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  • ruby crowhurst


TikTok is the social media sensation that nobody saw coming. Even a year ago, I was thinking how lame TikTok was and now I spent more time on it than I’d like to admit.

There's no denying that TikTok has had one hell of an influence on trends in the music industry throughout 2020. In a year when concerts couldn't happen, the music industry's presence on the internet and social media became all the more important. However, TikTok is the one platform that the industry hasn't quite cracked yet in terms of using it to its best capability.

So, let's take a dive into the complicated relationship between TikTok and the music industry and see why it hasn't quite been cracked yet, and if it ever can be.

The statistics

In the UK alone, where TikTok has arguably less influence than other countries, 40% of songs on that went to number 1 in 2020 (so far) were songs that were associated with TikTok trends or were directly made popular on the app. That’s one hell of an influence, that no other social media app has ever directly had on the charts.

As for the USA, going off of the Billboard Top 100 charts, 45% of songs that went to number one in 2020 were influenced by TikTok.

That’s one single app influencing nearly half of the charting music both sides of the Atlantic. It’s pretty remarkable.

How and why has this influence been so extensive?

Music is at its core

You can’t make a TikTok without a sound. Sure, there’s plenty of people who just talk and tell stories like a vlog on YouTube, but the majority of trends come from videos with specific sounds which are more often than not, songs. One of the huge formats of TikTok is ‘dances’ - which is what shot Charli D’amelio to fame, and every one of these new dances or trends needs a new song. So, when you think about it like that, it makes sense for the app to have such a big influence on music when it’s the only app that majoritively relies on music for the content.

Popularity with Gen Z

TikTok is the app to have right now, and Gen Z are the trendsetters. It’s always the case that younger generations are the gatekeepers of what’s in and what’s not, and right now, it's in. The app has around 850 million users per month (compared to Instagram’s 1 billion and YouTube’s 2 billion for context) [credit to Wallaroo]. Bearing in mind the app has only been around for 2 years, and it’s quickly creeping up to these numbers, and it’s not yet even popular within middle-older age groups, it’s clear to see that TikTok is a force unseen before.

Graph of TikTok usage by age in the US from Wallaroo

Also, it’s holding power is extensive. Because of its perfectly customised 'For You page' (which I'll talk a bit more about later) the app can keep you hooked for hours. When you see songs coming up repeatedly on the app, it’s going to drive into your brain and eventually, you will go and listen to it on a streaming app. Gen Z are supposedly spending 50 minutes per day on the app, with many going up to an average of 80 minutes.

Making any artists discoverable

One thing that TikTok does well, I would argue far better than any other social media platform, is giving everyone a fair chance.

Because of the way the algorithm of the ‘For You’ section of the app works, it means that any video from any user can show up as long as it’s relevant to the user. You could get videos from people who just joined the app yesterday.

This, therefore, means that new music or ‘audios’ are much easier to come across. Small artists who posted their first song yesterday could appear on the 'For You page' of one of the people that have millions upon millions of followers on the app, they use the sound to start a trend and voila, there’s suddenly a huge audience for this song and more than likely you’ll see this reflected in increased plays on streaming sites.

An example of this is mxmtoon. Completely unheard of until her song ‘Prom Dress’ became hugely popular audio, mainly for transition-style videos. Now she’s got nearly 6 million monthly listeners on Spotify. That one 15 second clip, which even got remixed to include Lil John’s vocals to create hilarious audio, boosted mxmtoon’s career.

This ‘giving everyone a fair chance’ is not only why you see brand new songs, but also why you see older songs making a resurgence. When a video of a girl crying and dancing to Mariah Carey’s ‘Obsessed’ went viral, it introduced a whole new audience to Mariah Carey’s older music.

Well, 2020

We were all stuck at home in 2020, so the only way to discover new music was via apps like TikTok. There are very few businesses who really profited from the pandemic, but TikTok was definitely one of them.

So, it could just be that we’re spending more time on social media apps like TikTok, and that’s why we discover music from it.

How can the music industry embrace this?

This massive influence makes TikTok a very powerful marketing tool. Over 2020, we’ve seen plenty of artists take to TikTok to promote their music, including trying (and usually failing) to initiate dance trends.

However, it seems that the music industry doesn’t quite get TikTok. Where most apps, like Instagram, embrace the culture of celebrity, it’s very difficult to get the same sort of response on TikTok.

TikTok is far more unpredictable, and it has a completely different audience to most social media platforms. Unless you’re a music artist that can make jokes about spiraling mental health or is obsessed with Draco Malfoy, then you might have some issues with finding a place on TikTok.

People don’t respond well to blatant promotions, and music artists will get absolutely called out if they don’t know how to use the app properly. Gen Z are ruthless.

So, what’s really interesting is that you can’t really control what TikTok makes popular or what they don’t pick up on, which means the music industry has to be reactive to the app rather than the other way round, which is pretty unprecedented.

Winning example

The only music-related celebrity I’ve seen do really well on TikTok is Miley Cyrus, and that wasn’t even because of her own videos. Miley, or her team (nobody knows which), started commenting on TikTok’s where people were saying ‘If Miley

Cyrus comments I’ll chop my hair into a mullet or ’Whatever Miley Cyrus comments I’ll name my baby’. The comments were hilarious and felt genuine, which lead to screenshots of these interactions making the rounds on other social media channels, and no doubt, a surge in streams of her new album.

It’ll be interesting to see the way music artists try and take on TikTok, and whether any of them do it well.

What are the risks?

One-hit wonders

The thing is with TikTok is it’s not necessarily the artist that trends or becomes popular, it’s one single song and even then, it’s only one section of the song that becomes popular.

This, therefore, leads to a real risk of this one song becoming popular and then the artist being forgotten after that. Plus, it’s very difficult to intentionally get a song trending on TikTok, so any future releases would be very difficult to market on the same app which brought people to the artist in the first place.

It’s an incredibly difficult position to be in, but one that often can’t be avoided or predicted.

Young audiences

Although TikTok users may be more varied in age, TikTok’s biggest audience is those between the ages of 10-19.

The reality is young people don’t spend money. They may help spread the word on social media, but they won’t be the ones buying concert tickets or merchandise - it'll more likely be their parents.

Also, it can really limit artists if their music base is predominantly very young people, as they are almost held to a higher standard than artists with an older fan base but simultaneously taken less seriously. It's a real balancing act.

Young fans may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it can be difficult if that’s not the intended audience for artists in the first place.

Final thoughts

Whatever you think of TikTok, its influence is undeniable, and even from a personal perspective, I’ve definitely been put on to some new music from TikTok myself and I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon.

I look forward to seeing how the music industry takes on TikTok in 2021. It will have no choice but to embrace it with open arms, but how it will do that, is anyone's guess. Let's just hope the app doesn't get oversaturated with marketing ploys and doesn't lose the existing charm that makes it a great place to discover new and smaller artists.


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