“TikTok is the most important thing in music right now.”
Statements like that, delivered recently by one industry executive, have become fairly common in the last year. TikTok users have been the jet fuel powering a slew of recent hits, shoving Doja Cat into the deep end of mainstream pop’s pool, transforming Arizona Zervas from zero to billion-stream hero, and catapulting Megan Thee Stallion to her first Number One hit.
Major labels are obsessed with TikTok to the point where it seems like momentum on the app is now a prerequisite for any new signing. The industry’s fixation is partially justified since — especially when touring is no longer an option — it often feels as if TikTok is one of the few places where hits can get their start. Labels pay big money for songs moving on the app because they don’t have many tools to create hits on their own.
But suddenly it appears that labels might no longer be able to rely on TikTok. A little over a week ago, the Trump administration suggested that the U.S. might ban the app, ostensibly because it is concerned that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, could be stealing American users’ data.
If the American music industry is a patient recovering from a broken leg, it may be forced to walk without crutches nearly overnight. A TikTok ban in the U.S. “would be a setback for the global, mainly western, music industry, [which would] not be able to generate the volume of viral hits at the current speed we are at today,” says Tim Collins, whose Creed Media company has run over 500 TikTok campaigns for artists and labels. In addition, a ban “will most likely also make it more difficult for independent artists to be able to amass the same awareness at the scale they’ve had the possibility of doing, affecting their leverage in negotiations as well as de-democratizing the playing field.”
One prominent digital marketer who spoke on the condition of anonymity described the impacts of a potential TikTok ban more bluntly: “It’s gonna be a shitshow.”
That’s not to say the American government’s concern about TikTok was a bolt from the blue. Both the app’s data practices and its links to China have been frequently called into question Stateside since Bytedance took over Musical.ly and relaunched it as TikTok in 2018.
When dad/husband does NOT approve of the song & moves. 🤦🏼♀️🤣
As early as January 2019, the Peterson Institute for International Economics cited TikTok prominently in a report titled “The Growing Popularity of Chinese Social Media Outside China Poses New Risks in the West.” In February 2019, TikTok paid $5.7 million in fines to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that the app “illegally collected personal information from children.” Later that year, Senator Marco Rubio asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to investigate TikTok; in a rare instance of bipartisanship, Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton sent a similar request to the Director of National Intelligence. The Army and the Navy subsequently banned TikTok for soldiers and sailors.
But the music industry remained cheerfully oblivious to these dangers since TikTok kept spraying out hits. Not everyone swooned over the app, of course — speaking off the record, A&Rs will happily point out that labels’ TikTok obsession can border on the ridiculous, creating a wild market bubble that has little, if any, regard for artistic merit. Record companies will chase anything moving on the app, running headlong after even the dopiest of gimmick singles like a dying man clawing for his last drink of water. “People are spending a gazillion dollars on sound effect records,” complains one senior label executive.
Labels’ primary focus is increasing their share of the streaming market, which drives their revenue, so they frequently offer truckloads of cash to artists with a TikTok hit but hardly any name recognition. “The deals I have seen put in front of someone for a song that’s moving a little bit on TikTok, but the kid has just 6,000 followers on Instagram, are crazy,” says Kayode Badmus-Wellington, founder & CEO of drtymnd, an artist development collective, who also spent time at Epic Records and Pulse Music Group. “A song with 5,000 TikTok videos is getting thrown a $2 million deal.” The focus on the short-term above all else can look — and may eventually prove — reckless.
The show must go on
But in the right hands, TikTok can also serve to lower the barrier to entry in a heavily consolidated industry where, even in 2020, a small handful of gatekeepers are still able to determine who reaches a mass audience and who doesn’t. The app “has taken the power away from the old system, where you had to have this huge budget to get radio and become commercially successful,” says Omid Noori, who founded the management and marketing company ATG.
YouTube and Spotify had already started this process, allowing artists to, in theory at least, do an end run around the major-label system, breaking its monopoly on hits. But those streaming platforms have their own gatekeepers, and they are tied closely to major labels. A dozen unknown teens can hop on TikTok tomorrow and all of them can have their first hit next week. Many of those acts will still be swallowed up by “the old system” — exceptions include Curtis Waters, KingMostWanted, and Trill Ryan, who have remained independent — but that volume, speed, and accessibility are unprecedented.
While accessibility would suffer a setback, at least temporarily, in a TikTok-less world, some artists’ positions would actually improve, relatively speaking. Labels might suddenly be more interested (assuming the pandemic subsides) in holding on to groups that have solid touring backgrounds but little digital savvy, rather than jettisoning them for a shiny new toy. Rap and up-tempo dance music often perform well on TikTok, crowding out other styles and genres; balladeers and guitarists may well cheer the app’s demise.
But even if TikTok disappears for weeks or for good, the demand for a similar app will remain high in the U.S. Music marketers are happy to tick off the other options — Triller, Byte, Instagram’s Reels, Dubsmash, probably several apps currently in development we don’t even know about yet — but often gloomy about their potential.
gotta stay drippy during quarantine🤪 @itsjonathanle
That’s because most savvy digital marketers consider TikTok’s technology, the algorithm that gives it the ability to ingest nobodies and make them popular quickly, unmatched. Several marketing experts also believe that other platforms are less song-focused than TikTok, which masquerades as a video app but is in fact a lethally effective music discovery machine, making replacement apps less valuable for jumpstarting hits.
Triller might be the app best positioned to feed and clothe TikTok’s hungry masses. And in India, downloads of Triller shot up following the country’s recent TikTok ban. But marketers also say Triller is much more of a top-down app, with the company and labels working together to pick winning videos, leaving little room for the little guy. “Triller is not that great of a product,” the prominent digital marketer says.
What about the other options? “Byte is not that great of a product,” he adds. “Reel, which is Instagram’s competitor to TikTok, may have a shot in all this” — but it is only just being tested in select countries now. “Dubsmash has been out of the conversation for a bit,” though it also is seeing an influx of new users.
Ultimately TikTok’s biggest advantage, aside from its fearsome algorithm, has to do with the sheer size of its audience: The app has centralized a massive listening community — over two billion downloads globally — which the music industry then targets aggressively. If the U.S. bans the app, there’s no guarantee that an alternative will appear immediately, or function in the same way. That listener base might now splinter and spread itself across a series of platforms, meaning that reaching different factions of fans would be a more arduous and expensive task.
“Everyone is going to be chasing the same goal,” the marketer explains. “Where are the fans actually going?”