How TikTok can be a stepping stone to a career in music

[This is the year that TikTok became a monster. Instead of just a place where teens post dance moves to 30-second clips, it’s become a launchpad for artists’ music career. Fedor Skyba, the CEO of Air Media-Tech provides this research about how big and how important TikTok has become. – AC]

TikTok is both a new cultural phenomenon and a trend. In 2020, the platform became the #1 music search engine for generation Z people. In less than 2 years, the app was already an equal competitor to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, becoming one of the top five largest platforms in the world.

How Music was Consumed Before TIKTOK

For the past 10 years, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram have changed the way musicians find their audiences. They transformed the genre of music clips shown on television, changed the technical capabilities of production, and the duration of the songs. Let’s do some retrospective.

In the 60s and 70s, music clips began to effectively promote music allowing artists to travel less for concerts. But clips also promoted sales for the concert tickets.

With the advent of music channels, the purpose of clips changed significantly. They were still widely used as an advertising instrument but they also became a way to create an image, tell a story, expand creativity, and strengthen the message. Video became a primary tool that provided a visual representation of the music itself.

Along came YouTube and changed everything. Before YouTube, video rotation was controlled by music channels. YouTube made videos available a la carte, putting viewers in control.

Now, anyone can create and upload videos which means that viewers expect the same level of YouTube quality: it’s not enough to just create one or two clips. We are witnessing the necessity of a thoughtful sequence of video content that creates excitement around a release and allows for interaction with the audience for a longer period and at a deeper level.

In the last decade, artists started promoting their music on Instagram by posting short fragments of clips. Instagram first allowed only 15 second videos, so artists had to adapt and create content of a specific format and length.

Then there was Vine, which limited videos to 6 seconds. No one believed they would succeed, but the service made a breakthrough in short video content.

The Power of the TikTok format: the shorter the better

Music is the most popular TikTok feature. Practically any content is accompanied by music. One song on TikTok can lead to the creation of the app trend: from people recreating the dance challenge, to using the song to create a personal brand. TikTok provides an abundance of content that is easily accessible. We take the accessibility of videos for granted, though it wasn’t always this way.

In an era of short attention spans and unlimited access to music, the easiest way to get more streams and climb the charts is to make each track shorter.

According to Quartz data, the average song length from 2013 to 2018 decreased from 3 minutes 50 seconds to 3 minutes 30 seconds. With the advent of new social networks and video platforms, this reduction trend continues.   The average length of a YouTube video is 4 minutes, while a TikTok video is 15 seconds allowing viewers to watch more videos per session. The average user session on YouTube is 40 minutes, and on TikTok, it is 52 minutes, which means that TikTok users are watching a lot more content, which is taking TikTok to the next level.

TikTok is shaping a whole new music industry where a song can become viral in one night. With TikTok, artists can receive more fame, recognition, and money than when they make the radio top 10 lists.

TIKTOK is a Popularity Booster

Anyone can become popular on TikTok. Both a novice musician and an amateur can receive an unprecedented career boost.

LIL NAS X – OLD TOWN ROAD

The first to feel the full power of TikTok was Lil Nas X with the song Old Town Road. The track became popular in the Yeehaw Challenge and peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. This was followed by a string of successes, including collaborations with Columbia Records, major awards appearances, and an online concert with Roblox in November 2020 for millions of Roblox users.

CURTIS ROACH – BORED IN THE HOUSE

Om March 6, a rapper from Detroit, Curtis Roach, published an Instagram post with an authentic song called Bored in the House. In the post description, he urged followers to use this sound on TikTok. No other song managed to reflect the mood and spirit of the world at the beginning of the quarantine like this track. By March 24, Bored in the House had already received 10 mil views, and on March 28, the track was released together with Tyga himself, the Grammy nominee.

CURTIS WATERS – STUNNIN’

Another artist named Curtis promoted his song Stunnin’ on TikTok for several weeks prior to its official release on May 21st, uploading a snippet in April and writing ‘dancing to my song everyday until it goes viral tbh’.

Before Stunnin’, few people had heard of the artist who was born in Nepal, then migrated to Germany, then to Alberta, Canada, before finally settling in Cary, North Carolina in 2017. To date, his track has been used over 1,300,000 times  by TikTok users which eventually led Curtis to a collaboration with BMG to launch his career, as well as an advertising campaign launched in July 2020 with Mercedes Benz who used his track as the official music.

Realizing that hype is short-lived, Waters released a second track, the anti-police anthem System which debuted at #9 on the Spotify New Music Friday playlist. Although the song did not become as popular as Stunnin’, it gave Curtis Waters a quality start to his career.

DEMPSEY HOPE – TIME FLIES

Dempsey Hope, on the other hand, recorded hundreds of covers and songs of his own before downloading the app to his phone. Originally, the singer and songwriter from Seattle, Washington simply tested TikTok by posting 5-10 videos a day in the hopes that users would suggest what content they like best.

His videos received between 5 and 50K views, but in June 2020, a video that used a melody from the future hit Time Flies got over 150K views. Realizing that this content is quite promising, Dempsey began writing lyrics based on personal stories and comments from followers and published some videos. One of those videos received over 3 mil views. After that, Dempsey decided to write an official song.

On July 3, 2020, Dempsey Hope released Time Flies which gathered over 300,000 downloads in the first week, eclipsing all previous successes, and eventually landed him the RCA deal. The first result of this collaboration was the dempsey hope project that consisted of 10 songs.

AVENUE BEAT – F2020

The Nashville-based female trio, Sam Backoff, Savana Santos, and Sami   Bearden, climbed to #9 on iTunes with their song F2020, all thanks to TikTok alone.

After the lockdown was announced in the United States, the girls decided to move in together and continue working on their music. Not only are all three now posting interesting content that is fully in the spirit of Gen Z, they are also releasing new music, such as the song, Thank u anxiety, and a digital EP album The Quarantine Covers.

On June 28 Avenue Beat published the first sneak peek of their song F2020 on TikTok, and signed it ‘day 1 of tryna get this song we wrote to pop off so our manager will release it lol heLp’. The song became an absolute banger, and every line resonated in the hearts of people from all over the world:

‘my cat died and a global pandemic took over my life

and I put out some music that nobody liked

so I got really sad and bored at the same time

that’s why I’m like fuck 2020’.

The video scored 4.5 mil views in 24 hours and now has more than 16.8 mil views. The track so accurately conveys a picture of current events that it became clear in literally a week it would become viral.

Since then, F2020 was used in over 153K videos, and #f2020challenge got over 12.7 mil views. When Z-girls used the track in their videos to ‘expose their 2020s’, the band became an absolute trend, capturing the attention of the zoomers and becoming the official soundtrack of the quarantine.

MOTHICA – VICES

On June 22, Mothica, an aspiring singer from Oklahoma with less than 50K TikTok followers, uploaded a 15 second video signing it: ‘listening to masters of my album…this one’s about getting addicted to anything’.

Taking advantage of the sudden virality of this TikTok video, Mothica immediately released VICES without waiting for the entire album to be ready. David Dobrik praised the song even before its official release, and Oklahoma radio put it into rotation.

Within four days, VICES had 1 million streams on Spotify and climbed to #2 on the iTunes Pop Chart, at one point even beating Harry Styles with his song Watermelon Sugar. Two months later, after informing her fans on TikTok that she was working on releasing her debut album Blue Hour without a label, Mothica peaked at number one on the charts. And all this without PR, a marketing budget, or a label. She accomplished all of this with TikTok.

CLAIRE ROSINKRANZ – BACKYARD BOYS

Claire Rosinkranz has been writing music since she was 8 but the breakthrough in her career came after her song Backyard Boy became popular. Now over 2.8 mil videos have used this track.

Interestingly, the track began to gain popularity without her knowledge: on June 23, 2020, Claire posted a track snippet, and a month later her direct was bombarded with messages that Backyard Boy was in trends. After checking her TikTok account, Claire found out that over 300K videos were posted with her track.

The track’s success culminated when it hit #1 on many of the top viral song charts on Spotify. Now Claire is working with Slowplay/Republic Records and released a new version of Backyard Boy together with Jeremy Zucker.

JENNIFER SMESTAD – HALF THE MAN

Jennifer Smestad recently signed a contract with a label after her song ‘Half The Man’ became popular on TikTok. The song has been used in the app almost 160K times.

The song began to go viral on the eve of Father’s Day and reached#8 TOP-100 in iTunes. In addition to the song, Jennifer released a music clip that generated over 3 mil views.

LIZZY MCALPINE – PANCAKES FOR DINNER

Lizzy McAlpine climbed the charts of TikTok in June 2020 after she posted a snippet of her song that later became known as, ‘the 1975 song’. In the video description, Lizzy wrote ‘shoutout to my ex who ruined the 1975 for me…hope u see this and feel bad’. Since then the video received over 8 mil views so there is every chance that it actually happened.

In her TikTok profile description, Lizzy wrote: ‘i’m never releasing the 1975 song’, but that is no reason to get upset. Firstly, time will tell. Secondly, in August 2020, Lizzy released her debut album, ‘Give Me A Minute’, with folk-pop songs. ‘Pancakes for Dinner’ is more than worth your attention.

ARIZONA ZERVAS – ROXANNE

Roxanne, by Arizona Zervas, almost instantly became a viral hit on TikTok, peaking at #34 on the USA Billboard Hot 100 and hitting Top 10 charts in Australia, Norway, and Britain. Columbia Records signed Arizona to the label, the same way they signed Lil Nas X.

The song peaked in the USA Top 50 on Spotify and several iTunes charts in the first three weeks and became the first track to be released by an independent, out-of-label artist since early 2017.

Now over 2.1 mil videos use this track on TikTok.

LOREN GRAY – QUEEN

18-year-old Loren Gray became world famous thanks to TikTok. She currently has about 50 mil followers but it wasn’t always like that.

Loren has always wanted to sing, and her talents were evident from early childhood. At some point, her parents decided to move to Los Angeles in order to build a music career for Loren.

In 2018 Virgin Records and Capitol Records signed Loren Gray and since then she’s released 8 tracks.

However, it was TikTok that made her famous. Until the spring of 2020, Loren remained the most popular ТikToker on the platform, earning her ad campaigns with Skechers, Hyundai, Burger King, and Revlon. On December 03, 2020, Loren launched her own jewelry brand “&always”.

Besides that, Loren was nominated for the Teen Choice Awards and Shorty Awards. Her debut single ‘My Story’ was released in 2018 and reached number one on the Spotify Global Viral chart. Her ‘Queen’ generated over 32 mil streams on Spotify.

Her last track, ‘Alone’, was recorded at her home during lockdown. Loren will soon take part in her own original docuseries, Honestly Loren, on the Snap Originals platform. She will also appear as a host in the educational miniseries, Good Luck Voter.

Loren got into Forbes’ 2021 in the ‘30 Under 30’ category, and she’s only 18!

FOUSHEÉ – DEEP END FREESTYLE

Many first heard the charming voice of Fousheé in the ‘Deep End Freestyle’ track by rapper Sleepy Hallow that was released in April 2020 and uploaded on YouTube that same month. The track immediately attracted audience attention, including basketball player, Dwyane Wade. However, due to the rapid speed of content distribution on the Internet, where proper recognition is often lost, Fousheé did not gain recognition as a vocalist on the track until a month later when the track began to gain views. Her mom offered to record a video on TikTok where Fousheé would show that she is the voice of the track. Now, the video has over 6 mil views. After this, RCA Records signed her to the label and she was able to release the full version of the track ‘Deep End’.

Interestingly, the track, ‘Deep End Freestyle’, by Sleepy Hallow with Fousheé has over 900K recorded videos in total for all fragments in TikTok while the track, Deep End, produced solely by Fousheé, has gained more than 3.8 mil uses. This gives Fousheé almost 5 mil uses of the track in TikTok user content.

Since then, the track made it to Today’s Top Hits, Pop Rising, Hot Rhythmic playlists, and Top Global 200 on Spotify, as well as #5 on the Spotify Global Viral 50 chart. The track reached number one on Global Shazam, Alt R&B on Apple Music, and Top Daily Spotify in Eastern European countries. And, it continues to hold its positions.

ABIGAIL BARLOW – HEARTBREAK HOTEL

20-year-old Abigail Barlow first became popular on TikTok where she gained a large and loyal audience. She then started working on her music career and her single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, became a hit. Abigail is not signed to any label and is another example that it’s possible to become popular on your own.

On February 26, Abigail posted a TikTok video with snippets of her new song, ‘Trust Issues’. The video instantly became viral and brought Abigail over 2 mil views and a big flurry of comments and request to publish the full version of the track. Not only did her followers sent her DMs, but several celebrities were interested in her song, including Meghan Trainor.

Abigail’s single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel‘, reached #6 on the iTunes Pop Charts in less than 48 hours, hit over 200,000 streams on Spotify, and debuted at #44 on Billboard’s #DigitalSongSales Chart thanks to her loyal fanbase on TikTok.

On August 14, Abigail released her first EP – Abigail – with 6 tracks, and ‘Trust Issues’ is one of them.

DIXIE D’AMELIO – BE HAPPY

Dixie D’Amelio is an older sister to Charli D’Amelio, the most popular TikTok creator with over 102 mil followers. 19-year-old Dixie has almost 46 mil followers, and she realizes that she needs to put maximum effort to get the most out of her popularity. Dixie has done advertising campaigns with Hollister, Morphe, Orosa Beauty, and this is just the beginning.

Dixie is now focused on her music career. On July 1, 2020, Dixie released her debut single, ‘Be Happy’, and on August 7, 2020, she signed a contract with HitCo Entertainment that also works with Jennifer Lopez, Saint JHN, Dinah Jane, and Outkast’s Big Boi. Within 5 months the clip received 95 mil views, and counting.

Her second single, ‘One Whole Day’, featuring Wiz Khalifa, is definitely a step forward towards possible live performances at all the awards shows. Two hours after posting, the clip received 500K views and over 8 mil views in the first 4 days. The video stars her boyfriend Noah Beck and sister Charli D’Amelio.

Between the first and second releases, Dixie wasted no time and released a remix for ‘Be Happy’ together with Blackberry and Lil Mosey, plus a Christmas song, ‘Naughty List‘, with former One Direction band member, Liam Payne himself.

Her music career is already succeeding and one can only guess what hits and star collaborations await us.

TIAGZ – THEY CALL ME TIAGO

Tiagz is a huge driving force that one can’t ignore. The artist is famous for his hits ‘My Heart Went Oops’ with 3.3 mil TikTok videos in total that use this track, ‘They Call Me Tiago (Her Name is Margo)’ with 3.1 mil videos, and ‘Muffins In The Freezer’ with 2.7 mil TikTok videos. Tiago Garcia-Arenas from Ottawa is a master when it comes to trends in a generation-shaping app and quickly reacts to them, using his stage name Tiagz.

The secret to his success is absolute knowledge of how the platform works: how the algorithms work, what features work and don’t work, and how to use the power of the community. After his first hit in October 2019, My Heart Went Ooops (a remix for Rise and Shine Kylie Jenner) with 5 mil views on YouTube, his remix with Doris Day’s voice from a 1951 hit, strengthened his position in the ranking of viral TikTok creators.

The next release, ‘They Call Me Tiago’ (Her Name is Margo), received even more views on YouTube than ‘My Heart Went Oops’ and has over 6.5 mil views.

These are not music videos; they’re just simple pictures with a solid background, the title of the track, and the song playing in the background. After such rapid success, Sony/ATV signed Tiagz to a worldwide co-publishing deal, and he soon released his EP, They Call Me Tiago, available on Spotify, with support from Epic Records and Sony Music Entertainment.

CELINE Homme created a kind of tribute for the TikTok generation and presented a men’s collection, SS21 The Dancing Kid, for the extended version of They Call Me Tiago (Her Name Is Margo).

LOVECLUB – TORMENT

Arthur Fabbro, better know as Loveclub, managed to gain 268K followers on TIkTok primarily with engaging videos where he peels and slices various fruit. The first video, with his mom slicing a mango, received over 605K views, and his second video, where he sliced a banana, received 3 mil views.

Before the mango video Arthur had 30 followers. His audience quickly grew to 1000, and now he has over 344K TikTok followers.

Arthur moved to Los Angeles from Canada about four years ago to build a music career and since then has been trying different things. He writes and releases ‘soft and romantic’ alt-pop and says that his TikTok followers who enjoy watching him peel kiwis are then introduced and converted as listeners and fans of his music.

Musicians like Loveclub prove that you don’t have to be a chart-topping artist to be successful on TikTok. Unusual talents and skills can give the necessary start to a career and take it to a new level.

THE KID LAROI – ADDISON RAE

Addison Rae is the second most popular creator on TikTok after Charli D’Amelio with 71 mil followers. Kourtney Kardashian, the eldest of the Kardashian clan, who has not previously been seen collaborating with influencers, is building a friendship with Addison. The proof is not only frequent paparazzi photos from joint dinners in restaurants but also KKW Beauty lip liners and YouTube workout video for Poosh, Kourtney’s Lifestyle website.

The Kid LAROI or Charlton Kenneth Jeffrey Howard, a 16-year-old rapper from Australia, became a real sensation on TikTok, with hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify. Now, The Kid LAROI lives in Los Angeles and works with Columbia Records. His new mixtape F*ck Love reached #8 on the US Billboard charts.

The Kid LAROI went viral only because of Addison Rae’s song. It includes the line, ‘I need a bad b**ch, Addison Rae.’ The rapper posted this fragment on his TikTok and it immediately caught Addison’s attention. Her response was fast: Addison recorded a video where she lets her mother hear this track for the first time. The video now has over 112 mil views and 15 mil likes.

However, The Kid LAROI wasn’t the only one to receive benefits from the song, ‘Addison Rae’. The teenage TikToker decided to create merch and released a $50 hoodie and a $20 phone case (price varied by size) with a line from the song ‘I need a bad bleep’, available for purchase during a 48-hour sale on her website.

What Stands Behind Success on TIKTOK

Musicians Use TikTok Advantages and Win

With TikTok, you no longer need to create clips with multi-million dollar budgets. Now, you can simply upload funny videos captured and edited on your phone, and your audience will find you. It’s simple: no money and investments, no big team, no connections. It all depends on personal effort and algorithms.

The platform essentially affects decisions artists make, such as which piece of music will become a full song and which will not. A number of artists post small fragments on TikTok, and if after a while these fragments find a response from the audience, then full-length tracks are created. You don’t listen to the entire song on TikTok, but only the best 20-30 seconds. And this, incidentally, leads to an even greater reduction in tracks. Music is evolving, and so is the way it is being consumed.

Previously, a song was 2:30 – 3 minutes long, because only that length of sound could technically fit on a vinyl record. Then musicians needed to create songs that would fit on one CD so that they could be played on radio stations. Now, you need to optimize the track so that it is as attractive as possible to TikTok algorithms, with the maximum length of video and sound is at 60 seconds.

What is the secret of TikTok algorithms that bring millions of views?

How do TikTok algorithms bring millions of views?

TikTok algorithms reflect what users want to see. The ‘For You’ page displays videos related to the user’s location and interests. In this way, this page is always showing something new, which gives artists the opportunity to educate users about new music.

TikTok algorithms are independent of the number of account followers, unlike other social media or streaming platforms. Instead, it ranks content based on its engagement rate, including trending hashtags, internal memes, and topics, offering users an equal chance of becoming famous.

Streaming services passively introduce listeners to the songs, while TikTok presents them to an active, interested, and loyal user base that buys goods and concert tickets, throws compliments, and puts the song on repeat so that their favorite artist gets an additional 20 streams.

If users like a song, they shoot videos with it and the main focus will be on users. Therefore, in spite of your wishes, there is no clear formula for success – it is the users who decide which tracks will become popular.

Most successful tracks contain catchy lyrics that users can relate to or use over and over again, but in different contexts. It is these fragments of tracks that go viral on TikTok and get to the top of the charts.

The most powerful thing for an artist is to have their track used in a challenge. As soon as users form a trend around a certain sound, the viral power of the algorithm and a close-knit community spreads it throughout the platform, opening this sound to more and more users.

So, if fame is your goal, TikTok can help you achieve it:

  • Be an active creator: The platform encourages active users.
  • Adapt tracks for TikTok so that it engages the younger Gen Z in content creation.
  • Collaborate: Duets’ interactive feature can diversify content and expose your music to an even wider audience. In the “duets” feature, two videos appear next to each other on the screen and are watched simultaneously.
  • Create hashtag challenges that best match the current trends on the platform.
  • Work with TikTokers: They understand all the features of the algorithms and the platform like no one else.

How well a music artist will do in the future now depends on social media. TikTok is a platform that’s important to interact with.

The data is provided by AIR Media-Tech, the biggest world creators ecosystem that suggests complex solutions for international businesses and influencers. AIR Media-Tech is the YouTube top-3 official partners across the globe.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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