Paul Taylor/Getty Images; Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR
Tyler Colon played college basketball. He won a reality show on MTV. He tried podcasting, modeling and acting. But in 2019, he took the pursuit of music seriously.
“After singing in my car for about six months for an hour and a half every day, I released ‘Stuck In The Middle,'” he said.
He put it on TikTok under his stage name, Tai Verdes. At the time, he was working at a Verizon store.
“I’ve seen other people like me who didn’t have a sequel end up on the radio,” he said. “And when you see that happening multiple times because of an app, it’s kind of like ‘a-duh,’ you know what I mean? Like, why not?”
Before he knew it, he was fielding calls from record label presidents on his lunch break. He got a record deal, made a debut album, and is currently touring 22 cities across America. “Stuck In The Middle” has been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify.
TikTok has turned the music industry’s script upside down, and everyone from artists to analysts and even marketing executives at the biggest labels are racing to catch up.
A new way to listen
Verdes believes he would have made it without TikTok, but he also noticed his fans on the app were particularly engaged. They would move from his TikTok to his Spotify page or his YouTube channel.
“You just made this video, you got this song, you got this melody that they really like. They want to go get this. You just gave them something,” he said.
Verdes isn’t the only one noticing this trend, and that TikTok users are interacting with music differently.
“They don’t just listen to music in a passive, backward-leaning way,” says music industry analyst Tatiana Cirisano. “They’re more likely to do more advanced activities, like building playlists or streaming full albums or buying merchandise.”
Consumer behavior data compiled by Cirisano shows that TikTok users are more likely to spend money on music and invest more in it. 40% of active TikTok users pay a monthly subscription for music, compared to 25% of the general population. And 17% buy artists’ products every month, compared to 9% of the general population.
Additionally, TikTok users often respond to music with their own videos, using features built into the app’s design. They can lip-sync a song, make up a dance, or try to sing it.
“It changed listening to music from a one-sided relationship where a song comes out and you listen to it on your own, to something you participate in,” Cirisano said. “I mean, I don’t think any other social media app has done this to this degree. TikTok is peak UGC in this way.”
UGC – short for “user-generated content” – is one of the buzzwords circulating in the music industry right now.
Nina Webb is head of marketing at Atlantic Records and said when she started in the industry it was a little easier.
“It was a headache for a 3-year-old. You had the video and the radio,” she said. “And you just needed money and clout and clout as a label. And now I feel like it’s 1000 piece gray skies where TikTok is the only piece that will move individually the dial as 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 heavily on TikTok, but it didn’t really take off until months later when TikTok’s sign language sub-community grabbed it midway through Gayle’s tour.
Note: This TikTok post includes profanity in lyrics and sign language that some may find objectionable.
“She saw the difference between playing at the start of the tour, when people sort of heard it or watched it, at the end – I mean, it was like the whole place was going crazy. “said Webb. . “So November was really the tipping point, and it was 100% the sign language community.”
This user-generated content has made all the difference for Gayle. His song held No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 chart for 11 weeks.
Buy influence and get 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 react to, trying to issue a challenge of dance. With 1 billion monthly active users now on TikTok after a surge in downloads during the pandemic, it’s not hard to see why.
Webb says she’s definitely tried different strategies, but most of the time when a song takes off on TikTok, it seems to happen organically.
“I mean, there are a million examples of a lot of very expensive campaigns that got zero returns,” she said. “Like, we can’t do it. It has to come from the fans or the artist because you’re talking to Gen Z. They smell everything.”
Sometimes these fans work unexpectedly. Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” was released 25 years ago, but earlier this year it 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 whole chorus in one breath.
Analyst Tatiana Cirisano says the music industry used to seek out unknown talent and nurture it. But the rise of TikTok has helped overturn that formula.
“I think we’re more and more in a time where the public chooses what they want to hear, and the record companies and the rest of the music industry kind of listen to that,” she said. .
The risk of burnout
There are also downsides to this. TikTok could create opportunities for musicians, but some artists feel they constantly need to be “activated”. The professional burnout of creators is real.
“There’s kind of a fear, I think, for people who have built huge followers on TikTok that if they stop at some point people will just stop following them or they’ll forget or they’ll switch to something else,” Cirisano said.
“Sometimes people’s attention span is shorter and the trend of the content doesn’t stop.”
Damoyee is a 21-year-old freelance music artist/content creator from Dallas, Texas. She is a composer, producer, singer, composer and she plays many instruments.
She releases a lot of covers and remixes of other songs, usually trending ones. And it’s a lot of work. A one-minute TikTok typically takes around six hours to create.
“I know at first it took me a little less than a week to get 100 subscribers,” she said. “And I remember, like, seeing a-zero-zero, I freaked out. I was like, hey, I’m famous, you know? I was grateful,” Damoyee laughs.
Sometimes a video fails, and sometimes it takes off. But Damoyee says she generally thinks TikTok helps boost musicians like her. That doesn’t make things any easier.
Damoyee learns to balance her schoolwork, her personal life, and the social following she’s trying to build.
“It was definitely a bit difficult and it took its toll, you know, especially on my mental health,” she says. “I went, at the latest… a month without posting because I just needed to breathe.”
“I will say that for now the goal is to thrive as an independent artist without looking at any labels at the moment and to continue to build a platform to the point where I would feel comfortable stepping out of music alone,” she said.
In other words, she hopes to strike that perfect balance between cultivating her followers online and making music. And when she does, she hopes she won’t have to seek recognition from traditional industry powers. They can call him first.