Over the past few years, few brands have grown as much and as quickly as TikTok. As a result, it has taken the world by storm and had a lasting impact on many aspects of pop culture — perhaps most notably in the music industry.
TikTok is a video-sharing social networking platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance that has become extremely popular in the past two to three years, particularly among teenagers. Users can share short videos up to about a minute long. TikTok videos cover every genre of content; anything you could want, you can find on TikTok.
Two of the major features that define TikTok are its personalization algorithm and its infinite nature. When using the app, there are two main pages. The first is the “Following” page, where users can scroll through videos posted by accounts they follow. The second, the “For You” page, is where TikTok thrives. It is an infinite page of videos generated by an algorithm that uses data about what pages and videos users have interacted with before. So, for instance, if a user “likes” a few videos about basketball, as they keep scrolling, they’ll notice a more significant number of basketball-related videos pop up on their “For You” page (colloquially known as the FYP). In sum, users’ FYPs are molded to be exactly what they want to see, which is what makes the app so addictive.
The FYP is what contributes to virality through TikTok. When a public user posts a video, it could show up on people’s FYP anywhere in the world. When a video gets attention and engagement, the app will put it on more people’s pages. In other words, TikTok users don’t need to be famous to reach millions of views; they need to know how to use TikTok’s algorithm to their advantage. Anything, and anyone, has the potential to go viral.
TikTok presents a perfect platform for unknown, aspiring musicians and songwriters. Musicians can post videos of themselves singing covers of popular songs, and each post has a possibility of going viral if it receives enough engagement. In addition, composers can post their original songs through TikTok to get attention, rather than releasing songs traditionally through a record label. TikTok is the ideal platform for hopeful musicians to quickly and easily get their names out in the open.
In addition to making videos with one’s own audio, users can create videos accompanied by audio already in the app, usually in the form of songs. As a result, it’s not just videos or accounts that go viral: it’s sounds. But TikTok videos are concise, often less than 15 seconds — which means that the sounds that go viral are often short snippets of songs.
Picture this: a user with a few thousand followers comes across a TikTok video that uses a catchy snippet from an unknown song. The user makes a video dancing to the song and posts it. Thousands of followers see the dancing video and give it a “like,” maybe even leaving a comment and sharing it with a friend. As the video gets more engagement, it gets put on thousands of more FYPs. By the next day, the video could have hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of likes. And if the video has thousands of views, that means that the song also received thousands of listens — and without having done anything, the song’s composer can reap the benefits of the exposure.
One of the app’s biggest success stories is the emergence of now-famous rapper Lil Nas X. The then-20-year-old college dropout began promoting his song “Old Town Road” on social media, largely to no avail. But when the song gained traction on TikTok, the rapper’s life changed forever. The song became the biggest hit of 2019 (a remixed version with Billy Ray Cyrus has accumulated over 1.2 billion streams on Spotify), and marked the beginning of a highly successful music career; Lil Nas X remains one of the most prevalent music artists to this day.
Another perhaps smaller-scale TikTok success story is that of Clair Rosinkranz. In June 2020, a teenage Rosinkranz uploaded to TikTok a clip of her singing a song she had just written, titled “Backyard Boy.” Not a frequent or avid user of the app, she had no idea until about a month later that the audio clip from her video had been used hundreds of thousands of times by other users. She then uploaded another video claiming the song as hers and has since launched a musical career due to the exposure mentioned above. As of August 2021, the audio from the song has been used in over 2.2 million videos on the app.
But TikTok doesn’t just benefit unknown artists — it can help already successful musicians raise their music to the top of the charts. Songs by famous artists that are also ubiquitous on TikTok tend to do their best. It’s a positive feedback loop, of sorts; popular songs inevitably end up yielding thousands of TikTok videos using their audio, which causes thousands of more people to listen to them and expand upon their popularity even further. For instance, Olivia Rodrigo, one of today’s biggest pop stars, owes part of her overwhelming success to the prevalence of her songs on TikTok. Snippets of the audio to her songs “Driver’s License” and “Good 4 U” were used extensively for dancing and lip-syncing videos on the app, and it wasn’t long before they each skyrocketed to the top of the charts. The bottom line is that songs that become popular on TikTok become popular everywhere else as a direct result. TikTok stars with millions of followers even get paid by artists to make videos using their songs; it’s free exposure on such a large scale that popularity becomes inevitable.
TikTok has had a massive impact on the young generation’s lives and has had a profound effect on the music industry. Firstly, it’s an excellent tool for aspiring musicians trying to get their content noticed. Publishing companies worldwide have become more aware of TikTok’s importance to intellectual property, mechanical royalties, and music metadata. But even for some of the world’s most prominent artists, knowing how to navigate the TikTok sphere is crucial to remaining atop the musical world.