milli (to RCA).
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As TikTok stars cracked the mainstream, the app’s reach grew swiftly. TikTok hit 1 billion downloads in Feb. 2019 and was the most downloaded app of 2020. In 2019, Bloomberg valued Bytedance at $75 billion. This rise was not without its controversies, though; after it was acquired, Musical.ly was fined by the Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting data from users under the age of 13. In September last year, the Trump administration attempted to block TikTok from US app stores, and in Feb. 2021, the Biden administration halted the app’s sale of US operations to Oracle and Walmart; both times, officials cited potential security risks of harvested user data. In Aug. 2020, the app was also banned in India following the country’s border dispute with China.
Today, the demographics of TikTok users have expanded in several directions. The company has made advertising pushes to reach older audiences; now only around 60% of US-based TikTok users qualify as Gen Z (born after 1996). It’s available in more than 150 countries. Its users have fostered communities of political activism and social justice; TikTok was a major hub of organization and discussion during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and prominent TikTok personalities regularly use their clips to raise awareness for disability rights, dispel COVID-19 misinformation, and fight stigmas of sexual assault. That said, TikTok hasn’t lost its eccentric tone; elsewhere on the platform are endless feeds of real estate disasters, performing surgery on fruit, spontaneous sea shanties, and elaborate makeup tutorials.
Across all these pockets of TikTok, the ubiquitous presence is music; every TikTok clip has the option of embedding a track. When a trend starts on TikTok, a song is usually at the center of it, and the app makes it easy for TikTok users to create their own videos with it rather than repost the original, as they might on Instagram or Twitter. This means a trend like the Yeehaw Challenge or, more recently, the Buss It Challenge—in which users danced in casual clothes to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” then switched to glamorous outfits to grind to rapper Erika Banks’ “Buss It”—can fill a user’s feed with dozens of unique visuals all set to the same track. In 10 minutes, a TikTok user can hear the same song in 10 different videos, which would never happen on radio or TV—and makes the song all the more memorable.
Paul Sinclair, general manager and executive vice president of Atlantic Records, told Quartz his label’s research team closely monitors TikTok trends, not least because an artist’s popularity can be an indicator of future industry success. “Certainly TikTok is a strong signal, and it’s a stronger signal than it was a year ago,” he says. “Now the pandemic has impacted it because more artists are leaning into TikTok. So therefore, TikTok is a more valuable way to discover artists for us.”
Sueco the Child is one of several TikTok-famous artists signed to Atlantic. In April 2019, the Los Angeles stuntman-turned-rapper scored a viral hit on the platform with his song “Fast.” Within “a couple of days,” he says, his future label and many others were courting him for meetings. (He declined to go into specifics about his deal with Atlantic.) He believes 2020 was a pivotal year for TikTok because, as more musicians joined the platform and uploaded their music, the industry’s condescension against TikTok musicians disappeared, too.
“You can compare TikTok to when SoundCloud started being a thing around 2015, and people saying, ‘Oh, you just came up on SoundCloud, that’s not real,’” said the rapper, 24. “But I think in 2020, the stigma [against TikTok artists] went away. People accepted that yes, this is the new main platform. They’re not calling people ‘Instagram rappers,’ you hear what I’m saying?”
The almighty algorithm
While TikTok is full of flashy trends and famous names, its real kingmaker is its code. The platform’s algorithm prioritizes pushing new clips into user feeds—and, unlike other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, that content does not need to come from people the person is already following. How the TikTok algorithm selects the videos and users it pushes is a zealously guarded secret; Vice joked that it might involve the Illuminati. TikTok has said that it comes down to a combination of factors including user interactions (i.e. previously shared videos and followed creators), video information (i.e. the song used, and hashtags), and account settings (i.e. device location and language preferences).
Max Motley, a TikTok music tastemaker who recommends artists and discusses news on his account MostleyMusic, is one beneficiary of the algorithm. Since uploading his first video on a whim in May 2020, after the pandemic threw a wrench in his plans to find a music industry job, he has amassed over 233,000 followers.
“I think watch time is the main indicator for the algorithm,” said Motley, 23. “The longer people watch your video, and if they watch it a couple of times, that affects how far your video goes.” (TikTok musician and comedian KevboyPerry, who has 3.1 million followers, concurs with this theory; as he’s summarized it, “TikTok’s rewarding you for keeping the audience on the app.”)
Motley said that TikTok tastemakers are their own burgeoning industry on TikTok, and others seem to agree: Atlantic Records has recruited him for artist consulting work, and Rolling Stone called him and other personalities “the future of music journalism.”
“Before this, I remember trying to DM people in the music industry on LinkedIn and I could never get a response,” said Motley. “Guess the TikTok gods were looking out for me.”
Understanding the algorithm has become an important part of artist management, said Brian Harris Frank, COO of Shelter Music Group, which represents Fleetwood Mac, Sugar Ray, and others. He said that anything too polished or calculated goes over poorly with the TikTok masses, who only respond to clips with “authenticity.”
“I have found the algorithm to be scarily smart with how it serves up content to you, and it’s even more powerful because you can’t trick the system,” said Frank. “We encourage our clients on the platform to be themselves. You can’t set up a really scripted video shoot that’s going to take six days on a major budget. The audience wouldn’t like it.” (Indeed, his client Mark McGrath’s lo-fi serenade to the fly on Mike Pence’s head pulled a more favorable fan response than Gwen Stefani’s recent hyper-produced lip-sync clip.)
One factor of any feed: TikTok’s music department has marketing partnerships with major labels and artists, and works with them to promote their releases. However, its executives deny that they push individual songs or videos because of any direct payment.
“What we do is when we start noticing things that are popping off, we look at the artist, get them motivated, and market them within the app,” said Corey Sheridan, TikTok’s head of music content operations. “When an artist gets courted [by an advertiser] to do branded material on TikTok, we can help facilitate that, too.”
Sheridan declined to discuss the specifics of the TikTok algorithm, but he placed it in lofty company. “TikTok’s personal recommendation system is a promotional engine that the industry really hasn’t seen in decades,” he said. “Prior to this, you look at the advent of playlisting with the launch of Spotify; before that, you can go back to the launch of MTV.”
What’s it worth?
Leveraging viral fame into mainstream success is nothing new for musicians; Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube, Shawn Mendes was prolific on Vine, Cardi B was the queen of Instagram, and Arctic Monkeys rose on Myspace. Plenty more musicians have cashed in with one-off hits that first exploded online, such as Psy with 2012’s “Gangnam Style” and Baauer with 2013’s “Harlem Shake.”
One reason TikTok’s rise is notable is that it is happening during an especially precarious time for the music industry. Today, streams have thoroughly eclipsed album sales as the way music is consumed, and the paltry paydays of streaming are impossible for most musicians to live on. Many major artists who once opposed Spotify have since made their music available on it, from Taylor Swift to Thom Yorke—he once memorably called the service “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”—but artists with smaller fanbases struggle to survive off streaming.
In November, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers launched a campaign called “Justice at Spotify,” in which over 18,000 members signed a letter demanding the company pay artists at least a penny per stream, end its legal fights over royalty rates, and provide greater financial transparency. (Spotify currently pays its royalties on the “pro rata” basis, which is an industry standard that divides total payments from subscriptions and ad revenue by the total share of streams each artist has. As Rolling Stone revealed, this means the top 10% of artists take 99.4% of streaming payouts.)
Record labels, both major and indie, are also still figuring out how to turn profits online and how to structure their arrangements with TikTok, in particular. For the latter, they sign licensing deals for their catalogs, often short-term ones. It’s hard to uncover details about what a typical deal entails since each is different and kept confidential. Universal, Sony, Warner Music Group (which owns Atlantic Records), and the independent label licensing group Merlin have all renegotiated their deals with the app since November.
Going viral on TikTok has a clear, well-documented correlation to higher streaming numbers. Once a listener gets hooked on a song snippet on TikTok, they head to a streaming site like Spotify or Apple Music to hear the rest. This isn’t just for established stars like Fleetwood Mac (or Mariah Carey or Lizzo, who’ve also had old songs spark new trends). One of TikTok’s most recent breakout artists, Olivia Rodrigo, watched her song “Drivers License” leap from TikTok sensation to 76 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the first week of its release; it even broke Spotify’s record for most streams for a non-holiday song in one day, with 15 million globally on Jan. 11. But for every Olivia Rodrigo (who’s now signed to Interscope and Geffen Records), there are countless more artists making comparably modest waves on TikTok, racking up streams in the thousands, not millions, and trying to live off more modest royalties.
For TikTok to truly change the music industry, it must provide more than just exposure: It has to give artists opportunities to monetize their work. How they do so is an individual choice for each artist, but so far, a few options are available: continue to amass streaming income, sign to a record label, or partner with brands to make sponsored content.
Tai Verdes, one of 2020’s biggest TikTok success stories, chose the first and second options. After releasing a snippet of a new song on TikTok, and building an ardent fanbase on the app for his diaristic feed—part chronology of building a song, part lighthearted glimpse into his personal life—he racked up streaming numbers in the millions for that completed song, “Stuck in the Middle.” He also signed a deal with Arista Records that gives him, among other autonomies, full ownership of his master recordings. He credits his TikTok following with allowing him to negotiate it.
“TikTok gives you leverage as an artist, which is something artists back in the day didn’t have,” said Verdes, 25. “You didn’t just have a 50-million-stream song out of nowhere. So now, you don’t have to do those old deals where you have to sign away four albums and they give you $2 million, which you have to pay back anyway.”
Several popular artists on TikTok have turned away from major labels in favor of more autonomous paths, including rapper Yung Baby Tate, who signed with Issa Rae’s Raedio startup. Pop-rapper Curtis Waters declined many offers from major labels because he “didn’t agree” with their terms and wanted to stay independent. (He later signed an open-ended deal with BMG, a record label and publishing company hybrid.)
Signing with a major label is still considered the brass ring by many artists, and assumed to be the express lane to fame and deep coffers. Label offers are still flying in 2021; Nathan Evans, star of TikTok’s quirky January sea shanty trend, just signed to Polydor. And what he—and all TikTok personalities—leverage with their legions of followers will continue to set the course for future deals in the music industry.
As TikTok continues to establish its place in an unsteady industry, it’s proving to have a palpable effect on music itself: the Billboard Top 10 songs of 2019 were, on average, 30 seconds shorter than the Top 10 songs of 2018—a much more dramatic change than the 20 seconds taken off songs between 2013 to 2018. Artists are condensing their songs, and one reason is clearly that easily looped beats and quick hooks are best for soundtracking TikTok videos.
Another point of potential impact: With labels lifting so many young artists from TikTok to contracts, they may be creating a “generation of one-hit wonders,” as music critic Mikael Wood told NPR. He said, “You’ve got folks who made a really cool song that resonated with people, and then you sign them up, and you’re sort of putting them into the chute of, like, major-label pop stardom, but they haven’t developed the kind of grassroots following that will actually see them through when their next song isn’t maybe a viral smash.”
In anticipating TikTok’s future, one variable is the eventual end of the pandemic: When the industry can return to its past staples of live events and collaborative recording projects, will music consumers still turn to TikTok like they did during lockdown?
Atlantic Records’ Paul Sinclair believes so.
“TikTok has become so much more than the thing people think it used to be; it’s become a short-format video platform. I think that’s fascinating and I think it has longevity,” he said. “I do think it’s going to last because people who use TikTok love TikTok, and I don’t think it’s more complicated than that. And as long as music fans are going to TikTok to explore music and cultural trends, it will have relevance in the music industry.”