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TikTokification of Music Industry: Is It a Real Thing?

In TikTok's world, music morphs into memes, and artists become viral sensations overnight. Is this the dawn of a new musical era, the dusk of artistic integrity, or none of the above?

Photo by Finn Hackshaw / Unsplash

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that TikTok has sparked a revolution in the music scene. These days new (and sometimes mediocre at best) tracks can rise from obscurity to the top of the charts within a matter of hours. This 'TikTokification' phenomenon has artists and producers scrambling to decode the platform's viral formula, blurring the lines between genuine artistry and algorithmic appeal. As TikTok reshapes the landscape of music discovery and success, we're left to wonder: Is the platform a launchpad for innovation or a graveyard for musical depth? And what can we expect further down the line?

In a TikTok world, music doesn't just play, it goes viral. Tracks are being turned into memes, and artists are being propelled from obscurity to stardom overnight.

"Influence the algorithm, not the audience," preaches 25/7 Media, a marketing agency specializing in making artists go viral on TikTok. And this mantra is a living and breathing embodiment of the TikTokification era.

When a song snippet gets replayed enough to become an earworm, it's just a strategic move. And that’s how (questionable) tracks like YoungX777's "Toxic" are leaping from relative anonymity to Spotify's million-listener sensation. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" or Bella Poarch's sync to "M to the B" by Millie B are another examples of how TikTok is reshaping music distribution and discovery.

The Music Impact Report 2023, commissioned by TikTok, to further persuade everyone interested that viral trends on the platform can lead to sustained growth for artists beyond their moments of peak virality.

Crafting the perfect TikTok hit

Creating a TikTok hit often involves focusing on catchy hooks within the first 15-30 seconds of a song, catering to the platform's short-form content preference. And it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.

The strategy is clear: influence TikTok's algorithm, not necessarily the audience, aiming for a snippet that gets stuck in users' heads after just a few listens.

The platform has transformed music promotion, too, with labels now pressuring artists to churn out TikToks. Some artists, like Taylor Swift and Charlie Puth, have seamlessly integrated TikTok into their promotion strategy, thriving in this new landscape.

Others, such as Adele and Post Malone, have voiced their discomfort, feeling forced into participating in a trend that may not align with their artistic vision and authenticity.

The TikTokification effect has fundamentally changed the songwriting process for many, with artists now crafting tracks to make it viral. This has led to a homogenization of musical tastes, as the TikTok algorithm tends to favor certain types of hooks, potentially limiting the diversity of music that gains mainstream popularity, contrary to what the company tries “to sell” to the public, sponsoring their “Music Impact Report,” mentioned earlier in the article.

Debates rage on platforms like Reddit, where users argue whether TikTok is diluting music's quality or simply catering to a specific audience without endangering the industry as a whole. While some of the comments stood up to me: it’s not a revolution, it’s not necessarily a life-changing opportunity for up-and-coming musicians, it’s just a new medium requiring content (music) to be edited in a certain way.

Credit: gabi belle

Is there a real future for a viral TikTok beat?

The narrative that "It Starts on TikTok," targeting artists and industry execs, carefully crafted by the company’s marketing team, is compelling but not entirely accurate.

The platform has indeed catapulted artists like Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo into stardom, becoming a digital crucible for viral music trends. But beneath the surface, there's a growing debate about the sustainability and authenticity of these viral phenomena.

TikTok touts itself as a cultural powerhouse, a claim supported by its commissioned Music Impact Report 2023, highlighting its role in fueling music diversification and discovery. The report suggests TikTok users are significantly more likely to explore new music, including non-English tracks, than other platforms. But the same report didn’t research those other platforms, so how can it be reliable?

The report was highly publicized in a series of puff pieces in Billboard, Mashable, Business Insider, and other mainstream media. All of them claim that TikTok has a true impact on the industry.

This hype has led to a rise of marketing agencies like 25/7 Media, betting big on TikTok's algorithm to make hits go viral. However, the precarious nature of relying solely on TikTok for virality is evident, with the founder of 25/7 Media candidly expressing the high-risk stakes involved in such a strategy, to the point that there might come a day when his daughter won’t have anything to eat. It doesn’t sound like a real sustainable business.

There are more reasons to be skeptical about TikTok's efforts to establish itself as the linchpin of the music industry. Analysis by Pudding challenges the effectiveness of TikTok in making new musicians go viral, revealing that while thousands of songs gain traction, a small fraction comes from emerging artists. This suggests that TikTok's algorithm may not be the golden ticket to stardom it's portrayed to be.

And here’s another commonsense perspective. Let’s take a look at Spotify's most-streamed artists of 2023. It reveals a telling story. Icons like Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny, The Weeknd, and Drake dominate the charts, none of whom owe their inception or primary growth to TikTok.

The platform undoubtedly offers a unique and powerful tool for music promotion and discovery. However, its role should be viewed critically, recognizing that sustainable success in the music industry requires more than just a viral TikTok hit. The platform is just one piece of a larger marketing puzzle, not the guaranteed shortcut to stardom it's often made out to be.

TikTok's streaming ambitions: wishful thinking or reality?

But maybe all that positioning of TikTok as the place to be for new musicians was a strategic move to prop the company’s venture into the streaming market?

The company launched TikTok Music in Singapore on July 19, 2023. And analysts had high hopes, citing TikTok's "large installed base of users" as a key advantage for a low-cost transition to paying subscribers for TikTok Music.

Despite its ambitious launch in regions like Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia, TikTok Music's expansion strategy, especially its unannounced rollout in the U.S., has been shrouded in silence.

This subdued approach questions the platform's confidence in its streaming service. With plans starting at $8.99 a month, TikTok Music promises a new listening experience, yet its contribution to ByteDance's revenues remains minimal (the majority of it is coming from advertising and e-commerce), suggesting the venture hasn't made the expected impact.

What seemed like a bold move then is now shaping up more as a strategic sidestep rather than a direct confrontation with giants like Spotify and Apple Music.

Another argument supporting this theory is the introduction of the "Add to Music App" feature, now available in more than 20 countries, including US, UK, and Canada. This feature allows TikTok users to save discovered tracks on other music streaming services. It might suggest a recalibration of TikTok's ambitions, focusing on enhancing its role in music discovery rather than outright dominance in streaming.

The future soundscape for TikTok

As TikTok was on a full-steam journey transforming music tracks into viral memes, its ambitious trip hit a crossroads marked by regulatory challenges and strategic changes that might redefine its role in the music industry (if any).

The fallout with Universal Music Group (UMG) in January left TikTok devoid of over one-third of its top songs, forcing users to resort to less-known tracks, exemplified by the popularity of "Fluffing a Duck" by Kevin MacLeod, a far cry from the revolutionary tracks TikTok is known to propel to fame.

Beyond music, TikTok's broader challenges add on to the uncertainty of its trajectory. The Biden administration's discussions around a potential U.S. ban and the European Union's "gatekeeper" designation under the Digital Markets Act intensify the platform's scrutiny. These regulatory hurdles, coupled with a €345 million GDPR fine, paint a picture of a platform at odds with global regulators, potentially stifling its growth and innovation.

All that while ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, is venturing into healthcare, recruiting experts across the U.S. for its "AI for Drug Design" and "AI for Science" teams. This move into healthcare, as detailed by Forbes, seems a strategic diversification, possibly hedging against the volatile landscape of social media and entertainment. However, this foray also stirs concerns and conspiracy theories about data privacy and the intentions behind leveraging a vast, young user base for healthcare advancements.

So, I might be wrong, but here’s my bold guess: as TikTok navigates these waters, the full-blown TikTofication of music will not fall upon us just yet.