TikTok has become a go-to platform for discovering new music. The video sharing app was released in the U.S. in 2016 and rose to fame during the pandemic when young adults were quarantined and hungry for content.
Among TikTok’s now 1 billion monthly active users, there is an entire music industry—where users preview albums to gauge consumer interest, create trends to new songs and even pay influencers to market those songs. Many of today’s famous musicians started their careers on the app, including Olivia Rodridgo, Lil Nas X and Dove Cameron.
While TikTok might create opportunities for musicians, some artists, including Halsey, Charlie XCX and Charlie Puth have complained that their labels are forcing them to heavily promote their music on TikTok before releasing a song, interfering with their artistic integrity.
Mike Barnett is a composer, drummer, recording artist, record producer, author and instructor of music theory and composition in the College of Music. CU Boulder Today spoke with Barnett about the ways TikTok has changed the music industry…for better and for worse.
How do artists promote their music on TikTok?
Artists can effectively promote on TikTok in part by doing the things that the site’s algorithms prefer in order to reach more users. Common strategies to build a fanbase on TikTok include using specific hashtags to target certain communities, creating challenges and contests, working with established influencers and creating content around what’s currently trending, just to name a few.
TikTok is basically a site where musicians work to add to their fanbase who hopefully will then go to other (monetized) sites to stream their music, like Spotify or YouTube. The irony is: All social media sites are vying for users’ attention, because the amount of time users spend on a site drives up the ad revenues and income for that site. In other words, attention is the commodity. It’s pretty bizarre, actually.
Why are recording labels urging artists to use TikTok as a promotional tool?
Record labels used to be far more involved in the development and promotion of artists. Social media has allowed them to pass the buck and put much of the burden of promotion onto the artists themselves. Most labels (major or indie) won’t even think about signing an artist who doesn’t already have big numbers on their social and streaming platforms.
Since the vast majority of consumers don’t actually “buy” music anymore, record labels have had to shift their business practices to survive in the digital age. The commodity used to be vinyl, CDs and tapes—now it’s the user's attention. The money that comes back to labels and artists from streaming is positively miniscule by comparison to physical sales.
What modern consumers and fans of music may not know is that companies such as Spotify, TikTok, etc., are not music companies, they’re technology companies. They make their money from ad revenues and subscriptions not recorded music. While labels have always gotten a bad rap for taking the lion’s share of the profits from record sales, the truth is, musicians were far, far better off with the old model because they received more of the money that their music generated.
Companies like Spotify are beginning to feature tools that help support the process of creating new recorded music, but it pales in comparison to how record labels used to invest in new talent.
How does TikTok encourage audiences to engage with music in ways that other platforms don’t?
There are tools on TikTok that make it easy to do things like create duets and collaborations, as well as linking in other platforms where musicians house their singles and albums.
On a deeper level, TikTok users seem to be embracing authenticity—real people creating content for the purpose of entertaining one another. Many musicians will let fans “backstage” by telling their band’s stories, letting folks see their creative processes and so forth. Authenticity has been a core ethos in many forms of popular music since at least the early rock and roll era, and TikTok users seem to connect to that in a way that runs counter to other social platforms, where users tend to put up false fronts.
Does this shift in the industry benefit or harm musicians’ artistic integrity?
I think anything that devours time that could be spent on developing one’s musical craft is detrimental to music in the bigger picture. Whether one is an established artist or not, the modern music industry virtually demands that musicians wear all hats: creating and performing their music, engineering and producing recordings, marketing, booking tours and managing their social media presence across multiple platforms. All of these things rob musicians of time that could be spent making music and becoming better at their craft.
My students often ask me: “Why does today’s music suck?!” While I don’t necessarily agree with that, it is true that musicians have to spend far more of their precious time on things apart from actual music making to build their careers.
How hasTikTok provided a platform for more novice artists to break into the industry?
Popular music is by definition democratic. If people don’t like something, they won’t invest their time and/or money in it. In other words, they won’t give it their vote. Popular music is supported by the masses not the aristocracy. That said, there is no such thing as an even playing field, especially in the virtual world. There are all kinds of problems with algorithms and biases, and social media sites in general tend to encourage and reward “groupthink” over free thought.