24 Jun TikTok, the new heavyweight of the music industry
“Driver’s Licence“, by the singer Olivia Rodrigo, has become the soundtrack of the beginning of the year. An umpteenth success born on TikTok, which further confirms the growing importance of the social network in the digital music ecosystem.
It’s the story of a driver’s license. Or rather, of a teenager who receives her license just as her lover escapes her. And you’ve probably heard it already: Driver’s Licence, the first single from actress and singer Olivia Rodrigo, is undoubtedly the soundtrack of this beginning of the year. Since its release in mid-January, the sentimental pop ballad has swept everything in its path – more precisely 300 million listens on Spotify and the top of the charts in a hundred countries. A phenomenal start that projects this 17-year-old Californian, a product of the Disney Channel, on the international scene. With TikTok as her main engine.
Because it is on the favorite application of teenagers that Driver’s Licence was first noticed. Very quickly, users tried to decipher the lyrics (would they evoke a relationship with the young actor Joshua Bassett?) or mimed scenes from the clip. Soon, hundreds of thousands of posts included the song, which became a worldwide hit by domino effect.
TikTok, virtual echo chamber? Driver’s Licence is indeed only the latest example. Since the creation of the platform four years ago, dozens of tracks, which have become the soundtracks of choreographies and other video challenges, have propelled their authors into the spotlight. Newcomers like the American rapper Lil Nas X, whose track Old Town Road became a meme on TikTok in early 2019, allowing the artist to sign with Columbia Records. Or the young Frenchwoman Wejdene, who invaded the application last year with Anissa and will be on the bill for an upcoming concert in Geneva.
But old bands also benefit from TikTok, where the young generation rediscovers them. This is the case of Fleetwood Mac and its 1977 classic, Dreams, which returned to Billboard magazine’s best-selling singles chart forty-three years later after being featured in a TikTok video of an American skateboarder on his way to work, bottle of juice in hand.
Some flights of fancy are even more improbable. At the end of 2020, it was a 19th century sailors’ song that went viral on TikTok. First sung by a 26-year-old Scottish letter carrier, Nathan Evans, The Wellerman was gradually taken over by other users who added their voices to it. In a few weeks, Nathan Evans gained nearly 800,000 followers… and a contract with the Polydor label.
Create in one click
Behind its playground look, TikTok is proving to be a formidable hit gas pedal… and a major player in the music industry, which boasts loud and clear: 70 artists who exploded on the platform would have signed with major labels in this year 2020 alone, said Ole Obermann, TikTok’s Director of Music, in December. “It’s inspiring to see our community bringing new talent to the forefront, helping propel tracks into the charts and creating an oasis of joy through music during these challenging times.”
The pandemic, by depriving the world of live concerts and keeping people cooped up in their homes, has further enhanced TikTok’s role as a pathfinder. But music has always been at the heart of the application and its ancestor Musical.ly, whose principle consisted in filming oneself in playback on short sound tracks.
Today, TikTok has 800 million users, free to explore, and exhibit, their creativity with a click. This has changed the balance of power. Before, it was a whole process to launch a career, you had to invest a lot of money and have the support of a record company,” notes Patrik Wikstrom, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and a specialist in music digitization. Today, all you need is a phone to become a creator. This gives hope to budding musicians who dream of becoming famous by recording a song in their bedroom. Like Joshua Stylah, the Polynesian high school student who created Laxed (Siren), an electronic melody that was a hit on TikTok before being covered by Jason Derulo.
A giant audience at your fingertips, and a showcase that gives the little ones a chance. “Unlike Instagram, the flow generated by TikTok’s algorithm does not necessarily favor the content of the platform’s superstars. It remains very unpredictable,” says Patrik Wikstrom.
The machine, once started, sometimes by boosting your Tiktok account, can quickly get out of control, with TikTokers declining and reappropriating the song endlessly in a participatory and community spirit. Music is the perfect cultural form to create a meme,” says Patrik Wikstrom. The essence of pop music is to pick up and remix elements of previous songs. TikTok just multiplies that phenomenon by 100!”
And the association between music and choreographic movements participates in this virality, explains Donald Glowinski, a researcher in neuropsychology at the Laboratory of Neuroscience of Affective and Emotional Dynamics at the University of Geneva. “Music is intrinsically linked to the body: listening to it stimulates motor areas of the brain, and is characterized by a notion of empowerment, which makes us want to move, to reproduce a gesture. And the more legible and rhythmic the gesture, the easier it becomes to perform: we imitate it and make it our own by putting our own stamp on it.”
The TikTok format, with its excerpts of only fifteen to sixty seconds, replayed in a loop, also explains the addictive consumption of music. “If you’re put in a situation where you don’t finish something, the feeling of incompletion will create an appetite for something new,” says Donald Glowinski. And paradoxically, it’s a known fact that human beings enjoy listening to the same refrain over and over again.” Refrains that young people often continue to listen to on other platforms, Spotify in the lead, where special TikTok playlists are offered and, recently, a service that allows artists to highlight a track as it takes off on the social network.
In short, TikTok is a formidable springboard and the players in the sector have understood this. The record companies too, who let their ears linger there, spotting the phenomena of the moment and potential foals, notes Yvan Jaquemet, Music Business teacher at SAE Institute Geneva. “Just last week, I spoke with a French producer who signed one of his artists. And what impressed the record company was her work on TikTok, where she already has a large fanbase. Being visible on these platforms has become essential, for the development of an artist.”
A sort of portfolio 2.0, TikTok has also become a promotional space for established artists, who are invited to develop their community (in Switzerland, the Bernese singer Luca Hänni and the rapper Loredana are among the most active), or to interact with it through challenges – like Dua Lipa, who last summer invited her followers to make videos on her Levitating hit. Clever.
Because it is not so easy to sell yourself on TikTok, drowned in the flood of daily posts. “The challenge is the same as with the press: how to get visibility, says Aurélien Mabon, Media Production & Publishing teacher at SAE Institute Geneva. In this case, TikTok is like any other business, full of agencies that set themselves up, and that monetize the use of a song by popular users of the platform.”
Like Michael Pelchat, who was behind the challenge that propelled Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road to the top – the idea could be summed up in a cowboy suit. Or Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s undisputed star (with 105 million followers), who will choreograph any of your songs… for $30,000.
Not a panacea
Labels are paying, but they are also filling their pockets on TikTok. This week, the platform announced that it had signed a licensing agreement with Universal Music Group, which will allow TikTok to offer Universal artists such as Lady Gaga or Elton John in its music library. An agreement that follows those already concluded with Sony Music and Warner.
This is the most of TikTok: a real willingness to pay contributors,” says Aurélien Mabon. We could obviously hope for a more generous remuneration, but it has the merit of having been set up quickly. In comparison, Facebook took a lot longer to find common ground with the big majors.”
But TikTok is not a panacea and its young audience not always the ideal target. A jazz band with an audience of 50-year-olds, for example, won’t take,” says Aurélien Mabon. It’s just another instrument. And Yvan Jaquemet adds: “TikTok remains focused on entertainment. The challenge is to keep this community and take it elsewhere. Maybe soon on Resso, a streaming service launched in India by ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok. TikTok’s parent company is definitely determined to carve out its share of the digital music pie.