Earlier this year, the app TikTok — which allows users to create short video clips set to music — helped shotgun Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” into the pop stratosphere. That accomplishment alone is cause for the app’s creators to celebrate.
But that is just one way that TikTok has inserted itself into music industry conversations since the Chinese company ByteDance took over the old lip-syncing app, Musical.ly, and relaunched it as TikTok in the U.S. in August. The app has resurrected some old, dead-in-the-water songs so thoroughly that labels are backpedaling and re-promoting singles from 2017 and 2018 — Absofacto’s “Dissolve,” Kyle’s “Hey Julie” — as if they are brand new. In addition, “the platform is being worked into every marketing campaign,” according to Jeff Vaughn, VP of A&R at Artist Partner Group. And labels are scouring the app for new talent.
“If you have a viral TikTok song, you can get a multi-million dollar deal,” says Daniel Awad, whose Good Luck Have Fun management company works with Mason Ramsey and Oliver Tree. “These are massive, massive deals for a song that goes viral on Tiktok.”
Labels are willing to throw around that money because there is a connection between success on TikTok and success on other streaming platforms. When “Dissolve” began to soundtrack thousands of TikTok videos, “it increased the plays on Spotify by about 20 times, and quickly,” Absofacto says. The rapper-producer Sueco the Child saw a similar thing happen to his single “Fast.” Once it took off on TikTok, “literally instantly [the streams] started jumping,” he says. “The correlation is immediate.”
Now that TikTok has propelled a series of streaming hits onto the upper reaches of Spotify’s viral chart, scrutiny of the app has entered a new phase. “The jury is out on whether this launches actual artists,” says Vaughn. “I’m curious to see if there’s anyone that cuts through and sustains. [TikTok] moves songs so fast that it can be difficult to put any foundation underneath the act if there wasn’t one there before.” Danny Kang, who works with Awad, feels similarly: “Giant viral moments are just a flash in the pan unless you can figure out a way to build fans out of it.”
As more major labels and management companies prepare to transform viral moments into durable careers, there are already a number of young acts vying to be TikTok’s next — or maybe first — big star. Rolling Stone spoke with three of them.
Flo Milli’s “Beef FloMix,” which reached Number Two on Spotify’s Viral 50 in April, is an unusual blend, at once stoned and pugnacious. The melody is lazy, almost nonsensical, a series of notes assembled seemingly at random. Flo Milli’s lines, in contrast, are pointed and direct: “I do what I please, and you do what I ask.”
The brawling lyrics — about “a lot of different ways of feeling like a bad bitch” — effectively functioned as Flo Milli giving herself a pep talk. “No one would ever know that I was actually a very depressed girl when I wrote that song,” the rapper explains. “I didn’t have a job. I was out of school. I didn’t have a car. I was stuck at home. I put on the beat and started smoking and I just said some shit. I kept laughing after [each line].”
The bizarre, amusing, combative qualities of “Beef FloMix” made it well-suited for meme-dom, and one meme found its way to the rapper Dbangz, who in turn sent it to his manager, Vonsin Faniyi. “I called him like, you need to find this song right now,” Faniyi recalls.
Faniyi got in touch with Flo Milli and presented her with a TikTok promotion plan. “I had this idea of making a dance to brand around the song,” the manager says. His friend, the TikTok star Nice Michael, found “a video by another user who had made a perfect dance.” Faniyi then “took the dance that she made and contacted as many people as I possibly could to have them recreate it.”
This worked better than Faniyi and Flo Milli could have hoped. Videos set to “Beef FloMix” started to pile up: 8,000, 60,000, 200,000. “During that third week I was on the phone with a label,” Faniyi says. He’s thinking about new ways to use TikTok in the future, which means it might be time for Flo Milli to actually download the app. “I don’t even know how to use it,” the rapper says of TikTok. “I’ve gotta get on there.”
Before Sueco the Child got to TikTok, he had figured out a method for going viral on Instagram with five-minute beat-making videos.
It helps to have popular friends. Until he started to make successful Instagram clips, Sueco had just “1,300 followers, and I was broke living in the back of my dad’s house.” “One of my homies, Lamont Holt, he’s a famous skateboarder,” the rapper remembers. “I told him, ‘look, I need some bread doing this [music]. I’ve given up everything else.'” Together, the two came up with a plan: Holt filmed as Sueco created a new beat in under five minutes. Then he sold the beat to any interested viewers.
After the first clip garnered some interest, the videos became more elaborate. Sueco might go to a skate park, sample the sounds of skateboarders, and chop those field recordings into a beat. “One of them went stupid viral, got three million views, and Smokepurpp [a heavily-streamed rapper signed to Alamo Records] commented on it,” Sueco says. “That was the way we saw how to blow ourselves up.”
Until he discovered TikTok. “‘Old Town Road’ was really taking off, and there’s a song called ‘Shenanigans’ [by Jasiah] — one of the big reasons that was blowing up was because of TikTok,” Sueco remembers. Watching those songs rocket upward, he experienced an epiphany. “[Those artists] don’t have to do any corny shit!” “”Their song can just go viral, and other people can do the shit to it,” Sueco adds.
When he started to push “Fast” — a low-slung, battering ram of a record made up of little more than “a clap, a hi-hat and an 808” — Sueco received a TikTok boost from another member of the skater community, @lukasdaley (“ur fav skater boi;” over half a million followers). After Daley posted a video set to “Fast,” “some major TikTok influencers found it,” Sueco says. “It was exponential growth overnight.”
Unlike Flo Milli, Sueco has already followed “Fast” with a new single, “Fishscale,” to continue building his momentum. “Fishscale” hasn’t yet enjoyed the viral success of its predecessor. But maybe it doesn’t need to — Sueco recently announced that he signed to Atlantic Records, which presumably can help push his music through non-skateboarding, non-TikTok channels. “This is just the start,” Sueco promises. “I’m blessed coming out the gate this strong.”
“When I was younger, my dream job was to be a YouTuber,” mxmtoon says. “My parents laughed at me. But that was always something I wanted.”
Mxmtoon does much of her damage with a ukulele; she started a YouTube channel in middle school and also spent time on Vine, the now defunct social media platform that often draws comparisons with TikTok. “I made content all over the place,” she says.
Still, when her managers told her about TikTok, she “laughed it off.” mxmtoon was wary of the platform’s association with Musical.ly. “That was for sure made fun of a bit as something for people who take themselves too seriously for lip-syncing songs,” she says. And she worried that her melancholy songs wouldn’t work on an app that seemed to benefit the goofy, the absurd and the danceable.
But mxmtoon’s resistance was short-lived. “I had been watching YouTube videos of compilations of TikTok videos, so I downloaded the app to see more,” mxmtoon says. “But then the ‘For You’ page is just an algorithm of popular videos, and I wanted it to be more tailored to what I liked, so I made an account just to like videos.” Before long, she was making her own videos. Despite making “the sad uke music you cry to,” mxmtoon now has close to 600,000 followers on TikTok.
As her follower count climbed, so did her streams: “Falling for You,” a collaboration with Peachy! which originally came out in 2017, is now nearing 40 million streams on Spotify — impressive for an independent singer who doesn’t make rap or reggaeton — in part due to its recent popularity on the app. Her new single “Prom Dress” has been used in over 50,000 TikTok videos, and she integrated into the track’s video.
Perhaps because mxmtoon has been in the virtual trenches since middle school, she appears to be the furthest along in terms of establishing a more traditional musical career. Her website features a robust merchandise operation, and since she has built up a back catalog of music, she was able to embark on her first ever tour this year — five gigs across ten days. She has more dates planned for the fall to coincide with the release of her debut album.
Labels will be happy to hear that TikTok users are willing to exit the app for long enough to purchase concert tickets. “It was funny to see how much of the banter and interaction in the audience on the tour revolved around those TikTok videos,” mxmtoon says. “People would yell at me onstage, ‘do a TikTok dance!'”