“Tik-a-Tok-a-Who?”, was Adele’s response to her management’s suggestion to promote her music to younger audiences on Tiktok, the video-sharing platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance.
“If everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making music for my generation?”, she asked.
Adele might resist, but the platform has nonetheless been popularising and promoting her song Easy on me, with creators using it in almost one million videos in the first month after its release, making it viral on the app alone.
That’s because creator culture on TikTok is changing the way hits are made, how music is promoted, and how the world discovers music, even for those artists who choose not to engage with it.
TikTok makes hits
In early 2019, an unknown 19-year-old college drop-out from Atlanta, Georgia, made headlines around the world.
Living at his sister’s house and feeling bit lonely, in December 2018 he had bought a simple beat for US $30, recorded a song, half country and half rap, and posted it on Soundcloud and social media. The artist made news because Billboard magazine had removed the song from its country charts, after it took off in popularity, entering both the country and general Hot 100 charts.
The artist’s name was Lil Nas X and the song Old Town Road, which has since become the most successful song of all time, the first ever song to reach 15 times platinum. Much of this success can be credited to the song becoming an early TikTok “meme”, picked up by millions of users.
Old Town Road has become the origin story for a remarkable series of viral musical successes on TikTok. In each case artists have shot to popularity, because their songs were used by millions of TikTok users in their videos.
Virality on TikTok is powerful yet unpredictable. Some of 2021’s biggest global hits gained little traction when they were initially released to small audiences. Africa’s most successful pop song ever, CKay’s Love, Nwantiti, was released in 2019, but shot to fame only in 2021 and has now been used in more than 7 million TikTok videos.
Similarly, Australia’s Masked Wolf found himself in the spotlight in 2021, making Barrack Obama’s summer playlist and having been nominated for five ARIA awards. While his song Astronaut in the Ocean became a global hit more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it was released two years prior by a small Australian label. It has since been used in more than 18 million TikTok videos.
And while many artists, like Lil Nas X, create for virality on TikTok, others go viral even when unaware of the platform. We spoke to Masked Wolf who admitted:
I never made Astro to be on TikTok. I didn’t even know what TikTok was when I released Astronaut.
But it is not just new songs. Old songs are making remarkable comebacks with entirely new audiences. When a man named Nathan Apodaca went viral after he posted a video of himself gliding down a highway on his long board, casually drinking cranberry juice from a bottle, he was lip-syncing to Dreams, the 1977 Fleetwood Mac hit. Dreams was subsequently used by millions of TikTok creators and re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 more than 40 years after its original release.
How it works
Videos created on the TikTok app are short. Most videos are less than 15 seconds long (though videos of up to 60 seconds are possible). Music plays a big part in these videos, many show dance moves or lip syncing, though there are others where users talk, even giving financial advice. When users create their videos, they will usually choose a song and select a short clip, often the catchiest bits of a song, like the chorus or beat drop.
Users can upload their own sound clips, but the app will detect copyrighted material that its owners do not allow on the platform and mute the sound. Instead, the app has in recent years put together an extensive catalogue of music authorised by big music labels, who have come on board due to TikTok’s role in producing global hits.
Behind this virality are so-called challenges, in which often millions of users create their own versions of a visual story or dance move set to the same music clip, and promoted by the platform using hashtags. For example, in the #yeehaw challenge that brought Old Town Road to fame, people dressed in normal clothes and danced until the beat changed in the clip, when they would instantly transform into cowgirls or cowboys.
But videos on TikTok do not directly contribute to chart success. However, there is a direct correlation between a song going viral on TikTok and it gaining in popularity on music streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube, all of which in turn contribute to the Billboard charts.
What it means for artists, listeners and the music industry
In our research, we spoke to Ole Obermann, Global Head of Music for TikTok and ByteDance, about the impact for artists, the music industry and music lovers. Ole points to the diversity of music on TikTok and new opportunities for finding music far beyond one’s usual taste.
He also stresses TikTok’s role in discovering artists from all corners of the globe: “I do see a pretty profound impact on the global nature of music as a result of TikTok but also music streaming overall. It’s so much more possible for a song that comes out of Australia or India or Korea or Japan or Saudi Arabia. To end up becoming a global hit and to be listened to by audiences all over the world.”
The recent successes of Love Nwantiti and Astronaut in the Ocean are just two examples to make this point.
TikTok is an excellent platform for listeners to gain exposure to new and different music. TikTok’s self-learning algorithm serves up new videos as a seemingly endless stream, allowing users to be exposed to a large amount of new music quickly, given videos are very short. When a user likes a particular song, with a simple tap they can instantly watch more videos set to the same clip.
The music industry is also coming on board, convinced by the viral success the platform produces. Ole Obermann again:
I think the acceptance has come now because that’s what the fans want. And it’s a way to create more engagement with the music, but there was a lot of resistance for many years, because it was just not the way that the music industry has traditionally worked.
The initial resistance is not surprising, given TikTok presents a significant shift from the industry’s understanding of recorded music as something to be listened to, to be passively consumed. Engagement with music on TikTok is very different, because music becomes a material for creation, for creative expression.
Importantly, what we see today is likely only the beginning, both in terms of new forms of creative expression, and promoting and marketing music in new ways.
But success also attracts investment, and creating on TikTok will likely become more commercialised over time. So far much of the virality has happened organically. But music labels increasingly hire professional influencers to use their music, or work with consultants to make songs more “TikTokkable”, in an attempt to engineer the next viral trend.
It remains to be seen if this will crowd out organic creativity, or if artists will feel pressure to create for TikTok virality, as foreshadowed by Adele.
Professor of Information Technology and Organisation, University of Sydney
Director, Sydney Business Insights, University of Sydney
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.