Paul Taylor/Getty Images; Zerha Rodriguez / NPR
Tyler Kowloon played basketball in college. He won a reality show on MTV. He has experimented with podcasting, modeling and acting. But in 2019, he got serious about pursuing music.
“After singing in my car for six months for an hour and a half every day, I released Stuck In The Middle,” he said.
He put it on TikTok under his stage name, Tai Verdes. At the time, he was working at a Verizon store.
“I’ve seen other people like me, who don’t have followers, end up on the radio,” he said. “And when you see this happen multiple times because of one app, it’s kind of like an ‘a-duh,’ do you know what I’m saying? Like, why not?”
Before he knew it, he was getting calls from the heads of record companies during his lunch break. He landed a record deal, made a debut album, and is currently touring 22 cities across America. “Stuck In The Middle” has been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify.
TikTok has upended the scenario in the music industry, and everyone from artists to analysts and even chief marketing officers at top brands are catching up.
A new way to listen
Verdes thought he would have achieved it without TikTok, but he also noted that his fans on the app were particularly engaged. They will go from his TikTok to his Spotify page or YouTube channel.
He said, “I just made this video, you have this song, you have this tune they really like. They want to have that. I gave them something.”
Verdes isn’t the only one to notice this trend, and TikTok users interact with music differently.
“They’re not just listening to music in some way, like relaxing, passive,” says music industry analyst Tatiana Sirisano. “They are more likely to do more simple activities, such as creating playlists, listening to entire albums on live broadcasts, or purchasing merchandise.”
Consumer behavior data collected by Cirisano It shows that TikTok users are more inclined to spend money on music, and invest in it more. 40% of active TikTok users pay a monthly subscription for music, compared to 25% of the general population. And 17% buy artist merchandise monthly, compared to 9% of the general population.
Moreover, TikTok users often respond to music with their videos, using features built into the app design. They might sync up a song, make up a dance, or try to sing it along.
“It changed the music you listen to from being a one-way affair where you bring out a song and listen to it yourself, to something you get involved in,” Sirisano said. “I mean, I don’t think any other social media app has done it to this degree. TikTok is the pinnacle of UGC in this way.”
UGC – short for “User Generated Content” – is one of the buzzwords currently in use in the music industry.
Nina Webb is the chief marketing officer for Atlantic Records and said that when she first started in the industry, it was a little simpler.
“It was like a puzzle for a three-year-old,” she said. “You had a video and a radio.” “And you just need money, power, and impact as a brand. And now it feels like 1,000 pieces of a gray sky where TikTok is the only piece that will individually drive the dial the way you do.”
Webb knows exactly what you’re talking about. Last August, an Atlantic Records artist named Gayle released a song called “ABCDEFU”.
They promoted the song on TikTok a lot, but it didn’t really take off until months later when the TikTok sign language sub-community got hold of the song in the middle of Gayle’s tour.
Note: This TikTok post includes profanity in the lyrics and sign language which some may find objectionable.
“She saw the teams from playing at the beginning of the tour, when people kind of heard this or looked for it, to the end — I mean, it was like the whole place was crazy,” Webb said. “So November was really the turning point, and the sign language community was 100%.”
This user-generated content made all the difference to Gayle. Her song ranked #1 on the Billboard Global 200 chart for 11 weeks.
Buy leverage and get lucky
These days there is a cottage industry dedicated to marketing a song or artist on TikTok – paying influencers to promote a song, posting short clips to see what people respond to, trying to start a dance challenge. With one billion monthly active users now on TikTok after a surge in downloads during the pandemic, it’s not hard to see why.
Webb says she’s definitely tried different strategies, but most of the time when a song goes off on TikTok, it seems to happen naturally.
“I mean, there’s a million examples of a lot of very expensive campaigns that just didn’t work,” she said. “Like, we can’t do that. It has to come from the fan or the artist because you’re talking to Generation Z. They smell everything.”
These fans sometimes act in unexpected ways. Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” came out 25 years ago, but earlier this year she made one-day streaming recordings on Spotify and YouTube after syncing up the more dramatic part of the song went viral on TikTok.
Or take the song “Snowman” by Sia. It came in 2017, but the TikTok challenge came in 2020, where people posted videos of themselves trying to sing the entire chorus into one breath.
Analyst Tatiana Sirisano says the music industry is used to finding and developing unknown talent. But the rise of TikTok helped upend that formula.
“I think we’re increasingly going through an age where audiences are choosing what they want to hear, and record companies and the rest of the music industry is kind of listening to that,” she said.
There are downsides to this as well. TikTok may create opportunities for musicians, but some artists feel they have to “run” constantly. Creator burnout is real.
“There is kind of that fear, I think, for people who have built massive followings on TikTok that if they ever stop, people will stop following them or they will forget or they will move on,” Cirisano said.
“Sometimes people’s attention spans are shorter and the content trend just doesn’t stop.”
The 21-year-old Damoye is a Freelance Music Artist/Creator from Dallas, Texas. She is a composer, producer, singer, songwriter and plays many instruments.
It posts a lot of songs adapted and remixed from other songs, usually blockbuster songs. It requires a lot of work. It takes about six hours to create a TikTok for a minute.
“I know from the start, it took a little less than a week to get 100 followers,” she said. “And I remember, like seeing Zero-Zero, I was blown away. I thought, ‘Hey, I’m famous, you know?’ I was grateful,” Damoy says, laughing.
Sometimes a video flops, sometimes it goes off. But Damoy says she generally feels TikTok helps promote musicians like her. This does not make it easy.
Damoyee learns to balance her school work with her personal life and the social following she is trying to build.
“It was definitely kind of challenging and it has had a negative impact, you know, especially on my mental health,” she says. “I went, at the latest… a month without posting because I just needed to breathe.”
“I will say for now, the goal is for you to thrive as an independent artist without looking at any labels at the moment and continue to build a platform to the point where I feel comfortable releasing music on my own,” she said.
In other words, she hopes to find that perfect balance between growing her online following and composing music. And when you do, you hope you won’t have to seek recognition for traditional forces in the industry. They can call her first.