Spencer Stewart joined TikTok in 2020 hoping to promote his own music. He started posting every day as Syspence and settled on an initial strategy to engage viewers: upload a clip about the rise of a well-known artist like Juice WRLD, and then “find a way to get the video to my song repeat,” so he could pocket his own work, too.
Syspence noted that “people liked the storytelling about artists like Juice,” so he gradually began removing his own career from his clips, instead focusing on telling the rise of the hip-hop acts he loved . His videos got more views and his follower count increased from around 10,000 to the current level – more than 350,000. Artists and labels are constantly scouring TikTok for advertising opportunities, and they began inquiring if Syspence would make videos about their artists for an advertising fee. Within the last year, he’s been able to quit his valet parking job in Orange County to focus on TikTok full-time. Now he’s one of nearly a dozen TikTok creators — with a following ranging from about 40,000 to over three million — managed by Against the Grain (ATG), an LA-based management and marketing firm.
Syspence and many of his colleagues refer to themselves as “music curators,” and while “curator” is a vague and overused term, the job has recently become increasingly popular as a way of promoting the music industry. “TikTok is a one-stop shop for music discovery, and these posts hit the Gen Z fans we want to target,” says Harrison Golding, Marketing Director of Empire who is in contact with more than 50 curators. “With so many labels investing in distributing music on TikTok right now, people are spending insane amounts of money on advertising, but we’re finding we can make a splash [via a curator post] with 400 or 500 dollars.”
Curator advertising “is a big part of most of our campaigns,” he adds Jens Darmafall, Associate Director of Influencer Marketing at Warner Records. These accounts “play a big part in songs that potentially go viral.”
The makers behind TikTok’s music recommendation accounts can facilitate discovery in part because their approach is “more personal” than reading about a song on a release or finding it on a streaming service, they say Jared Jermaine, a longtime producer who has mostly given up writing songs to focus on TikTok. “It comes from a company; it’s too official,” he says. “It’s like learning about music from a kid on the street.” Darmafall uses similar language: “These curators have a sense of belonging.
“TikTok isn’t just the dance platform anymore,” he adds Rebecca Verteegh, Head of Music Partnerships at Creed Media, which has run digital marketing campaigns for almost every major label. “Now you have every type of community on the platform, and the music discovery community has come into its own.”
The TikTokers who want to alert users to new tracks use a variety of methods. Jermaine happily unpacks sample references for his more than three million followers, and is quick to identify the old bones (Robin S’ “Show Me Love” for example) of a new song (Charli XCX’s “Used to Know Me”). Nicholas Nuvan (1.4 million followers) does man-on-the-street interviews, where he asks people what they’re hearing.
Ari Elkins takes a different approach, often highlighting a hit (e.g. Joji’s “Glimpse of Us”) and directing his 1.8 million followers to similar titles (Finneas’ “Break My Heart Again”). (Elkins manager Ryan McAvoy brought the TikToker to ATG, helped the company build its network of curators, and now works on all of its campaigns.) Videos from Annabelle Klin (113,000 followers) range from Albums I Love to What His Favorite Brent Faiyaz Song Says About Him.
Any of these techniques can contribute to a track’s streams skipping. “If one of those contributions is successful, a song from 5,000 streams per day on Apple Music can grow to 200,000 per day,” says Golding. “You’re going to see real translation in streams, because that’s the whole subject of the TikTok post — you’re talking about a song,” adds a senior label exec, who requested anonymity to speak about his marketing efforts. “The music is not background noise.”
It can be difficult to isolate the individual impact of a post given that many artists engage in multiple marketing activities simultaneously. Still, examining the increase in monthly Spotify listeners following a few TikTok posts by self-proclaimed curators shows a positive correlation, particularly for fledgling acts who are still in the early stages of building a following.
Axel Tanner, for example, a endorsement video of Hans Williams’ “Checklist” garnered around 4 million views: In the 48 hours following Williams’ clip, the singer’s monthly listeners grew by 17,000, a 13% increase. (Tanner worked with Billboard and Samsung on SXSW.) Similarly, Nuvan’s clip on Kinrose resulted in an increase of about 14,000 monthly listeners. Like Williams, Kinrose is relatively unknown, so this was a jump of more than 18%. In the 48 hours following a popular Elkins “Songs that make you feel like a villain part 11” that featured Neoni’s “Darkside,” the group gained nearly 40,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
The money from the additional streams goes to the artists and their labels. But marketers say TikTok’s human recommendation engines can also generate hundreds or even more than a thousand dollars per post from artists or labels, as well as additional revenue from brand partnerships. (While there are rules for paying to play on the airwaves, digital platforms aren’t regulated in the same way, and paying to have songs placed on TikTok videos is routine.) Gain enough followers, and that money can grow summing up point where highlighting new music on TikTok becomes a full-time job, as is the case for Syspence, Jermaine, and others.
But financial incentives can also tempt curators into making bad decisions — taking money to, say, play a pop song on a hip-hop-centric account doesn’t make much sense from a marketing perspective. “You start to see posts from these kids like, ‘Nobody thinks that way about this song,'” says the label’s senior executive. “This kid probably took a $200 check to do that.”
Omid Noorithe co-founder of ATG along with Ramzi Najdawi, makes sure to send promotional opportunities to his list to see who opts in, rather than forcing songs through their accounts. “We have these conversations — ‘Make sure you don’t just take this one because the money is green,'” Noori explains.
Tanner says he’s turned down paid promotions left and right. “It’s a little painful to say no to all these bags in the short term,” he admits. “But I’ll only ever put stuff on the platform that I really rock with.”