Jack Johnson can thank an anonymous shoplifter for a sudden boost in streams for his 2009 hit “Upside Down.”
Two weeks ago, TikToker H1T1 bought a flat-screen television for a bargain on a secondhand marketplace, only to discover that it was seemingly stolen from an Arby’s and could only display the restaurant’s menu screen — a chain of events that he lamented in a video, using “Upside Down” as background music. The video rapidly amassed 3.5 million likes, and the Arby’s corporate account even replied: “We’ve been looking for this! ❗️ 👀.” Soon, 50,000 other TikTokers were making reaction videos and riffing off of it with memes, giving the song millions of new listens — and reintroducing “Upside Down” as an earworm to a new generation. Its streams and sales more than doubled last week, according to analytics provider Alpha Data.
The new-old success of “Upside Down” is a strange, out-of-pocket moment for TikTok, which the music industry has increasingly leaned on to help break new hits from the likes of Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, and Saweetie. But it’s not uncommon, either: Old hits are going viral again, and TikTok’s own music team is working to amplify them.
Corey Sheridan, TikTok’s head of music partnerships and content operations, told Rolling Stone in May that he saw music catalogs as the next major untapped market that the app could feed into its hit machine. In the early weeks of Covid-19 quarantine, Simple Plan’s “I’m Just a Kid” suddenly powered its way to a platinum certification 15 years after its debut when it was used in a huge TikTok Trend. The same abrupt re-explosion happened with L’Trimm’s 1988 “Cars With the Boom,” and of course with Lizzo’s 2017 “Truth Hurts.”
“Catalog is my bread and butter,” says Danny Gillick, TikTok’s senior manager of music content and label partnerships. “There’s so much opportunity out there for all these legacy labels, even for songs that are out of cycle to have another life. There’s a whole treasure chest of these earworms that I grew up with that you can see now are having a second life.”
The app’s music team has made good on their word. In the latter half of 2020, TikTok has revitalized old hits at a rapid-fire clip.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” is the most well-known case. The song surfaced at Number Two on the Rolling Stone 100 chart off of a wave of Ocean Spray, reentering commercial charts for the first time in over 40 years. Elsewhere, indie band Mother Mother landed on the Rolling Stone Artist 500 and Breakthrough 25 charts despite not releasing music in over two years, when alt-TikTok videos about personal identity popularized three songs off the band’s 2008 album O My Heart. “Electric Love,” Borns’ 2014 platinum single, saw song sales rise about 114% from the end of July to the beginning of August after the song found its way into rom-com-style TikToks, and its streams rose about 52%.
After a catalog song starts gaining new steam on TikTok, the chain of events that follows is astonishingly predictable: The song becomes an app-wide obsession, big influential creators with tens of millions of followers start using it, and TikTok features the song on its sounds page. Then, inevitably, the song’s original performers will create TikTok accounts and join in on the trend — a move that pleases TikTok’s music team because of its potential to turn those musicians into frequent, high-profile content creators.
Often, TikTok works directly with artists to onboard them onto the app. All the members of Simple Plan joined to take part in Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks both made accounts and posted videos for “Dreams,” which ended up in a national TikTok ad, and Aly and AJ made an account at the end of October after their 2007 track “Potential Breakup Song” made its way into over a million videos. The Black Eyed Peas posted several election-themed videos set to a revamped “Where is the Love,” which went TikTok viral last week.
This isn’t to say TikTok re-virality guarantees sales. L’Trimm’s “Cars With The Boom” has been featured in nearly three million TikToks, including from influencers like Charli D’Amelio — but it has only nominally moved the needle on sales, Alpha Data shows. (The renewed attention did, however, encourage L’Trimm to put together a new compilation album.) The same can be said about Harry Belafonte’s 1961 “Jump in the Line,” which went viral in August 2019. Despite being featured in about 217,000 TikToks, song sales did not rise significantly.
Still, the success is encouraging for artists looking to leverage older songs and shows a platform for more timeless hits to be introduced to younger audiences. Internally, TikTok acknowledges music catalogs as a relatively untapped opportunity on the app for artists and labels to market their older work. Younger artists are putting new spins on classic tunes, and getting strong reactions from the TikTok community, Gillick says — pointing out Regard’s remix of Jay Sean’s “Ride It” and Surf Mesa’s “ILY (I Love You Baby),” in which the lyrics are taken from Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Indie musician Ritt Momney recently scored a record deal after his cover of Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” sparked a wave of dreamy quarantine videos.
“There’s ways for legacy labels to share their catalog with artists that are developing and have them reinterpret their works and release them that way,” Gillick says. “It’s a whole world of opportunity.”