Earlier this month, Shannon Mingal, a digital marketer at Epic Records, received an unexpected text: A glossary of 40 to 50 phrases supposedly used by Gen Z, the sub-25, tech-savvy demographic whose preferences currently dictate the streaming charts, an all-important barometer of success in the music industry. The collection ranged from relatively grasp-able (“legend,” an expression of enthusiasm that has become one of Mingal’s favorites) to wordy (“I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it,” another endorsement) to nearly indecipherable (“chair but make it electric,” a derisive statement).
The glossary was provided by Tim Collins, a 25-year-old Swedish marketing aficionado and co-founder of Creed Media, which works with Epic to promote the label’s artists on TikTok and other platforms. Collins and members of his team collect popular terms from their daily adventures on social media. “He’s like, ‘hey guys, you need to use these words in our group chat moving forward,'” Mingal explains. “Their approach to business is like the way method actors approach their art: They live and breathe this world.”
Creed’s interest in keeping clients up to date on Gen Z slang is entirely sincere. Now when Mingal wants to write “haha” in her group chat with Collins, she relies on another combination of letters (maybe “GHGHGH”); when she wants to communicate excitement, she leans on “obsessed.” “Silly as it sounds, [Creed] has given us such a great insight into this world,” Mingal adds. “A lot of us are millennials, so we’re trying as marketers to better understand the Gen Z audience.”
In the modern music industry, digital marketing companies are ubiquitous. They promise access to influencers with large followings who have the potential to spark trends, spread memes far and wide, and hopefully cause enough of a ruckus on the internet to boost an artist’s streams.
At a time when TikTok — which has more than 100 million monthly active users in the U.S., many of them young teens — has become the center of the musical universe for anyone hoping to climb the charts, these companies have gained even more leverage. Labels will run third-party marketing campaigns that cost six figures in the hopes of triggering a tidal wave of interest on TikTok.
But few of the digital gurus seem as thoroughly committed to their cause as Creed, which has now started to ask its closest label partners to speak like the demographic they are trying to reach. “You’re educating yourself on what’s current and what’s not,” Collins says. “In order to keep the energy high in the group, it’s fun to add some lingo in there, make everyone confused and feel like, ‘Holy shit! This is super new.'” (People shouldn’t be too confused, of course: “Important information should always be conveyed in a way that makes sense and is clear.”)
Creed’s unorthodox methods have been accompanied by a steady trickle of hits, as the company has played a key role in the rise of Trevor Daniel’s “Falling” (850 million streams on Spotify to date), Surf Mesa’s “ily (i love you baby)” (379 million), S1mba’s “Rover” (125 million), and the viral remix to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” among others.
Collins started focusing on digital efforts as a 19-year-old working at At Night Management, which is known for handling what he calls “the big Swedish EDM boys” (think Axwell & Ingrosso). He became increasingly interested in the TikTok predecessor Musical.ly since “Sweden was one of the first countries to have extreme engagement on the platform outside the U.S.” And he simultaneously helped build the popular Instagram account GoalsOfDancing.
As a result, Collins found himself “in the middle of this social media Illuminati community.” “There was a much larger network and business around it than I knew about,” he says. That’s where he met Creed’s co-founders, Hugo Leprince, who managed prominent creators on Musical.ly at the time, and Eliot Robinson, who built a major Instagram community around basketball fandom.
Their first head-turning success as a team wasn’t in music: In 2018, the three men made a video for the actor Joel Kinnaman warning voters away from an anti-immigration party, the Swedish Democrats. “We wanted to make a statement: Don’t vote for these idiots,” Collins says. “That video became the biggest video in Sweden that year,” picking up millions of viewers in a country where the population is just around ten million.
But Creed didn’t have a long-term interest in the bare-knuckle brawling of politics. Instead, Collins and Leprince headed to Los Angeles to convince U.S. record companies to try their services. In a display of analog hustle, the two marketers worked their way down the famous Capitol Records Tower floor by floor, trying to talk their way into a gig.
Creed has since grown to around 30 employees fluent in the ways of TikTok, Instagram, Twitch and any other social media platforms where songs can spread. People who are not native to apps like TikTok tend to “think if you activate major influencers” — e.g. pay a TikTok creator with tens of millions of followers to post a video with your song in it — “that will automatically grow into a trend,” Collins says. “Now people are seeing that’s not how it works.”
Rather than trying to force TikTok to move one way or another, Creed operates more like a jiu-jitsu fighter redirecting an opponent’s momentum for his own gains. “What drives TikTok is replicable content,” Collins explains. His team scours the app to determine what’s already connecting for a given song and then works to “distribute it through channels” — thanks to years in the digital trenches, Collins and Leprince work with 300 to 500 influencers on a monthly basis, and they’re constantly adding new ones to their roster — “to find that big audience.”
When Creed was brought on to help Daniel with “Falling,” they found that the TikTok community was already using the song in what Collins calls “a nostalgic movie trend” along with “the awkward stare challenge.” Surf Mesa’s single was gaining views on animal-focused TikTok accounts. In both cases, Creed paid influencers to bring those motifs to a broader swath of TikTok users.
Creed’s collaborators also credit the company with figuring out how to make sure that momentum on TikTok translates to streams. This is not guaranteed — BMW Kenny’s “Wipe It Down,” for example, has close to four million TikTok videos but only 6.6 million streams on Spotify. Anya Du Sauzay, head of audience and engagement for Parlophone Music, worked with Creed on the “Rover” campaign; she says the company “really understood the ultimate objective of crossing over the #MulaChallenge from a viral TikTok challenge to a streaming and chart hit.”
“What they help with is not just more creations, but conversion to streams,” adds Brad Cohen, who manages Daniel. “There are all these playlists on Spotify that they embed you in, help get streams going and build the song’s story.”
Labels can do some of this work on their own, but their attention is divided between hundreds of artists, each with different needs. Companies like Creed have the advantage of being able to spend all their working hours exploring various pockets of digital fandom. And while label employees tend to be older, especially higher up the ranks, Creed’s staff is made up of the age demographic that labels are dying to reach: 75% of the company comes from Gen Z.
That’s part of why Creed recently started its educational efforts. At the same time as the company has been working with Epic on a campaign for Madison Beer’s “Baby” — a come-hither single spurring 6,500 TikTok creations a day — Collins is trying to help everyone become increasingly fluent in Gen-Z-speak.
“Tim will correct people in the group chat,” Mingal explains. “He’ll say, ‘strike one for you — you need to say this next time.'”
“I should have three strikes and be out by now,” she adds. “But Tim is lenient.”