“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 the music industry might no longer be able to rely on TikTok. The Trump administration has expressed concern that the app, which is currently owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, could be stealing American users’ data. On Friday, the U.S. government said the app would be banned from U.S. stores starting Sunday. Oracle is in talks to acquire TikTok, and the company has until November 12th to meet the Trump administration’s security requirements. Users who already have TikTok will still be able to access the app until that time.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said “we disagree with the decision from the Commerce Department, and are disappointed that it stands to block new app downloads from Sunday and ban use of the TikTok app in the US from November 12. Our community of 100 million U.S. users love TikTok because it’s a home for entertainment, self-expression, and connection, and we’re committed to protecting their privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to artists and those who create on our platform.”
If the American music industry is a patient recovering from a broken leg, it may soon be forced to walk without crutches. 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.
While the app’s fate remains uncertain, it’s still possible that TikTok will appease (or successfully battle) the Trump administration by the November 12th deadline. “In our proposal to the U.S. Administration, we’ve already committed to unprecedented levels of additional transparency and accountability well beyond what other apps are willing to do, including third-party audits, verification of code security, and U.S. government oversight of U.S. data security,” the TikTok spokesperson noted. “Further, an American technology provider would be responsible for maintaining and operating the TikTok network in the U.S., which would include all services and data serving U.S. consumers. We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the U.S. of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods.”
Even if TikTok disappears for weeks or for good, 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 TikTok ban. But marketers also say Triller is much more of a top-down app, with the company and its partners working together to pick winning videos, leaving little room for the little guy.
What about the other options? “Reels, which is Instagram’s competitor to TikTok, may have a shot in all this,” the prominent digital marketer says — but it has its own problems. “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 which the music industry then targets aggressively. If the U.S. does ban 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?”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally published on July 15th, 2020 to reflect the latest news about the ban.