It seems like many of the emerging musicians to “make it big” are coming from TikTok. Here’s data to show what I mean.
Of the artists who charted on Spotify from January 2020 to December 2021, 332 had never charted before. 25% of them came from TikTok.
In 2020, TikTok exploded in popularity and new artists were being lifted into the spotlight, presenting a new path to success in the music industry. But is TikTok really helping artists win this game, or does the medium present a new opportunity worth pursuing?
The Unlikely Odds of Making it Big on TikTok
Even if it’s hard to be commercially successful from TikTok, the platform changes the role of audio in culture.
In the fall of 2021, I began working with Estelle Caswell of Vox to analyze all of the artists who went viral on TikTok and whether it resulted in new, successful music careers.
This is how we went about the research.
To some people, this might seem like decent odds: of the hundreds of thousands of sounds on TikTok, 1,000 songs surpassed 100,000 posts, and 12.5% of those songs were from emerging artists. But after seeing the data, it seems to me that TikTok (and its algorithm) doesn’t have a strong claim that new musicians go viral on its platform.
What is TikTok good for?
For many musicians, going viral on TikTok is just the first step. When Lil Nas X blew up on TikTok with “Old Town Road,” it didn’t seem “real” until at least some of the traditional markers of success followed: a record deal, touring, streaming, charting, and radio play. TikTok virality needs to lead to something bigger: a sustainable career as a musician.
Let’s see how the new artists who went viral on TikTok fared outside the platform.
We tracked 8 milestones that could lead to a sustainable musical career.
Let’s look at the number of milestones met by each of the 125 musicians who went viral on TikTok.
It’s hard to make it as a professional musician (see our essay about how often musicians progress from small venues to large ones). TikTok has been held up as a beacon of hope—a shortcut to fame that doesn’t rely on record labels or luck. It was the new SoundCloud, the place where artists get discovered. It seems so promising that musicians would be remiss to not let it affect the music they create, pandering to TikTok’s preference for memeable lyric snippets and danceable choruses.
Yet it’s hardly as much of a secret sauce for success as popular culture would have us believe. So if Tiktok isn’t leading to mainstream success, does it do any good for music at all, or does it simply reduce it to sound bytes?
TikTok is a major development in audio media
The upside of TikTok starts with questioning a big assumption: TikTok virality is a means to an end—you can’t just be TikTok-famous. But, what would it mean if that were the case—to make music primarily for TikTok?
Let’s assume that most musicians use TikTok as a marketing engine to get famous elsewhere. I’ve seen countless TikTok influencers push their YouTube channels in order to be YouTube famous, where the perceived legitimacy (and money) is.
The story of platform-hopping isn’t new. Evan Puschak details this in one of his YouTube videos: early YouTubers were trying to get TV-famous and, in turn, made content that was similar to what you’d see on TV. Sixty years earlier, a similar sequence played out with TV and movies. When it first emerged, acting on TV was just a stepping stone to appearing in film.
But getting YouTube-famous rarely transferred to TV stardom—not because YouTube videos were inferior, but rather the mediums were too different. YouTubers eventually stopped copying TV and explored formats that fit YouTube, such as the quintessential vlog (e.g., iJustine) and the video explainer (e.g., Puschak’s channel, The Nerdwriter).
YouTube (and internet video, in general) changed how we watch video, and more importantly, what video content could even exist as part of our media diet.
The same thing is happening on TikTok with music: it’s producing a new role for audio as part of our media diet.
When we look at viral TikTok songs from emerging artists (i.e., not Harry Styles, Lizzo, BTS, etc.), the new format is easier to see.
One such viral songs is Curtis Waters’ “Stunnin,” which started as a real song, but reached far greater heights as a TikTok meme (showing off your outfits/make-up/clothes as the chorus plays in the background).
As soon as the instruments come in, you know exactly what’s coming: a TikTok creator showing off something—maybe even iterating on the format unexpectedly. The song is part of something bigger, and the experience is not about the song.
Much of ppcocaine’s music is the perfect backing track to a video (where people lip sync the lyrics), and it becomes a simple-to-replicate format.
TikTok organizes audio (and music) as memes—viral sounds that are in the background of a short, algorithmically-presented video. For many this is self-evident, yet I point it out because it’s so different from the typical music streaming experience. You never hear a full 3-minute song. For many viral TikTok sounds, I hear 10-second loops hundreds, if not thousands of times.
In short, TikTok virality isn’t great for sustained careers, but it does represent a monumental shift in what it means to make audio as an art.
A few months ago, I started to see some of Bill Wurtz’s old music getting recycled on TikTok. He often made really short music snippets that weren’t quite songs, but didn’t fit anywhere except YouTube.
This music works so well on TikTok; the memes write themselves, reaching far greater heights than the YouTube video or stand-alone Spotify song ever could. I don’t even need to show you the TikToks people have made with this 16-second “song.”
Here’s a different Bill Wurtz song, that went viral on TikTok, one of the OVER 1 MILLION videos for “Just Did a Bad Thing.”
I really enjoyed Bill Wurtz’s songs on their own; it never felt like they were trying to be songs you’d stream. But when attached to a TikTok video and memed, they feel complete.
TikTok will follow the same path as YouTube: at some point aspiring musicians will see that TikTok isn’t just a new channel, but a new medium for audio.
Creating audio for TikTok will be an art in itself, not just a stepping stone for a traditional music career.