Michael Pelchat is one of more than 40 million Americans who are active on the immensely popular app TikTok; like many others, he uses it to make madcap dance videos set to music, searching for a new kind of fame. In February, he uploaded a snippet of a then-unknown song, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” to the platform. Unless you’ve been stuck in a black hole, you know it blew up after that: It’s been the Number One track in the country for seven consecutive weeks.
Pelchat, who goes by @nicemichael and is rarely caught on camera without an ear-to-ear grin, is a 21-year-old beanpole with a beard and a large selection of baseball hats. He paired “Old Town Road” with a quick-cutting clip of him transforming into a cowboy in his bedroom in Lowell, Massachusetts. Months later, more than three million videos have been made using “Old Town Road,” and its popularity has spread far beyond TikTok.
Anyone can get lucky once. But @nicemichael has a knack for finding hip-hop singles by unknown acts and presenting them in a way that captures the imagination of TikTok’s large — and rapidly growing — user base. He says he uploaded 10k.Caash’s “Kerwin Frost Scratch That” to TikTok at the end of February; now 1.5 million videos have been made using the track. Less than 500 people were using Flo Milli’s “Beef FloMix” for videos when Nice Michael got to it; now over a million clips have relied on the single, and Flo Milli is attracting interest from major labels.
As a result of his good ear and winning goofiness, Pelchat has seen exponential growth in followers. But like many working in the digital economy, Pelchat effectively serves as an unpaid marketing expert. Artists whose music he likes might get a big payday — Pelchat says Lil Nas X signed to Columbia for $1.5 million; Columbia declined to comment — but Nice Michael is still working a day job for Gatorade.
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“I’m in charge of making sure that stuff that’s on sale in flyers is on display at grocery stores,” he says. “I started a couple of trends that caught on, but I didn’t get a whole lot of credit for them.”
Pelchat’s success on TikTok was not preordained. He has long nursed an interest in photography, but six years of Instagramming left him with only 2,500 followers. And he didn’t use Musical.ly, a lip-sync-video app that was merged with TikTok last summer.
Pelchat was drawn to TikTok initially due to the ease of the app. “I was making those videos in iMovie by taking 40 different clips, editing it together on my phone and then adding music, hoping that it lined up in the spots that I wanted it to,” he explains. “I just could never execute them correctly. Then I found TikTok and that’s where you can do all of that right in-app.”
His Instagram name was already @nicemichael — “I just wanted people to see my videos and be like, ‘nice, Michael'” — so he adopted the same moniker on TikTok when he joined in November. The first clip he made that connected with users was set to Flipp Dinero’s hit “Leave Me Alone.” Despite the mean-spirited single, Nice Michael was aggressively upbeat. “I was smiling the whole time just naturally,” he recalls. “Everyone in the comments was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s so positive! He’s so happy. I love how much he smiles.’ I’ve stuck with that ever since.”
Aside from positivity, though, there’s no simple formula to his TikTok success. “They like good lighting [in videos], obviously,” Pelchat says. “They like bright colors, from what I’ve found.” But “I can’t give the key to someone who has no following to do it.”
Still, it’s possible to glean some clues from @nicemichael’s successes: in particular, from his astute alignment of music and image, which seems to boost the clips as much as the dancing. When Pelchat found “Old Town Road” on Twitter and heard the line “I got horses in the back,” he quickly decided the direction he wanted to take: “I just wanted my opportunity to wear country clothes because I thought it was funny,” he says. “I found Lil Nas X on Instagram. He had 3,000 followers. I was like, ‘I’m going to be pulling the track off of SoundCloud, so I want to make sure that you’re okay with me using it.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ That was when it all started.”
Pelchat’s popular clip for Supa Dupa Humble’s “Steppin'” (close to 30,000 likes) also takes cues from the song itself. The track involves frequent repetition of the line, “I don’t know.” In Pelchat’s video, he keeps asking his girlfriend where they should go out to eat, only to get the same maddeningly indecisive response: “I don’t know.” Visual cues drive the clip for “Beef Flomix” (117,000 likes) as well. Pelchat, beaming as always, holds up dollar bills when Flo Milli raps “I like cash,” acts out “do the dash,” and cuts to a nonplussed housecat during the line “pussy put a spell on him.”
As the likes pile up on Pelchat’s videos, he has started to earn a small income stream. Lil Nas X got back in touch as “Old Town Road” was flying up the charts. “He was just like, ‘Thank you, man, for changing my life, here’s $500,'” Pelchat says. Flo Milli’s manager sought out Pelchat and offered him $200 to make a clip for “Beef Flomix.” Pelchat now charges most artists $500 to make a video set to their song, and he gets multiple requests every day. “I need to listen to the songs before I say yes,” he notes, “’cause I’m not going to promote a song that I don’t think is good.”
The money is nice, but he still wishes artists were more considerate. He hoped to get some exposure in Lil Nas X’s official “Old Town Road” video, but he did not end up in the clip. 10k.Caash asked Pelchat to send along his “Kerwin Frost Scratch That” video, but the rapper re-posted it on Instagram without tagging the creator. “Don’t ask me for the video if you’re not going to give me credit,” Pelchat says.
The career of Seth Vangeldren, a 12-year-old who is now pulling in major money to promote rappers’ music with dance videos, serves as a possible model for @nicemichael. “He has like 600,000 [followers], but if you look at my like ratio, me and him are pretty similar,” Pelchat says. “His good videos obviously do better than mine because he has so many more followers. But on average he’s doing like 20 to 30,000 [likes] a video, and I’m doing the same thing on Instagram. And on TikTok, I’m easily pushing over 200,000 views every video.”
He’s hunting for ways to convert that leverage into a more reliable salary — and leave Gatorade displays behind. “By the summer,” Pelchat adds, “I’m hoping that I don’t need to do [a day job] anymore.”