Everyone is using TikTok nowadays. It is the latest social media platform that has created a new advertising arena for companies and paved the way for a unique “influencer” culture. Content or songs can organically go viral much easier than they can with other platforms like youtube, Instagram, or Facebook.
TikTok has changed more than you may think in the past few years when it comes to marketing, but one of the major things the app has affected is the music industry. Everything from how artists promote new songs, how listeners discover new music, and even the type of songs that are becoming viral revolves around TikTok and the app’s complex algorithm.
So, in this article, I aim to break down TikTok’s relationship with the music industry. I’ll talk about the good things coming out of it and expose some of the uglier sides as well.
Let’s talk about how music listening has evolved in the 21st century
In the year 2000, CDs ruled the world in terms of how we listened to music. I distinctly remember the feeling of getting a new CD, popping it into my Discman, and listening to the entire album from start to finish. Physical album sales slowly dropped after the year 2000, after the iPod was released in October 2001. An astonishing 940 million CDs were shipped to the USA in 2000, while only 32 million were shipped in 2020.
The iPod was one of the most revolutionary devices of the 21st century. The device made your CD bookshelf obsolete since you could now permanently store over 1,000 songs on a single handheld device.
One of the more significant effects of the introduction of the iPod and iTunes on the music industry is that you no longer had to listen to entire albums from start to finish. Instead, you could now purchase individual songs and seamlessly switch albums, songs, or even artists with the click of a button.
Introducing music streaming!
The iPod was a HUGE success, selling more than 400 million units as of 2022. But the primary way people listen to music nowadays is through music streaming apps such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Deezer. These apps are subscription-based and allow users to listen to as many songs and artists as they want for a monthly fee. Discovering new music has never been easier, and it costs much less for artists to produce albums. This means that artists don’t necessarily need to land record deals to make albums, leading to many artists releasing independently produced music on streaming sites.
While these apps saved the music industry from illegal downloading and piracy, there is some controversy around them. Musicians get very little money from the sites. For example, Spotify only pays artists $.003 to $.005 per stream.
So, where does TikTok fit into this?
In 2019, TikTok was a new social media platform primarily used to record dance routines to a small library of songs to which the app had the rights. Since then, TikTok has become one of the most widely used social media platforms worldwide, especially among Gen Z. The app has more than 1 billion active users.
One of the first songs to gain massive popularity was “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. The song was initially independently released, but after going viral on TikTok, Columbia made a record deal with Lil Nas X, and the song was re-recorded with country star Billy Ray Cyrus.
Lil Nas X’s incredible rise in popularity sparked the interest of many in the music industry, and TikTok quickly became the new way to promote music. Record labels started paying influencers to make videos with new songs and even creating dance challenges to try and make new songs viral. And in most cases, this worked!
TikTok has become a trend-setting app that is an excellent way for artists to promote content and for music fans to discover new songs.
A trendsetting platform
TikTok is a trendsetter at its core. The app’s algorithm is based on an interest graph rather than things you follow (like Facebook and Instagram). This means that anything TikTok thinks you may like will show up on your “For You” page. This makes the chances of content going viral much higher on TikTok than on other platforms.
This algorithm makes it easier for relatively unknown artists to promote their music and for famous artists to create a lot of hype about an upcoming release. Take Lizzo, for example. She promoted her number 1 hit single “About Damn Time” on TikTok after its release, which in part led to this song’s success and built up a ton of interest for her upcoming album.
But there are some downsides to TikTok’s takeover
In the last decade, Instagram, Youtube, and other apps have lowered our attention spans when it comes to media. Scrolling has become the norm, and if a video or picture does not catch our attention in a few minutes or even a few seconds, we lose interest. TikTok Takes “scrolling” to the next level, and new music is adapting to this.
Focusing all of the song’s energy on a 30-second hook
Creating songs for TikTok is all about the hook. Pop songs have always used catchy hooks that get stuck in listeners’ heads. But content on TikTok averages around 20-30 seconds, so artists have begun to move towards writing specific sections of their songs to fit into the TikTok ecosystem. Many artists write their songs with TikTok marketing in mind.
Not only does this mean that SOME (not all) new songs are pretty bland outside of the 30 seconds that become TikTok famous, but listeners are also becoming more and more disinterested in music that doesn’t catch their attention in the first 30 seconds.
Overplaying a snippet of a song on TikTok before it is released
One marketing strategy some artists and record labels have been trialing is to get a portion of a new song to go viral on TikTok before it is released. And while this has worked, there are some negative consequences. For example, the chorus of Sam Smith’s new song “Unholy” went viral on TikTok well before it was released. So when the label eventually dropped the song, it hugely underperformed because it had been cycled through TikTok millions of times, and fans had already lost interest.
This is yet another example of listeners’ attention spans getting shorter and shorter.
Give this a try…
Find a song that has become famous on TikTok in the last 2 years. Then, play the first intro and first verse of the song (which is rarely the part that goes viral) and see if you and your friends recognize the song. While you may recognize some of the most famous songs, I can guarantee there are many songs you won’t be able to identify until the TikTok hook comes along.
Let’s take a look at the stats
- 430 songs gained more than 1 billion views on TikTok in 2021.
- Around 67% of TikTok users will seek out songs on Spotify, Apple Music, or other streaming sites after initially hearing the song on TikTok.
- 25% of the new artists that had songs on the top charts in 2020 and 2021 gained their popularity from Tiktok.
So, is TikTok good or bad for the music industry?
A little bit of both. TikTok provides a means for new artists to go viral and reach levels of success that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to do. Lil Nas X’s unlikely rise to fame is an excellent example of this.
The consequence of TikTok on the music industry is artists and record labels overmarketing and overusing the platform to create trendy songs that make money fast.
Call me a fundamentalist, but all music (even pop music) should be about the art and soul. While new music remains an art form, TikTok could force artists to lose their authenticity for the sake of making songs go viral.