It seems like many of the aspiring musicians who are “making it big” are coming from TikTok. Here is data to show what I mean.
Of the artists who charted on Spotify from January 2020 to December 2021, 332 had never charted before. 25% of that came from TikTok.
In 2020, TikTok’s popularity exploded and new artists were thrust into the spotlight, opening a new path to success in the music industry. But does TikTok really help artists win this game, or does the medium offer a new opportunity worth pursuing?
Even if TikTok is difficult to achieve commercially, the platform is changing the role of audio in culture.
In the fall of 2021, I began collaborating with Vox’s Estelle Caswell to analyze all the artists who went viral on TikTok and whether this led to new, successful music careers.
This is how we did the research.
To some people, this might seem like a decent rate: Out of the hundreds of thousands of sounds on TikTok, 1,000 songs outpaced 100,000 posts, and 12.5% of those songs were from up-and-coming artists. But after seeing the data, it seems to me that TikTok (and its algorithm) don’t make strong claims for new musicians going viral on its platform.
What is TikTok good for?
For many musicians, going viral on TikTok is just the first step. When Lil Nas X blew up on TikTok with “Old Town Road,” it didn’t seem “real” until at least some of the traditional hallmarks of success followed: a record deal, touring, streaming, charting, and radio play. TikTok’s virality must lead to something bigger: a sustainable career as a musician.
Let’s see how the new artists who went viral on TikTok have fared off the platform.
We’ve been investigating 8 milestones that could lead to a sustainable musical career.
Let’s take a look number of milestones hit by each of the 125 musicians who went viral on TikTok.
It’s hard to make it as a professional musician (see our essay on how often musicians move up from small to large venues). TikTok has been held up as a beacon of hope — a shortcut to stardom that doesn’t depend on record labels or luck. It was the new SoundCloud, the place where artists are discovered. It seems so promising that musicians would be reluctant to let it affect the music they create, to indulge TikTok’s penchant for memorable lyric snippets and danceable choruses.
Yet it’s hardly a secret ingredient to success, as popular culture would have us believe. So if Tiktok doesn’t lead to mainstream success, does it do the music any good at all or just reduce it to soundbytes?
TikTok is a major development in audio media
The advantage of TikTok begins by challenging a major assumption: TikTok’s virality is a means for the purpose– You can’t just be TikTok famous. But what would it mean if that were the case – making music primarily for TikTok?
Let’s assume that most musicians use TikTok as a marketing machine to gain fame elsewhere. I’ve seen countless TikTok influencers push their YouTube channels to become famous on YouTube, where the perceived legitimacy (and money) lies.
The history of platform hopping is not new. Evan Puschak describes this in one of his YouTube videos: Early YouTubers tried to become famous on TV and in turn made content similar to what you would see on TV. Sixty years earlier, a similar sequence played out with television and film. When it first emerged, acting on television was just a stepping stone to appearing in film.
But attaining YouTube fame rarely translates to TV star — not because YouTube videos were inferior, but because the media was too diverse. YouTubers eventually stopped copying TV and explored formats that suited YouTube, such as the typical vlog (e.g., iJustine) and the video explainer (e.g., Puschak’s channel, The Nerdwriter).
YouTube (and internet videos in general) has changed the way we watch videos and, more importantly, what video content could even exist as part of our media diet.
The same thing is happening on TikTok with music: it’s producing a new role for audio as part of our media diet.
If we look at viral TikTok songs from upcoming artists (eg. Not Harry Styles, Lizzo, BTS, etc.), the new format is easier to see.
One of those viral songs is Curtis Waters’ Stunnin, which started out as a real song but reached far greater heights as a TikTok meme (where you show off your outfits/makeup/clothes while the chorus plays in the background). .
Once the tools arrive, you know exactly what you’re in for: a TikTok creator showing off — maybe even unexpectedly repeating the format. The song is part of something bigger, and the experience isn’t about the song.
Much of ppcocaine’s music is the perfect backing track for a video (where people lip-sync the lyrics) and becomes an easy format to replicate.
TikTok organizes audio (and music) as memes– viral sounds located in the background of a short, algorithmically presented video. Many take this for granted, but I point it out because it’s so different from the typical music streaming experience. You never hear a whole 3 minute song. On many viral TikTok sounds, I hear 10 second loops hundreds if not thousands of times.
In short, TikTok’s virality doesn’t bode well for sustainable careers, but it represents a monumental shift in what it means to make audio as an art.
A few months ago I started seeing some of Bill Wurtz’s old music being recycled on TikTok. He often made really short snippets of music that weren’t really songs but didn’t fit anywhere except on YouTube.
This music works so well on TikTok; The memes write themselves and reach far greater heights than the YouTube video or standalone Spotify song ever could. I don’t even have to show you the TikToks people made with this 16 second “song”.
Here’s another Bill Wurtz song that went viral on TikTok, one of the OVER 1 MILLION videos for “Just Did a Bad Thing”.
I really enjoyed Bill Wurtz’s songs themselves; it never felt like they were trying to be songs that you would stream. But when they are attached to a TikTok video and tagged with a meme, they feel complete.
TikTok will follow the same path as YouTube: At some point, aspiring musicians will realize that TikTok is not just a new channel, but a new medium for audio.
Creating audio for TikTok will be an art in itself and not just a stepping stone to a traditional music career.