Social media platforms go in and out of style, but TikTok is here to stay for the foreseeable future in light of current trends. The increasingly popular app has been downloaded over 1 billion times and recently passed YouTube as the platform with the highest average watch time in the US and UK. With music being an integral part of the platform, there is no denying TikTok plays a vital role in how artists reach new fans. However, what makes TikTok such an enticing interface for musicians and music lovers alike, and what does the app’s exponential growth mean for the future of the music industry?
Why is TikTok so Popular?
The addictive qualities of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms have been widely recognized for years, but TikTok’s ability to keep users hooked leaves the rest in the dust. The platform’s AI-assisted algorithm analyzes user interaction, video information, and device and account settings to curate a personalized feed on TikTok’s “For You” page, which shows users a never-ending string of videos relating to their interests. These startlingly-accurate and easily-digestible short-form videos trigger the brain’s reward system similar to the way a slot machine does and has even led to the comparison of the app being like “digital crack cocaine.” This effect is especially apparent in younger generations, who are becoming increasingly reliant on TikTok not only as a means of entertainment but finding new music.
A Newfound Community
However, the app’s dramatic rise in popularity cannot only be attributed to its addictive appeal. For some creators, TikTok is a platform where they feel they can be their authentic selves, as it offers a refreshing change of pace from the highly visual and sometimes perfectionist nature of other platforms. According to a Nielson Survey, 77% of TikTok users feel that they can express themselves openly on the platform, and 84% of users found the content relatable.
This growing sense of community could be the driving force behind the app’s dramatic surge in downloads during the pandemic. Amid this isolation, TikTok has been especially valuable to musicians, who often rely on utilizing their creative networks. Electric violinist Mia Asano reflects on her experience, “I’ve made so many connections with such incredible, talented people who are now wanting to take me on tours with them. I’m playing on their albums, and they’re going to play on my stuff. I really don’t think music is meant to be done alone… collaboration is so important, and I’m really lucky to have been gifted that from TikTok.”
Electronic artist/producer Annie Elise also commended TikTok’s supportive community of musicians. “In an overwhelmingly competitive industry where everyone is trying to get ahead with followers, views, and streams, it is refreshing to see the focus once again returning to the music and to the independent creators thanks to TikTok.”
The Art of Going Viral
TikTok may be a nightmare for parents trying to limit their children’s screen time, but it is a different story for artists seeking exposure. Unlike other platforms where growing a following is a comparatively more linear process, TikTok is like playing the lottery. Even those with modest followings have a shot at going viral. For pop singer-songwriter Mae McCoy, who received nearly 400,000 views on one of her videos, this turned out to be the case. “At first, I got on the app like most people did — ironically — but it quickly became serious after a random video of mine went viral.”
The same was also true for Mia Asano “I just went viral totally on accident… I had 300 followers and the next day I had 150,000 and I didn’t know what to do with myself… Suddenly there’s a lot of eyes on you and your music, and what that’s done for me is it has allowed some of my personal projects to start seeing some light”
Nevertheless, for every TikTok video that takes off, countless fall flat. Factors such as trends, hashtag challenges, and even which sounds and effects are used can make or break whether videos go viral. Producer Travis Heidelman, who has worked with artists such as Jay Alan and Sammi Jordan, notes, “It’s not just good enough to put it out there; there has to be a two-way relationship between the artist and their fans. When fans take a secondary action with the music, that’s when you really have a hit.”
For many creators, it can be challenging to predict which videos go viral, leading some to question TikTok’s efficacy. Annie Elise observes, “The videos that I have had go viral there are mostly unrelated to my music career — unlike Instagram reels, where my viral videos are related to my brand. Is it even worth it if the content that goes viral isn’t genuine?”
TikTok Success Stories
For the artists capable of navigating the app’s unpredictable trends while also fostering genuine connections with fans, TikTok can effectively launch their professional careers. One notable example is 22-year-old artist Lil Nas X, who rose to fame after promoting his country-trap song “Old Town Road” on TikTok’s platform. Lil Nas X attributed the song’s rapid success to his exposure when TikTok users began posting videos of themselves transforming into cowboys and cowgirls. Fueled by the viral trend, the song garnered so much attention that Lil Nas X showed up on record labels’ radars, and he later signed with Columbia records that year.
Multi-hyphenate artist and songwriter Damoyee also experienced meteoric growth in her career due to attention from TikTok’s platform. “What started out as me sharing quick and simple videos of myself singing and playing, and sometimes goofing around doing nothing related to music, has now turned to a platform that’s part of my brand… in fact, more people in public lately have recognized me from TikTok than they have from another social media platform or from a show in-person or virtual. I’ve gotten several brand partnership opportunities from my presence on TikTok, as well as booked shows and had interviews with some smaller platforms and major publications such as Ebony and Entertainment Weekly.”
Copyright and Compensation Challenges
So how can other artists follow suit and harness the potential of TikTok’s platform to generate income and career longevity? Unfortunately, the answer may not be so simple. While some musicians credit TikTok for kickstarting their careers, the app has also received its fair share of criticism. For example, TikTok’s recently-launched Creator Fund enables certain users to make between two and four cents per every thousand views. However, this initiative, which TikTok claims will help financially support the most successful creators on the app, has been met with mixed reviews. Annie Elise shares her experience, “My views were obliterated once I joined the creator fund. I made a grand total of 60 cents over three months and then just left.”
TikTok has also been at the center of numerous copyright issues. Due to the app’s reliance on copyrighted music, as well as the massive influx of new videos being created every day, the demand for keeping track of copyrighted music is greater than ever before. While TikTok has made licensing agreements with several labels, publishers, and musicians, there are still some who fall through the cracks. The artist Joji, well-known for his Youtube personality Filthy Frank, had his song “Slow Dancing in the Dark” used millions of times for the #microwavechallenge, yet he went unpaid for its use.
In another instance, rappers ZaeHD & CEO faced challenges when promoting their unreleased song “All In” on TikTok. Though initially, their strategy seemed to be working—the song was featured in over 2.3 million videos on TikTok—problems surfaced when another user incorrectly put the sample into the system. Despite ZaeHD’s team communicating with TikTok, the song was mislabeled for months afterward.
Case in point, TikTok’s payment, and identification systems have proven to pose issues for many of its creators. Users can work with TikTok like ZaeHD, waiting for unforeseen amounts of time while the app processes similar requests, or send a DMCA takedown notice, wiping the song from the app completely. Both solutions are neither desirable nor creator-friendly, which raises the following question: Is TikTok the best platform to market one’s music?
Is TikTok Right for You?
Like any platform, TikTok comes with its own set of unique challenges and areas that require improvement. However, when it comes to the ways artists promote themselves, there is no single method better than the rest. Whether or not TikTok can become a helpful tool will differ from person to person; nevertheless, artists considering the app should experiment and try it for themselves. For the time being, TikTok is a force to be reckoned with, with its music industry impact too significant to be ignored.
 “Tiktok Passes YouTube for Average Watch Time in UK and US.” NME, 7 Sept. 2021, https://www.nme.com/news/music/tiktok-passes-youtube-for-average-watch-time-in-uk-and-us-3038483.
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