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How TikTok is changing music
How one app is changing how musical stars are made.
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The big idea
TikTok has altered the contours of the music industry, from artists’ path to stardom to the power of record company executives.
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By the numbers
60: Seconds is the maximum length of each TikTok video
150: Countries where TikTok is available
60%: TikTok users who are born after 1996 (Gen Z)
10%: Spotify artists that receive 99.4% of the platform’s streaming payouts
$75 billion: 2019 valuation of TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, according to Bloomberg
176: Songs with videos that surpassed 1 billion views on TikTok in 2020
17: Weeks Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was at number one on the Billboard charts, a record, after blowing up on TikTok
8.47 million: Streams of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Dreams” in a single week in Sept. 2020
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“The video blew the song up. I told Nathan, ‘You know, Fleetwood Mac owes you big time.’ I think this has been super great, and it’s become an education for me.”
—Mick Fleetwood, of the band Fleetwood Mac, on the TikTok video that earned his band’s 1977 song “Dreams” millions of hits.
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2016: The video sharing app Douyin debuts in China
2017: TikTok, similar to Douyin but using a separate server, launches
2018: TikTok goes global
Dec. 2018: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” storms TikTok. A few months later the song wins the rapper two Grammys.
2019: TikTok hits 1 billion downloads
Aug 2020: President Donald Trump tries to ban TikTok, citing security concerns
2020: TikTok is the most downloaded app of the year
Feb 2021: President Joe Biden halts TikTok’s sale to Oracle and Walmart
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One big number
70: Artists who signed with major record labels in 2020 after going viral on TikTok
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Person of interest
In May 2020, 25-year-old Los Angeles resident Tai Verdes wasn’t getting far in the music industry. He had failed multiple auditions for American Idol and The Voice and practiced singing in his car for an hour-and-a-half every night.
By Aug. 2020, that had all changed. His song “Stuck in the Middle” had gotten 4.5 million streams, reached the no. 1 spot on the Spotify Viral 50 chart, and been used in thousands of fan videos on TikTok. Now Verdes was fielding multiple record deals from major labels. He used all of this to negotiate a contract with Arista Records that gives him a level of creative control many established musical stars would envy—and he gives the credit to TikTok.
“I didn’t have a part in the old music industry at all. It was me doing stuff and no one listening,” said Verdes. “Then TikTok made people listen.”
Verdes is one of a new generation of artists harnessing their online popularity to dodge the common trap doors of the “old music industry.”
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The billion-dollar question
Can TikTok become a lasting music kingmaker?
One reason TikTok’s rise is notable is that it is happening during an especially precarious time for the music industry. Record labels, both major and indie, are still figuring out how to turn profits online. 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.
“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,” said Paul Sinclair, general manager and executive vice president of Atlantic Records. “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.”
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Commonly held question
How does TikTok’s algorithm work?
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. TikTok, for its part, has generalized 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).
But no one has perfectly mastered how to go viral on TikTok. “Breaking on TikTok is an inexact science,” said Binta Brown, music manager and executive. “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.”
And 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.
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We just mentioned a lot of songs. So we made a playlist of them, along with some other songs (new and old) that have blown up on TikTok.
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How TikTok became China’s first global app. The rise of TikTok highlights a significant development: China’s growing influence in consumer technology outside of its own borders.
TikTok is a sleeping e-commerce giant. TikTok is still relatively unproven as a business, but that hasn’t stopped advertisers from investing heavily in the social platform.
Does TikTok have a problem with Black women’s bodies? TikTok says it believes in “diversity, inclusion, and authenticity.” But some Black brands and creators say that has not been their experience on the app.
Indian TikTok copycats are hardly a match for the real deal. After TikTok was banned in India, local apps have jockeyed to take its place.