TikTok Breaks Big Hits, But It’s Still Struggling to Break Big Stars
Puri’s “Coño” is a hard-nosed dance hit, the type of bass-heavy, reggaeton-leaning missile that could play in a drunken, sweaty club on four different continents. While the track initially came out in 2017, it has been an in-demand selection for TikTok videos recently — the most popular song on the app during the first week of July, according to the analytics company Chartmetric.
But if Puri walked into a mall overrun with avid TikTok users and started to do the “Coño” routine, it’s unlikely that anyone would recognize him as the man behind the song. Although the single and its various remixes have been streamed over 90 million times on Spotify alone, Puri has a mere 15,000 or so followers on the app, according to Chartmetric. Millions of people are willing to make videos set to “Coño,” but just a tiny fraction of those have bothered to build a slightly closer relationship with the man who helped create it.
This problem is not unique to Puri. Ir Sais’ “Dream Girl” was the third most popular song on TikTok in the first week of July, and it has over 100 million streams on Spotify, but Ir Sais has just around 41,000 followers on the streaming service, and just one other song with more than 10 million streams. Conkarah’s “Banana” was the fifth most popular song on TikTok in the first week of July, and it is nearing 50 million Spotify streams, but Conkarah has only about 54,000 followers on the platform, and no other original songs with more than a million streams.
Linking a TikTok hit with the previously unknown artist behind it — not a Doja Cat or Megan Thee Stallion, who were signed and buzzing in the mainstream before their singles took off on the app — represents a formidable challenge. The music industry relies on TikTok as a launchpad for major songs, but the app often seems perfectly designed to create an army of one-hit wonders. (Its fate in America is currently uncertain due to national security concerns, but replacements apps will face similar issues.) Of all the artists who have been suddenly called up to the major leagues by the masses on TikTok, only Lil Nas X has been able to follow one breakthrough moment with a second. Other artists remain mostly anonymous, even as they rack up streams by the ten or even hundred million.
“Everyone thinks that when these viral things go off, it’s gonna be something bigger,” says Roy LaManna, CEO of the music-tech company Vydia, which has distributed recent albums from Kanye West and Lil Pump. “But even with the TikTok stuff, we’re often seeing a big explosion [initially], the song generates hundreds of thousands of dollars, then people move on, there’s no connection to the artist, and it’s a fleeting moment.”
For managers and labels scrutinizing TikTok hits, LaManna continues, the question is “are you buying a song or are you buying an artist?”
hes starting to teach me how to tiktok now🙄😂🔥 @itsjonathanle
This has been a concern from the earliest days of TikTok. “It moves songs so fast that it can be difficult to put any foundation underneath the act if there wasn’t one there before,” Jeff Vaughn, who is now the President of Capitol Records, told Rolling Stone in 2019. The foundation isn’t required for artists and labels to cash in on a hit. But it might be necessary if an artist hopes to last even five years in the music industry.
In the 13 months since Vaughn’s statement, hardly anyone has succeeded in laying that foundation after a single erupts. Again and again, “the record becomes so big, but a lot of these guys don’t have huge social followings and brands,” says Omid Noori, founder of Against the Grain (ATG), a management and marketing company. Most of the time, “TikTok [users] will go and only stream that one song” that’s performing well on the app, Noori adds.
The incentive structure in the major-label side of the music industry can reinforce this tendency: Once the big companies shell out to sign an artist with a TikTok hit, they focus their energy on extracting as much money as possible from that single to make their investment worthwhile in the short term. “It’s important for [labels] to keep the life of the song building, rather than focusing on the artist at the start,” says Tim Collins, whose Creed Media marketing company has run numerous campaigns for major labels.
The situation has gotten extreme enough that artists with TikTok hits sometimes sign two-part deals with major labels. One set of terms will apply to the artist’s breakout hit, while a completely different agreement will account for subsequent music released with the label. This is a savvy move on the artist’s part, allowing the singer or rapper to maintain some measure of additional control over what might be his or her only big record. But it’s also a glaring acknowledgement that a hit and a career are two very different things.
That’s not to say that a hit and a career are completely unrelated — obviously having a massive single can play a crucial role in starting an artist on the path to lasting relevance. Chris Anokute manages Curtis Waters, whose TikTok hit “Stunnin'” is now earning more than a million streams a day on Spotify alone. “We have to make sure we make that song as big as possible,” Anokute says. “The bigger ‘Stunnin’ is, the bigger shot Curtis has to be a breakthrough artist.”
Although TikTok’s impact on the music industry has been significant, the actual mechanics of turning a hit into a career haven’t changed all that much. One common strategy for extending the life of a popular TikTok single is to release a new version of the track with a more established artist — in the last month-ish, Jawsh 685 added Jason Derulo to “Laxed – Siren Beat,” S1mba added Lil Tecca to “Rover,” and StaySolidRocky added Lil Uzi Vert to “Party Girl.”
This approach may also help build name recognition for a previously unknown artist; the guest vocalist is like a four-term senator endorsing a promising newcomer. But the remix can be risky for a song that lacks context, because for casual streamers, the better-known artist might eclipse the newbie.
Another tried and true approach for raising awareness around an artist with a rising hit involves the town-by-town hand-to-hand combat of touring. But this has not been an option since March in the U.S. due to the global pandemic, and it’s hard to imagine a robust live circuit returning any time soon.
A third old-school technique to get an artist’s face, rather than just her song, in front of potential fans involves harnessing brand muscle. Ashnikko’s “Stupid” enjoyed success on TikTok last year (2.5 million videos on the app, nearly 80 million Spotify streams); she recently inked a deal for a Beats by Dre campaign.
Marketers and managers have been scrambling to develop other approaches to restore the link between a runaway TikTok hit and its creator. Artists can employ what Collins calls “forced activations” on TikTok, paying, for example, to appear in a video with a star like Addison Rae as a way of putting their face in front of her 50 million followers. Many artists are still reluctant to get on the app themselves, even when TikTok embraces their songs. But putting in that work — making videos, showing your face, engaging with potential fans in 15-second bursts — is one way to start claiming ownership over a hit.
Digitally carpet-bombing other platforms can be equally important. On YouTube, viewers are accustomed to engaging with videos for longer periods of time, which makes the platform potentially better-suited for adding context around a hit. “There are communities and pages on YouTube talking about things happening on TikTok, culturally relevant subjects, where one could place the story of an artist,” Collins explains, pointing to channels like Volksgeist and JakeZeeman.
A successful meme campaign on Instagram might also be an effective way to help reattach a hit to its creator. “In the end, people have such high familiarity with the song that you just need to show them where it comes from, who it’s connected with,” Collins says. “It’s ok for that to be fabricated and pushed, even something like a shot of an artist in the studio and a meme caption being like, ‘this is what the artist did before the song blew up.'”
While there remains no clear, easily replicable path for unknown artists whose breakout moment comes via TikTok, the app has been a music-industry focus for only 15 months. Anokute believes it takes nine to 18 months “to build an artist’s credibility and relationship to the consumer,” and at least twice as long as that to “really break an artist.”
The great and cruel thing about having a TikTok hit is the extent to which it appears to upend this timeline. An artist can seemingly hotwire a process that used to take years. But in truth, that lengthy grind is still necessary — the artist just gets to grind while enjoying millions of streams earlier than he or she expected.
“We have to keep on pumping information out there,” Anokute says. “You have to keep on bringing the eyeballs back, keep on going. It takes time. The artist needs to endure.”
“And the rest,” he adds, “is luck.”