Before Championxiii released “BOO!” — a ticking, clapping, bottom-heavy record with the charmingly goofy refrain “bitch, I’m a ghost!” — in October, the 25-year-old rapper already knew it would be a hit.
That’s because Championxiii, who grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts but now lives in Houston, tests all his demos with his 2.4 million TikTok followers before he even thinks about finishing an entire song. “There’s so much that goes into making music, writing, recording, mastering,” he explains. “I don’t like to waste resources. I don’t need to take chances. Before I put any more effort into a freestyle, I’m gonna make sure it’s what [my audience] want[s].”
This is one of the latest ways that TikTok is shaking up the creative process. The popular app has already caused labels to drastically alter priorities and marketing plans, and in some cases even forced acts to re-title songs that are embraced by TikTok users to make those tracks easier to locate through a casual search. But the platform is also influencing artists’ decisions about what becomes a full-fledged song and what doesn’t.
“There are things that maybe we just put on TikTok, and if we meet some threshold of being shared, maybe we move it to SoundCloud, then to Apple [Music] and Spotify last,” says Jeff Bowers, a former major-label veteran whose Waxmgmt company works with a number of TikTok-savvy acts, including Llusion, Freddie Dredd, and Savage Ga$p. “You can really workshop things [on TikTok].”
A good workshop requires feedback about what’s connecting and what falls flat; Championxiii combs through TikTok’s comments section for this purpose. “Everything that happens in the comments I take into consideration,” he says.
The rapper relies on his own internal metrics to determine which freestyles should be transformed into actual tracks. The key, of course, is seeing a lot of his followers feel compelled to respond rapturously — maybe leaving a comment along the lines of, “I’ve been listening to this on loop, I need to hear the rest.” If TikTok users take Championxiii’s freestyle and use it as a soundtrack to their own videos, that also serves as a strong predictor of future streaming success.
“That’s when the second part of the process starts happening, when I get some studio time, cook up a rough draft” of a full song, the rapper continues. “I have a way of doing things that I wish I could patent.”
“Workshopping” songs with an audience before they come out is not new — house music producers routinely test upcoming releases in their DJ sets, going back to tweak and adjust mixes after they’ve received invaluable feedback from dancers. But traditionally the vast majority of artists had to get a track relatively close to completion before they tried to persuade a radio DJ, label A&R, or bar-room crowd to engage with it — most listeners would be baffled if a band played them 15 seconds of an unfinished song at a show.
Apps like TikTok allow the audience to get much closer to a song’s inception point. For some acts, this means letting their followers watch a track come together — Sara Kays and Anson Seabra, for example, like to share music in progress, presumably because listeners become increasingly invested in something when they see it constructed brick-by-brick over a period of days or weeks.
Others go even further, granting their audience the power of an A&R or even a songwriting collaborator. Championxiii is tossing out 15-second freestyles on TikTok and pursuing the ones that generate enthusiasm. Young Fanatic, who collaborated with Championxiii on “Peekaboo (I Just Snapped),” takes a similar approach, often using his Instagram account or YouTube channel as a testing ground. Earlier this year, Dempsey Hope wrote a song called “Time Flies” and asked fans what lyrics they would like subbed in; he only released the finished product after running through countless variations on TikTok, like a songwriting version of Mad Libs. (Hope is now signed to RCA.)
comment some years?
Advocates of this approach say it provides artists with a new level of flexibility. Historically, “once the music industry starts a plan, if something changes, they try to correct, but their whole model is built for a year or year-and-a-half on [the single],” Bowers explains. “The old ship is so big and slow. There’s not any real-time feedback. If something deviates from a marketing plan that they’ve already spent a bunch of money on and brought a lot of partners in on, there’s no contingency plan.”
In contrast, Bowers continues, many artists native to TikTok “live in a real-time world,” allowing them to pivot from one hour to the next. Labels’ efforts on TikTok often seem like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, throwing money behind songs that will never work on the platform. Strategies like Championxiii’s avoid this pitfall — changing the peg to fit the hole allows for a much more economical approach to marketing.
“These aren’t expensive records to promote,” says Tyler Blatchley, co-founder of Black 17 Media, the label — a partner of Sony Orchard — that signed Championxiii. “They work or they don’t. When he gets one that starts to move on TikTok, we might come in and spend a few thousand dollars early to try to amplify that.” The result is a series of miniature hits, from “Becky” to “Splash” to “BOO!,” which generate “good money” for the artist behind them, according to Blatchley.
“BOO!” has already soundtracked more than 2.2 million TikTok videos, and the song’s recent success helped boost Championxiii’s catalog past a million streams a week in the U.S. “To some it seems like I never miss, that every song I put out is a hit,” the rapper says happily. “Technically it is — the audience is telling me it’s a hit before I ever made it.”