We need to talk about TikTok and the music industry
TikTok’s relationship with the music industry is undeniably fascinating. Its ability to unearth old classics, hidden gems, and new talent is like nothing we’ve ever really seen in social media practice before, and it’s not always in the ways you might think.
Take for example a whole generation of teens being exposed to Fleetwood Mac - maybe for the first time ever - just because (with all due respect) some guy used it on a video of him skateboarding and drinking cranberry juice. Not only did the man himself receive his 15 minutes of fame via Ocean Spray brand deal, but it put the song back in the mainstream consciousness - and it’s far from the only example.
Look at I’m Just A Kid by Simple Plan, or even Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd for heaven’s sake. Even for more recent artists - Bring Me The Horizon, Deftones, Slipknot - you’ll look at their Spotify top 10 songs and spot a rogue album track in amongst the hits. You think to yourself ‘oh, that must be a TikTok trending sound’ - and often you’d be right. This is obviously well and dandy for legacy artists, but what about contemporary artists releasing music right now?
Well, it depends on the size of the artist, but we’ll stick to the biggies for now. With the benefits of having a trending sound made from your music being obvious to artists and labels at this point, we’re beginning to see what could be considered a concerted effort to create music that lends itself to bitesize clips. We should qualify at this point that while it’s true that creating hooks and catchy refrains have been the goal of popular music for as long as it’s existed, (and so there are plenty of occasions where a trending sound is trending just because it’s catchy or popular), there’s a general feeling that we’re seeing songs (and for quite a while there, accompanying dances) that just feel TikToky by design. This could of course be confirmation bias, but we’ll try and give you a few examples here of ones we think fit the bill and a few that don’t quite fit as neatly.
Taylor Swift - Anti-Hero, Paramore - This Is Why, Meghan Trainor - Mother, Maisie Peters - Blonde
These examples are a few tracks (after a quick whip-around the office) that we felt embodied a more deliberate attempt at trending. Thematically, lyrics around poor mental health, break-ups (often break-up transformations specifically), and self-deprecation correspond with prominent content themes found on the TikTok app. The phrasing in each of their choruses is bitesize, quotable, and very catchy, lending itself well to trends in terms of brevity too. Definitely a fit, but is there any proof? Not always, but in the case of Anti Hero, we can see on the YouTube video there’s a built-in prompt to ‘Join the #TSAntiHeroChallenge.’ In the case of Maisie Peters, Blonde was teased for months exclusively on TikTok, where she started a trend whereby people shared pics of themselves pre-breakup as brunettes and then post-breakup as blondes. She also proactively replied to many of the videos featuring the sound, further encouraging the use of the trend.
Most recently, there’s Mother by Meghan Trainor. While claims of TikTokiness have been levied at Trainor in the past for her comeback single Made You Look, Mother represents something of an evolution of this. Not only are the lyrics borrowed from LGBT vernacular (another common trope on the app) the instrumental hook is borrowed from the ‘Mr. Sandman’ trending sound. With very lo-fi, minimalist instrumentation furthering its suitability, Mother feels like one of the more cynical examples of artists (and their producers) looking for a slice of the TikTok pie.
Finally, This Is Why by Paramore. This is a bit of a rogue choice here because while it was very popular upon its release, and the lyrics and phrasing of the chorus do feel like they’ve been written with TikTok in mind, the song didn’t really get much traction on the app in the way the rest of these songs did. We can’t say for sure why that might have been, but such is the unpredictable nature of the app, and of marketing in general. It’s not always the ones you expect (more on this later). This brings us to our next batch, the not so deliberates (or at least, obvious).
Sam Smith & Kim Petras - Unholy, Harry Styles - As It Was, The Weeknd - Blinding Lights
So, we’ve got an immediate asterisk with Sam Smith & Kim Petras. I think this one is a bit of a maybe. The lyrics language-wise feel TikToky, and it lends itself well to dances, but to me, it’s not as strong an example. Depends on who you ask but since I’m the one writing this I’m going to jump off the fence with an emphatic ‘meh.’
As It Was falls into that camp of not really feeling like the trend is lyric or dance led. It’s an earworm, but it’s hard to really pin it with the same traits for trend success mentioned in some of the previous examples. Blinding Lights too feels like an example of a song that just is successful and the trends have come off the back of it organically. All of this doesn’t mean the song isn’t trend-led in other ways (particularly thinking the trend towards 80s nostalgia that Blinding Lights perfectly encapsulates), or As It Was’ in-vogue dreamy post-punk.
How does this affect artists?
An interesting consequence of this is that in general, we seem to see more artists that are women creating seem to appear more often in the direct examples. Artists like Halsey and Charli XCX have also spoken out about the pressure placed upon them by their respective labels to engage in trending content, not just on the app, but in their actual creative spaces as well. Are women in the music industry under more pressure than men to create art this way? It feels like too much of a coincidence given that women are not only more inclined to use TikTok, but they’re more inclined to listen to women in music and are also bigger purchasers of music than men. We’d need a lot more evidence to make any sort of claim on this, but it is worth noting.
On a different note, artists that are a little more on the up-and-coming end of the mainstream are seeing some fascinating effects. Clips of artist Steve Lacy recently surfaced where people were singing along to the part of his song that was trending on TikTok (Bad Habit), and where the trending sound ended, the singalongs ended too - is this what we would call a less-than-one-hit-wonder?
Elsewhere, off the back of their song Mary On A Cross trending, the band Ghost were savvy enough to create a launchpad compilation that included the song, select hits, and even a slowed down and reverbed version to mimic the use of the song on the app.
What does this tell us about trends?
Research indicates that trends are not only harder to predict but become more so as time goes on and the app’s audience diversifies further.
Like all social that comes from a non-organic place; a band, a business, or an influencer, the aim of the game is to integrate with the community you’re trying to engage with as seamlessly as possible. In this case, if you’re looking to make a trend happen, it’s important to be aware of some of the tenets discussed earlier (tone of voice, type of music, relatability of language), but by overdoing it, you run the risk of your desired audience smelling a rat, creating suspicion of you and your product. This is particularly true if you’re not already established within your chosen community - what Taylor Swift might be able to get away with through sheer size, you might not.
That said, this shouldn’t discourage you from pushing yourself to be a trendsetter. Luck plays a part, sure, but having a presence on these platforms, engaging sincerely with your community, and, giving them something that they can relate to that they desire to be associated with will ensure you are prepared for when the algorithm’s glorious golden rays do shine upon you.
If your brand is ready to take the leap into TikTok trendsetting, drop us a line.