By Florrie McCarthy
I think most people reading this article would agree when I say it would be difficult today to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of TikTok, if not knowing what it is or understanding the concept. The way that the social media platform swept the globe will never cease to amaze me. It was launched by Chinese company ByteDance in 2018 and started growing steadily in popularity then, but the real craze came thanks to the global pandemic that was COVID-19. We all may have very quickly grown tired and frustrated with not being able to go outside, socialise and generally get on with our normal lives – and of course masses of people the world over dealt with much worse troubles – but being imprisoned in our own homes worked out very well for TikTok. With the amount of users growing more than sevenfold from 2018 to reach one billion users in 2021, the stats speak for themselves. People kept themselves entertained sharing nuggets of pandemic life and dancing – lots and lots of dancing.
For the small cohort that defy my opening statement, this is why I am writing about a social media platform in the music column of the express. TikTok was actually formed as a merger of two platforms – “Musica.ly” and “Douyin”, a Chinese app. The former had some popularity already as a music performance app, with lots of videos of users singing along to backing tracks or playing instruments themselves. TikTok put a different spin on this and created a general theme of making short video clips with music playing in the background. Not all TikToks(the word can be used interchangeably to refer to the platform or one of its videos)have music now, but a massive number of the trends that came up on the app since its creation are associated with different songs, or just small, novel snippets of them that allow for all sorts of of cinematic timing. As you can imagine, these trends can cause a certain song to completely implant itself in ones brain, becoming an (sometimes infuriating) ear-worm. While the most popular section of a TikTok song – a song which is recognised because of TikTok – will forever be the part that is used in the trend(the “sound”), it is not at all uncommon for people to like or even just be interested in a certain sound enough to find the song in full and listen to it. The name of the song is also presented at the bottom of the TikTok with the username of the creator as a link to the sound and the other videos that use it. Thus we have countless playlists on Spotify full of TikTok songs, some updated regularly with the most common current songs intended for others to use.
So we’ve seen why music is used in TikTok, and how it is used – but the magic is yet to come, in the distribution. While we’re all used to other social media platforms showing us content that we specifically signed up for from content creators who we chose to follow, be they our friends, certain companies or favourite celebrities, TikTok famously chooses to expose any videos to absolutely anyone – within certain parameters. The main feed of TikTok, the “for you” page, shows you videos based on content you have liked in the past, content you have ignored in the past, the region and language of your device and, in the case of younger users, profanity and age-appropriateness, among other factors. Outside this, however, the point is that you do not have to be following someone for their TikTok to appear on your “for you” page. If enough people find it entertaining it will gain traction in the form of likes and the probability of the TikTok appearing in people’s feeds will increase. Thus you could scroll through your TikTok feed and find videos with very few likes, or TikToks that are very popular that your friends might already have seen. All it takes is one funny moment, cool trick or anything else instantaneously appealing for one user to like a video or even send it to their friends. This is the magic of exposure on TikTok.
This is a very, very powerful tool for musicians, a really excellent way of getting their music exposed to more and more people. By making their tracks available to use on TikTok they allow any creator to put it as the backing track in a video, which, again, needs only a small uptick in engagement to start a fast climb to lots of “for you” pages around the world. With the boom of popularity a video might reach with a newly discovered sound, there is the chance that a trend of any sort will form whose identity lies within the accompanying song, and you best believe that if that trend gets big enough, a user will hear it multiple times in one day scrolling through their for-you page. These TikTok trends may more often than not be short-lived, but if they blow up they do so in an extreme blaze of glory with a quick death. Regardless, the accompanying song that drills itself into people’s heads gets its moment in the spotlight, and as we learned earlier if people like it enough they will listen to it in their own time, even after its associated trend dies.
This form factor, the playlist, really is massive these days. Not that it’s new, of course – the legendary mixtape definitely had its time with cassettes, and before that – but streaming platforms like Spotify make it easier than ever. Generally, Spotify has a controversial reputation in musical circles, and the topic of singular songs being spoon-fed to consumers who are spoilt for choice has had no lack of discourse from grumpy elitist music-heads(myself included, at times). Alas, it is still the way, and it does leave a tendency for listeners to take single songs as suggested to them by Spotify, add it their playlist and keep listening to similar songs, never going past that layer of abstraction to discover the actual artist and the rest of their music. It is only natural that this habit applies, then, to songs people know from TikTok that they find on Spotify as well. Obviously, I don’t mean to say that this is an absolute rule of my rough generation, plus or minus one; this concept exists to different degrees, so of course, there are people who will go beyond the curtain of the playlist to find out more about the artist.
Thus, in small ways, whether dug up from Spotify or the TikTok page that accompanies a sound, artists can in fact manage to make a name for themselves. There is no better example of this than the global pop-rap sensation that is Lil Nas X.
A normal kid from Georgia in the United States, he was writing rap music for fun in 2018 at the age of nineteen. He happened upon a beat he liked online on a Dutch website which he bought for 30$, no real fame to his name, and soon released the would-be big hit “Old Town Road”. Nas put some work into promoting the track on his social media pages, where he was known for being very active, but the real work in promoting the track did itself – on TikTok. A trend for making videos in Wild West outfits that adopted the brand #yeehaw took the song as its TikTok identity and went through the roof, helping it climb to number one on the Billboard hot one hundred chart. In the three years since Lil Nas X has become an absolute icon of pop rap.
There are obviously many other artists who have either strengthened or created their following on TikTok, but this article would be too long if I tried to name any more of them. I should hope it is evident by now just how massively impactful TikTok has been for the music industry in the past year, and who knows where else it will take us.