Early in 2019, Sub Urban’s “Cradles” — a pinging, defiantly introverted single — helped establish a path that has now become commonplace in the music industry: A deluge of TikTok users picked “Cradles” to soundtrack their 15-second videos, leading to a surge in streams, and the wave of interest helped carry Sub Urban all the way to Number One at Alternative radio.
Sub Urban signed a deal with Warner Records. This summer, his label set about trying to make lightning strike the same spot twice with the song “Freak,” a haunted-house pop cut with an insistent, wordless hook from the singer Rei Ami.
Since success on TikTok is difficult to replicate, Warner asked for help from Songfluencer, a digital marketing company founded in 2018 that has run over 1,000 TikTok campaigns. When Songfluencer started to work on “Freak” at the end of July, over 15,000 TikTokers had already picked “Freak” to soundtrack their videos.
“One choreography was actually the top trending post for the song, but another choreography was experiencing much more user-generated-content,” explains Johnny Cloherty, one of Songfluencer’s co-founders.
Cloherty’s team focused on enticing a very specific swathe of TikTokers to adopt the second choreography: Users who were not necessarily widely known on their own, but who had, according to Cloherty, a “noticeable relationship [to] and influence over larger macro influencers” on the app. In mid-August, the dominoes started to fall, a number of TikTok’s biggest names used “Freak” in videos, and the track is currently on its way to becoming Sub Urban’s second hit, with more than 3.5 million TikTok videos.
As the music industry stays oriented around TikTok, there are more and more companies like Songfluencer. “Every 22-year-old without a job that needs to make a couple of bucks can say he promotes on TikTok,” Cloherty jokes.
But Songfluencer has a very specific pitch — and an appealing one for a music industry increasingly obsessed with data: The company has built and continues to perfect software that collects data from TikTok, allowing it, in theory, to quantify the value of influencers on the app and analyze the paths of a host of TikTok hits. In the app’s early days, marketers would throw money haphazardly at influencers and cross their fingers. Songfluencer hopes to bring order to the TikTok wilderness, transforming guesswork and prayer into something closer to science.
“We need data to back up our decisions,” Cloherty says, so we don’t “just run around randomly handing checks to influencers.”
Cloherty was just a “lowly assistant at William Morris” when he met Sean Pace, who was working at the time with an unknown but digitally savvy country singer named Kane Brown. “The very first show I booked for Kane, the club promoter called me and said his ticket site went down because his website wasn’t used to the traffic,” Cloherty recalls. “It was in Indiana, a state Kane had never set foot in.” This was Cloherty’s crash course on the importance of a killer digital marketing operation.
Pace had a head-start in that world. “I was really one of the first people to do indie playlisting” on Spotify, he says. “It’s really the same concept” as influencer marketing: “If you can’t get to [the prominent radio hosts] Bobby Bones or Charlamagne tha God, that’s ok; you can get to twenty people with 50,000 followers instead.” They add a song to a playlist or promote it on their Instagram story, exposing the track to a new group of potential fans.
In 2018, Pace and Cloherty founded Songfluencer, which at the time focused primarily on cozying up to high-powered Instagram users and transforming them into conduits for music promotion. But that December, a previously unknown artist named Lil Nas X started to gain traction on TikTok — which launched in the U.S. in August 2018 — with a beguiling tune titled “Old Town Road.”
Not long after, labels started reaching out to see if Songfluencer’s influencer marketing efforts extended to TikTok. “Sean and I were like, ‘we have to figure this out,'” Cloherty says. The two men started spending most of their waking hours on TikTok, trying to understand how it generated hits.
They got a boost when they met Louis O’Reilly, who runs a management company and works with several Canadian country acts. O’Reilly has an impressive hobby: computer programming. “When other guys are rebuilding car engines or fishing or watching the NFL, I code,” he says. “Everything within my company, the royalty accounting and publishing systems, I coded. I programmed one of the country charts in Canada.”
O’Reilly pitched Pace and Cloherty on adding some automated data collection to their TikTok efforts. Now “we’re able to track a significant amount of scores and see when they start to move in the right direction,” O’Reilly explains. “Then we can say to labels, ‘our analysis, looking at the paths of hundreds of thousands of songs, indicates that this [track] is moving and now is time to do something with it.'”
Songfluencer’s label partners use the company’s technology, especially a program called Velocity, to monitor songs’ progress on TikTok. In part, Songfluencer hopes to model itself after the analytics company Chartmetric, a subscription service which provides the music industry with essential context around playlisting.
The company’s quantitative tools — and its founders’ ability to extrapolate from trends those tools identify — started to reap dividends earlier this year. A breakout moment involved a campaign for Joseph Black’s wailing hip-hop ballad “(I Hope You) Miss Me.”
“It’s coming from a place that’s really sad and self-deprecating,” Cloherty says. “One of the things we saw taking off on TikTok around that time was a wave of emo content, stuff that’s sad and overdramatic.”
Songfluencer worked to match Black’s single with emo influencers, and the open-wound lyrics of “(I Hope You) Miss Me” proved to be catnip for TikTokers looking to make tearful videos. As Black’s single became popular on the app, his streams jumped from 7,500 a day on Spotify to nearly 180,000, and he earned a deal with Capitol Records.
Around the same time, Songfluencer also started working on “Lemons,” a biting takedown of “a sour little boy/with a fragile masculinity” by a then unknown singer named Brye. Songfluencer watched as TikTokers started to use the song in a trend where they pretend to become human lie detectors.
the shluvhouse be hittin different at night ngl😏
“What we know about TikTok is longevity of watch time is something that the algorithm responds to,” Cloherty notes. “So we had influencers use the whole 30-second clip and do three or four of the truth or lie things to broaden the scope of the concept. We wanted other users to feel like, ‘this is a story I can come up with.'” This turned out to be effective, and TikTokers scrambled to create their own lie detector videos. As the use of “Lemons” spiked on the app, the track enjoyed a concurrent rise in streaming numbers — from roughly 20,000 plays a day to roughly 120,000.
While many labels try to use TikTok as rocket fuel to turn songs into overnight hits, Songfluencer prefers a more patient approach. “Labels want big first-week numbers,” Pace says. “But TikTok isn’t the place to go for that. You go to TikTok for growth over weeks seven through twenty.”
“A lot of people are trying to force trends to happen too early,” Paces continues. “If you get a good song exposed on TikTok, a trend will start itself.” Songfluencer hopes to take care of the rest.