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TikTok has changed music — and the industry is hustling to catch up

A lot of musicians are skipping the traditional path into the industry, and are going straight to their fans instead.
Paul Taylor/Getty Images; Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR
A lot of musicians are skipping the traditional path into the industry, and are going straight to their fans instead.

Tyler Colon played college basketball. He won an MTV reality show. He's tried podcasting, modeling, and acting. But in 2019, he got serious about pursuing music.

"After singing in my car for, like, six months for an hour and a half every single day, I released 'Stuck In The Middle,'" he said.

He put it up on TikTok under his stage name, Tai Verdes. At the time, he was working at a Verizon store.

"I saw other people like me that had no following end up on the radio," he said. "And when you see that happen multiple times because of one app, it's kind of like 'a-duh', you know what I'm saying? Like, why not?"

Before he knew it, he was fielding calls from presidents of record labels during his lunch break. He got a record deal, made a debut album, and is currently on a 22-city tour across America. "Stuck In The Middle" has been streamed well over 100 million times on Spotify.

TikTok has flipped the script on the music industry, and everyone from artists to analysts and even marketing bosses at the top labels are hustling to catch up.

A new way to listen

Verdes thinks he would have made it without TikTok, but he also noticed that his fans on the app were especially engaged. They would go from his TikTok to his Spotify page or his YouTube channel.

"You just made this video, you have this song, you have this melody that they really like. They want to go get that. You just gave them something," he said.

Tai Verdes documented his dream and rapid rise on TikTok and now has millions of followers on the app.
/ Austin Cieszko
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Austin Cieszko
Tai Verdes documented his dream and rapid rise on TikTok and now has millions of followers on the app.

Verdes isn't the only one to notice this trend, and that TikTok users interact with music differently.

"They're not just listening to music in a sort of, like, lean-back, passive way," says music industry analyst Tatiana Cirisano. "They're more likely to do more lean-forward activities, like creating playlists or listening to full albums on streaming or buying merchandise."

Consumer behavior data compiled by Cirisano shows TikTok users are more likely to spend money on music, and be more invested in it. 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.

What's more, TikTok users often respond to music with their own videos, using features built into the app design. They might lip-sync a song, make up a dance, or try to sing it.

"It's changed music listening from being a one-way relationship where a song comes out and you listen to it on your own, to something that you participate in," Cirisano said. "I mean, I don't think that any other social media app has done that to this degree. TikTok is peak UGC in that way."

UGC — short for "user-generated content" — is one of the buzzwords currently going around in the music industry.

Nina Webb is the head of marketing at Atlantic Records and said when she first started out in the industry, it was a bit simpler.

"It used to be a puzzle for a 3-year-old. You had video and radio," she said. "And you just needed money and leverage and influence as a label. And now I feel like it's the 1,000 piece gray sky where TikTok is the only piece that will individually move the dial the way it does."

Webb knows exactly what she's 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 sign language sub-community of TikTok got a hold of it in the middle of Gayle's tour.

Note: This TikTok post includes profanity in lyrics and sign language that some might find objectionable.

"She saw the difference from playing at the beginning of the tour, when people, like, somewhat kind of heard this or looked it up, to by the end — I mean, it was like the whole place was going crazy," Webb said. "So November was really the tipping point, and it was 100% the sign language community."

That user-generated content made all the difference for Gayle. Her song sat at No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 chart for 11 weeks.

Gayle felt the impact of TikTok midway through her tour last year when "ABCDEFU" became a viral hit.
/ Acacia Evans
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Acacia Evans
Gayle felt the impact of TikTok midway through her tour last year when "ABCDEFU" became a viral hit.

Buying influence and getting lucky

These days, there's 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 get a dance challenge going. With 1 billion monthly active users now on TikTok after a surge in downloads over the pandemic, it's not hard to see why.

Webb says she's certainly tried different strategies, but most times when a song takes off on TikTok, it seems to happen organically.

"I mean, there's a million examples of a lot of very expensive campaigns that had no return," she said. "Like, we can't do it. It has to come from fans or the artist because you're talking to Gen Z. They smell everything out."

Sometimes those fans work in unexpected ways. Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" came out 25 years ago but earlier this year set one-day streaming records on Spotify and YouTube after lip-syncing the most dramatic part of the song became a viral TikTok trend.

Or take the song "Snowman" by Sia. That came out in 2017, but the TikTok challenge came in 2020, where people posted videos of themselves trying to sing the entire chorus in one breath.

Analyst Tatiana Cirisano says the music industry used to hunt for unknown talent and develop it. But the rise of TikTok has helped to flip that formula.

"I think that we are increasingly in an era where audiences are choosing what they want to hear, and record labels and the rest of the music industry are sort of listening to that," she said.

The risk of burnout

There are downsides to this too, though. TikTok might create opportunities for musicians, but some artists feel that they have to constantly be "on". Creator burnout is real.

"There's kind of this fear, I think, for people that have built huge followings on TikTok that if they stop at any point, people will just stop following them or they'll forget or they'll move on," Cirisano said.

"At times, people's attention spans are shorter and just the content trend doesn't stop."

Damoyee is a 21-year-old an independent music artist/content creator from Dallas, Texas. She is a composer, producer, singer, songwriter, and she plays a lot of instruments.

Damoyee is learning to balance her TikTok profile with other life commitments.
/ Mel Gonzalez
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Mel Gonzalez
Damoyee is learning to balance her TikTok profile with other life commitments.

She posts a lot of covers and remixes of other songs, usually trending ones. And it's a lot of work. A minute-long TikTok usually takes around six hours to create.

"I know starting out, it took me a little less than a week to get 100 followers," she said. "And I remember, like, seeing one-zero-zero, I freaked out. I thought, hey, I'm famous, you know? I was grateful," Damoyee says with a laugh.

Sometimes a video flops, and sometimes it takes off. But Damoyee says that she generally feels TikTok helps boost musicians like her. That doesn't make it easy.

Damoyee is learning to balance her school work, personal life and the social following she's trying to build.

"It's definitely been a bit of a challenge and it has taken a toll, you know, especially on my mental health," she says. "I've gone, at the latest ... a month without posting because I just needed to breathe."

"I will say for now, the goal is to thrive as an independent artist without looking at any labels at the moment and to still build a platform to the point where I would feel comfortable releasing music alone," she said.

In other words, she hopes to find that perfect balance between cultivating her online following and making music. And when she does, she's hoping she won't have to ask the traditional powers in the industry for recognition. They may call her first.

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