Why TikTok may save the careers of older artists

Artists with hit records from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, thought they had it made. Groups like The Doors sold a million copies of each of their albums every single year despite having broken up in the early 70s. Same thing with the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, and so many others.

Those platinum record generated a steady stream of royalties which served as a retirement fund. Every six months, another big cheque would show up in the mail. It was great being a member of the rock’n’roll gentry.

But with the demise of physical record sales and the rise of streaming, those cheques have been getting smaller and smaller for quite some time now. Fans of heritage acts already have all the CDs and aren’t getting into streaming as quickly as other demos.

Up until COVID came along, much of that revenue could be replaced by touring. Not anymore. Those cheques keep getting smaller.

And it’s not just the artists. Record labels are loathe to admit it, but many older acts (save for The Beatles, who continue to generate tens of millions of dollars a year) that once saw steady sales of their back catalogue are hardly moving anything these days. Hence the drive for reissues, anniversary re-releases, and box sets.

Labels depend on keeping the back catalogues of their artists alive. What other methods and platforms can be used to drive new revenue in a world that’s changing because of both technology and the pandemic?

One answer is TikTok. Ask Fleetwood Mac how one guy riding a skateboard while drinking cranberry juice can goose both sales and streams. That one 30-second TikTok clip was enough to push the Rumours album back into the top ten on the Billboard charts for the first time in 42 years. And things just keep getting better as the copycat memes multiplied.

And Fleetwood Mac isn’t the only old band to find their careers being given a boost by a Chinese-owned social media platform that Donald Trump has threatened to ban. Jack Johnson, Matthew Wilder, Mother Mother, and a growing list of acts suddenly find that older tracks have turned into TikTok sensations. And rather than get all litigious about it, labels are cutting licensing deals with the company.

Sony is the latest. A deep dive into the liner notes for the upcoming AC/DC album, Power Up, shows that a 30-second TikTok clip has been carved from “Shot in the Dark,” the album’s first single. When I spoke to singer Brian Johnson about that earlier this week (more on that to come soon), he said, “Well, it’s what you gotta do these days.” And he’s right.

Virtually every record label on the planet is holding meetings to figure out how they can use/co-opt TikTok to boost awareness (and thus streams and/or sales) of their artists. How many AC/DC songs would make for awesome TikTok clips? Answer: All of them.

Can labels crack the TikTok code? All the successful song clips have been organic in nature, catching fire in unpredictable ways. The clips (and the music therein) has to come off as completely authentic and not forced or fake.

Artists are likely having the same sort of conversations with managers and their label reps. “How can I have a hit like Fleetwood Mac did?”

Something to watch as the recorded music industry continues to evolve in strange ways in the age of COVID.

BONUS: Read this article at Rolling Stone about other revenue streams artists are pursuing.

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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