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SPIN THE RECORD

How TikTokers get record deals

A sound board
REUTERS/Rafael Marchante
For record companies, an artist who goes viral is a safer bet, but still a risk.
By Jordan Lebeau
Published Last updated

Binta Brown doesn’t use TikTok. Well, she does, but not nearly as much as you’d think. She doesn’t post her versions of memed challenges or duet the latest dance craze—for Brown, TikTok is for work. As a music manager and executive who has relationships with artists across genres and around the US, Brown might browse the app for new talent when she’s got the time and space for a new artist.

But an independent artist with a TikTok following or viral video isn’t guaranteed a call from Brown, which makes her unlike a growing number of reps from major labels. In an industry increasingly beholden to algorithmic whims, follower counts, video views, and streaming trends, a record company can sign a viral artist with the promise of big money, but it comes with the risk that their following won’t translate into revenue.

Going viral

Social media has long been a proving ground for burgeoning musicians. Platforms like MySpace, YouTube, and SoundCloud have helped artists like Soulja Boy, Lil B The Basedgod, Sean Kingston, Adele, and Calvin Harris find a following and eventually make it big. It’s enough to make lots of new musicians believe their best path towards stardom lies in being “discovered” online. The record deal is one of the paths TikTok-famous artists can follow to monetize their virality—for many it’s an appealing one for the perceived financial security, star-making exposure, and established distribution channels.

“I’ve been in music officially since 2014, so there’s never been too much going to bars to see new artists perform,” said Brown, who ditched corporate law to fully devote herself to the music business. “I’ve always checked social media when I have space to take on somebody new, but I’m most likely to discover artists via recommendations from other artists with whom I’ve worked.”

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Lately it seems that TikTok, and its apparent ability to launch songs into the stratosphere of hits, has eclipsed other platforms as artists look for a path towards success. TikTok itself recently reported that 70 musical artists went on to sign major label deals in 2020. “It seems like TikTok has a monopoly on everything going viral, so I think ‘viral’ has become slang for ‘huge on TikTok’ for a lot of young artists,” said T.Unique, a singer and musical instructor based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

But no one has perfectly mastered how to go viral on TikTok, Brown noted. “Breaking on TikTok is an inexact science,” she said, “it tends to be a confluence of a bunch of smaller influencers who are talking about the same thing organically, as paid influencers promoting an artist’s work has become extremely transparent to most consumers.”

That can mean artists are less likely to make it big on the platform than they may assume, even if they go viral. “TikTok is all about numbers, and there’s a really impractical expectation that you can actually become a superstar overnight,” Brown said.

Labels can’t manufacture their own viral moments, so they have long looked to ride indie groundswell to billboard success and touring revenue. TikTok is the latest platform for that grassroots popularity to take hold—a billion impressions implies that an artist has wide appeal—which makes it tempting for record companies. A number of music execs Quartz interviewed, who were unable to speak on the record at the request of their employer, agreed with this characterization of the industry.

“As long as music fans are going to TikTok to explore music and cultural trends, it will have relevance in the music industry,” Paul Sinclair, general manager and executive vice president of Atlantic Records, told Quartz.

“If you [managers and labels] need to put points on the board quickly, you can look at virality,” Brown said.

But this comes with risks and potential costs. “Now, virality has led to a tragedy of short-term thinking,” where labels and artists alike have distilled the breaking and discovery of new artists to a numbers game, Brown said. “You can chase virality and find yourself in a bidding war, and wind up spending more than you necessarily should be.”

Leveraging TikTok fame

Going viral and becoming a successful musician are not the same skill. Becoming successful after starting online means leveraging an online following into a true fanbase—one that will spend money on your records and go to your concerts (when those can happen again). TikTok makes this particularly difficult; the same functions on the platform that make songs easily shareable and seemingly everywhere also make users interact with those songs more passively. Unlike TikTok, MySpace, SoundCloud, and Twitter encouraged listeners to engage more personally with new and established artists while sharing and providing feedback on completed songs and projects.

“Most of the songs that break on TikTok use less than 30 seconds of each track,” Unique said, “so you might not get paid for any of those plays even if 10,000 people do your challenge and all of the videos get a total of 10 billion views.” Brown agreed. “Anybody who has the drive and determination can give a go at putting out music and building an audience,” she said, but “people are distracted today, and there can be so much of something that there’s actually nothing.”

Unique has formed lasting relationships with fans, managers and other artists from feedback and comments received from Instagram and YouTube users, but “I think most artists would agree that you’d be hard-pressed to build relationships on TikTok. It moves so fast, and you can’t always find the thing you really loved five minutes ago.”

While a TikTok following may make it easier to manage or market an upcoming artist, “you also have to be careful how you cultivate your fanbase as an artist,” Brown said. “If you only post selfies en route to 100,000 followers, they’ve come to see your face. They might not necessarily come to listen to your music.” While artists struggle to capture viral follower counts across platforms, managers can quickly come to realize that not all engagement leads to value.

Unique has seen how the advent of TikTok as music’s newest proving ground has changed how followers engage with new music overall. “It takes a lot longer to break as an artist, because unless you go viral, it takes so much more time to build your audience between the major platforms,” he said, while noting that virality often looks different across platforms. “You’ve got to make sure your content is appropriate for each platform, shorten it for your desired effect, and give folks just enough without giving too much, so that people will actually listen to your stuff off of the platform,” he said.

He doesn’t think social media is totally without value—“the access to other artists I get from social media is a positive aspect,” Unique said. “But if your content isn’t optimized to keep a user’s attention and engage with you beyond the platform, then you won’t eat.”

“If you can’t get your followers to click the link in your bio, your 1 million followers and the next artist’s 500 followers might make you two the same amount of money,” Unique said.

A record deal offers some protection from the whims of the internet. Without a song’s virality, “the [record company] might not get clearance from the CFO to write you the largest advance check,” Brown said, “but they may be willing to invest in you in more meaningful ways,” that could ultimately keep artists working for longer under more agreeable conditions.

But being signed to a label comes with its own burdens for musicians. Many artists, weighed down by labels’ numbers-dependent expectations, can falter without proper guidance. “If the numbers were the only thing that attracted the label to you, the numbers could very well be the only factor by which they decide to move on,” said Brown, who noted that non-viral artists may flourish free of the weight of lofty budgets and news headlines. “[When] you break 1 billion impressions on TikTok,” Brown added, a feat reached by only 176 songs last year, “if you get a deal and your single goes nowhere, that label is going to drop you.”

Relying on virality as a marketing strategy, according to both Brown and Unique, may be too risky to be worthwhile for most TikTok artists. Virality might draw users to them for a time, but “if you don’t know your craft and your fundamentals, that’s all going to go away, and if you were struggling before, you might be worse off when it’s all said and done,” Unique said.

“Virality aside,” Brown agreed, “I have to look at the fundamentals to be successful. Can you sing? Can you be developed, or are you convinced you know it all because you made it here?”

Brown warned that most artists would be keen to peg their hopes for mainstream viability on something beyond social media metrics. “But even when you do go viral,” Brown noted, “which there’s no real way to predict, you still have to do the work.”

In the hands of a capable artist with an established support system and a high talent level, however, Brown doesn’t see any reason TikTok should pass from the zeitgeist without birthing a bona fide superstar. “Billie Eilish broke off of SoundCloud,” Brown said, “but go and listen to the music, it’s clear that she works constantly…the label deal is just the beginning, it’s hard work.”