The music industry is not known for immediately embracing new technology. So it was a surprise that last month, as Miley Cyrus prepared to release “Midnight Sky,” her first solo single in almost exactly a year, the singer was teasing the track through Reels, a new feature of Instagram that was roughly a week old in the U.S.
“It was about creating noise in the fanbase, and Instagram’s obviously one of the biggest platforms,” says Olivia Rudensky, who ran a Cyrus fan account at age 12 and is now a part of the singer’s management team. “It’s a new feature of Instagram, not a brand new app where it could be more of a risk. It’s like, why not [try Reels]?”
“It was a big win impressions-wise,” Rudensky adds, noting that one of the “Midnight Sky” teasers amassed more than 20 million views.
Last month, Instagram launched Reels in the U.S. The platform is widely viewed as Instagram’s attempt to mimic — and steal users from — TikTok as the Bytedance-owned app battles with the Trump administration. Reels and TikTok are both free and both centered around making brief video clips which can be set to music.
TikTok has upended the music industry in the last 20 months. Its sizable user base appears to have a never-ending appetite for 15-second clips of new songs; once an audio snippet resonates with several thousand users, it has the potential to snowball into the kind of inescapable hit that even your grandma knows. (Ask her about WhoHeem’s “Lets Link” in a few weeks.) “Everyone has acknowledged that TikTok is the strongest moving factor in terms of a platform converting to consumption on the streaming services,” says Tim Collins, whose Creed Media company runs TikTok campaigns for a variety of labels.
Given the uncertainty suddenly hanging over TikTok, marketers who specialize in helping artists and labels promote songs are already testing Reels, trying to determine the extent to which they can use it to hook listeners. But marketers point to several features of the platform that they believe are obstacles to musical virality, at least for now.
The first issue: At the moment, Reels users cannot save a clip without losing the sound they attached to it due to licensing issues. This immediately limits the reach of even the catchiest Reels post. “When you have a TikTok and post it on Twitter and it goes viral there, that’s not a possibility in Reels, which impacts the music industry specifically,” says Benji Berkeley, who runs accelerators, a digital marketing company.
Another potential pitfall: While Reels suggests that users pick a specific part of a song to soundtrack their videos, it gives you the freedom to choose any section of, for example, “WAP,” for a clip. TikTok, in contrast, limits users’ choice to a single snippet at most 30 seconds long. Reels’ open-endedness “may look like a benefit, but where TikTok aligns all the user-generated content around the same clip, Reels doesn’t do that,” Berkeley adds. “There’s more flexibility, but less opportunity for trends to come together.”
The third potential obstacle to musical virality on Reels has to do with typical patterns of behavior among Instagram users. Marketers say that many of them still encounter Reels clips through their main Instagram feed, next to the boring old photos; when users are scrolling in the main feed, they tend to do so with their sound off. TikTok, in contrast, forces your phone’s sound on as soon as you open the app. “TikTok is an audio-centralized platform,” says Collins, whose company recently ran a Reels campaign for an artist in Germany. “Instagram is not” — users are trained to look, but not always to listen.
TikTok has also conditioned users to see something they like and respond to it, often through replication or embellishment, which is how one dance video can balloon into a million clips in under a week. But “people aren’t used to seeing a video on Instagram and recreating it,” Collins continues.
That’s partially why, during the recent campaign Creed Media ran for a German artist, the amount of “user generated content was not even close at all to what you would see from TikTok.” “Impressions were great,” Collins says, but he estimates that if Creed Media spent the same amount of money on a TikTok campaign — TikTok influencers also tend to be much cheaper than Instagram influencers — it would result in ten times as many user-generated clips.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, said “we’ve seen so much creativity and enthusiasm from our community around” Reels following its launch in August. “People are using it to discover and follow new creators they may never have otherwise come across and share their lives on Instagram in a new way,” the spokesperson added. “We’re continuing to evolve Reels, and we’re excited to see how people continue to use it to express themselves.”
The way users act on Instagram is so different from the way they behave on TikTok that Rudensky believes that it’s a mistake for the music industry to look at them as competitors. “I don’t believe you can replicate what TikTok has built,” she says. “But Instagram has a different way for fans to utilize it.”
Right now, labels are still largely treating Reels as a more expensive extension of TikTok, according to Berkeley. “If they’re running a TikTok campaign they’ll throw something extra to put the same content on Reels too,” he says. “People aren’t treating it as a separate platform like it should be.”
This will likely change with time. Artists continued to test Reels last week; Saweetie used it to tease the remix for her “Tap In” single. “Musical.ly was very instrumental in helping us break our first single, ‘Icy Girl,'” explains Max Gousse, CEO of Artistry Records. “TikTok helped ‘My Type.’ This is another avenue. We try to put our music wherever we feel the fans are going to be.”