Earlier this year, the internet-famous dancer Toosie received a message from the biggest star on the planet. “Drake hit me up and was like, ‘Yo, I need your help,'” Toosie told Rolling Stone. The rapper sent over a verse and a hook to a song that didn’t yet have a title, along with a request: “You think you can come up with a dance for this?” Toosie and three friends posted their choreography — along with a snippet of the Drake single, now named “Toosie Slide” — online earlier this week. Other people started copying the dance, and clips tagged #ToosieSlide amassed several million views on the video app TikTok in just a few days, before Drake even made the track available on streaming services.
More artists are starting to use TikTok in this way — creating demand for singles before they are even out. “Some people are intentionally snippet-ing their songs for TikTok before releases,” says Vonsin Faniyi, manager of the rapper Flo Milli, who scored a record deal last year after “Beef FloMix” became a hit on the app.
If all goes well, by the time an artist pushes his or her single to all streaming services, “there’s already a dance associated with it, a build-up, people are dying for it to come out,” explains Jacob Pace, CEO of the media company Flighthouse, which has more than 24 million followers on TikTok. Then, in theory, all that pent-up demand leads to a surge in streaming activity once a track is widely available.
It’s no secret that TikTok can prime the pump for hits. The app jolted the music industry into a frenzy early in 2019, when tracks like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” exploded on the platform, allowing label executives to swoop in and harvest big singles ready-made.
TikTok has continued to be fertile ground for hits ever since, helping launch Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” into supermarkets near you. But those songs were released officially and available across streaming services before catching fire on TikTok in particular.
Now, some corners of the music industry are trying to be more proactive, using the app as a key early testing ground for songs before they get a wide release. “People are using TikTok as a sounding board, a focus group,” says Marcus Ecby, who manages the rapper Tisakorean. Several Tisakorean songs have taken off on TikTok, including “The Mop” with Kblast and Huncho Da Rockstar, which also came packaged with a dance challenge.
Using TikTok as a sounding board isn’t always an intentional process. “In some cases,” Faniyi points out, “[the snippet on TikTok] could be a leak.” This was the situation for Lil Mosey’s “Blueberry Faygo,” according to the rapper’s manager: A leaked bit of the single picked up traction on the app earlier this year, weeks before it hit streaming services. This pre-release fervor made the decision to focus resources on “Blueberry Faygo” — to shoot a video for the track and prepare for a radio push — a no-brainer. After it was officially released, “Blueberry Faygo” quickly became the biggest track of Lil Mosey’s young career.
The Kid Laroi’s rollout for his song “Addison Rae” illustrates a slightly more purposeful approach to using TikTok this way. Laroi initially placed just a “three-or-four line” sketch of his unfinished track, which is named after a popular TikTok star, in a video on the app. Rae embraced the teaser and shared it with her millions of followers, effectively turning Laroi’s track into a hit before it actually existed. The rapper officially released the single last month, and “Addison Rae” went on to accumulate more than eight million streams across Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud.
The Kid Laroi is not the only one pursuing this strategy. Devain Doolaramani, who manages a network of popular TikTok users, has also used the platform to goose early demand for singles. He works with the rapper Rontae Don’t Play, whose music is part of two popular TikTok trends at the moment; Rontae is now looking to put a third into play. “We leaked his new song ‘I’m Geeked,'” Doolaramani says. “It has 40,000 videos already, and it’s unreleased.” Ecby is starting Huncho da Rockstar’s “Wurk” the same way; the song isn’t available to stream yet, but there are already more than 25,000 TikTok videos tagged #wurkchallenge.
Does it make a difference if there’s demand for a song before it comes out? It’s certainly not necessary for a hit — as TikTok itself has proven, time and time again. But it can’t hurt. Faniyi believes that “if a snippet blows up on TikTok before the song is released, it makes the song move a lot harder versus if the song was already out and then it blew up.” At the very least, it “adds hype,” Doolaramani says.
Some labels are invested enough in the idea of pre-release demand that they’re actually reverse engineering hits from TikTok. Instead of creating songs and then testing them on the app to see what connects with a wide (and young) listenership, they’re finding sounds that are already popular on TikTok and then using those as the building blocks for new songs.
This was the case for Tyga’s new single “Bored in the House,” released at the end of March. Curtis Roach’s repetitive a capella rap snippet — “I’m bored in the house and in the house I’m bored” — was already picking up on TikTok when many kids were quarantined. Tyga just added a barely-there beat and a couple quick verses.
Ecby sees TikTok-teasers as a low-risk promotional tactic with the potential for high rewards. “If the record works, it works,” Ecby says. “If it don’t, it don’t.”
“Then,” Ecby adds, “you go back to TikTok until something works.”