TikTok has been downloaded over two billion times, but some artists still remain wary of the app, uncomfortable with its reputation as an engine for dance crazes. “Some people think they’re too good for the platform, don’t want to disgrace their art — ‘this is the song, only play it on Spotify,'” says Tai Verdes, a 24-year-old, 6’7″ singer-songwriter who once hoped to play in the NBA. “Fuck that!”
“If you’re an artist and you’re not on TikTok, you don’t want it bad enough,” Verdes continues. “TikTok is like buying lottery tickets. I just played a bunch of lottery tickets.”
The winner was “Stuck in the Middle,” a charmingly scruffy single about romantic limbo that established a residency in the upper reaches of the Spotify Viral 50 on July 4 and has been hovering there ever since. The song recently passed two million streams on Spotify, an accomplishment that Verdes celebrated with a TikTok video set at the Verizon store where he still works.
Now that Verdes is on the rise, he’s using the story of his own breakthrough to urge on other aspiring artists. If at first you don’t succeed, “change your name, maybe get a fucking haircut, try it again,” he says. “Everyone should do that if your shit is not popping. People don’t care [that it didn’t work the first time].”
Verdes built up his own pile of rejection letters trying out repeatedly for singing shows like American Idol and The Voice. “I wanted someone to say, ‘that guy’s good, let’s put him in the next round,'” he recalls. “Never happened, not even one time.” (He had more luck in other sectors of reality TV, winning money on the sixth season of the dating show Are You the One?) Verdes was also putting out songs under the name Tylersemicolon; it wasn’t gaining traction. “I was releasing music that was trash,” he jokes.
After being cut from singing show tryouts last year for the seventh time, Verdes adopted a new training regimen: Every day he would sit in his car, safely out of his roommates’ hearing, and do vocal exercises for 90 minutes. “I didn’t sing off-key, but my songwriting was up here and my performance and ability to sing was way down there,” he says.
He held down a job five days a week with Verizon and spent late nights scouring YouTube for beats. “I’m on there at three a.m. at the third level of deep, dark YouTube to find people that don’t have enough subscribers [for their music to be commonly used],” Verdes says.
If this gets 1000 likes I’ll put this song out.
One of these YouTube rabbit holes led him to the lolling, bass-forward instrumental for “Stuck in the Middle,” which had less than 2,000 plays at the time. Verdes wrote the top line in roughly an hour and a half, piecing together a collage of phrases pulled “verbatim from things girls have said to me.” The opening salvo — “She said, ‘you’re a player aren’t you? And I bet you got hoes” — “might as well be stamped on my fucking forehead,” Verdes continues. “Every girl says that to me.”
He was already attempting to use TikTok as a promotional tool — promising to send money to influencers who made videos with the Tylersemicolon song “Skin Routine”— before he wrote “Stuck in the Middle.” But most of Verdes’ TikTok clips only amassed a few hundred or a few thousand views. When he sat in his car, the same one where he practiced his scales, and teased “Stuck in the Middle,” his view count shot up past 300,000. He captioned the post, “if this gets 1,000 likes I’ll put it out;” he ended up with more than 60,000 likes.
Much of modern music marketing involves trying to create sparks of digital interest and scurrying to pour lighter fluid on anything that catches. Verdes didn’t have a manager or label, but he warmed quickly to this task, turning his TikTok account into a daily diary about “Stuck in the Middle.”
Verdes posted a video about making his own album artwork, a jokey clip explaining how to dance to his song, and a biographical entry that sketched his backstory as a Verizon salesperson who longed “to perform in front of sold-out crowds.” When Spotify streaming data showed that 87% of “Stuck in the Middle” listeners were male, Verdes implored the boys to play the song for some women; the female share of listeners climbed to 33%. “I’ve never seen an artist use TikTok as a storytelling mechanism the way he does,” says Ryan Chisholm, who manages Mike Posner and recently took on Verdes as well.
I’m a dance major #stuckinthemiddle
“Stuck in the Middle” is an outlier relative to the horde of TikTok hits that have taken over Spotify’s viral chart in the last year. Most songs appear on the ranking because TikTokers are using them to soundtrack hundreds of thousands of videos. But “Stuck in the Middle” has only been used in around 5,000 clips. It’s not accompanied by a popular dance or a narrative trend. Verdes just keeps talking about the song on his TikTok account, which has now ballooned from 6,000 followers to more than 100,000.
“I wish I could tell you how this was happening,” Chisholm says. “The only thing I can chalk it up to is the small number of people who hear [‘Stuck in the Middle’] are liking it and coming back.” Early on, Spotify users “were listening on average four times,” and more than 40% of listeners saved the song to their personal libraries.
If the mechanism behind the single’s success remains a mystery, the message is clear: “If you’ve got songs you haven’t released, you’re just waiting, put it out,” Verdes says. “Everyone needs to take their shot as many times as possible. At the end of the day, it’s all lottery tickets. You gotta fucking get one.”