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How TikTok Creators are Redefining “Success” in the Music Industry
A data-driven look inside the music careers of TikTok-native creators
Hey everyone, Yash here! a few quick updates:
The next issue of Timestamp is slightly delayed! Sorry about that, it’s been quite a month. For those who missed my last piece, Timestamp is a collective series I kicked off a few weeks ago, documenting the creative and commercial lives of music creators in web3. The first issue features the incredible Karma.wav which I encourage y’all to check out.
I’ll be speaking at Measure of Music on the 26th of February with Joey Akan, Bas Grasmayer, Caroline Whiteley, and Diana Gremore about independent music journalism—essentially trying to figure out how people can own their content & audience while writing about music, technology & culture.
Hope to see some of y’all there! 🙂
Okay, on to today’s essay. Does anyone remember this app called TikTok?
Apologies to all my crypto maxi readers! With all the buzz around web3 and the possibilities it opens up for music creators, this essay might feel like travelling back in time. Trust me though, it’s absolutely worth it.
In the music industry, the distribution of music has been prohibitively expensive and largely unmeritocratic.
Music creators have needed substantial capital to ensure they’re on the favourable end of an unforgiving power law—to get their music heard in an industry where 0.7% of artists are driving 90% of streams.
Major record labels have been the sole financiers and therefore, the de facto determinants of success.
TikTok has radically changed this by making the global distribution of music free and meritocratic.
Music creators like Abigail Barlow, ASTN, and Ren Carter have successfully distributed their content among TikTok’s 1B users for free.
Their success has also been “determined” by these 1B users in a meritocratic way—since TikTok’s algorithm recommends content that users genuinely find interesting, rather than content from already established creators with larger followings.
On TikTok, the most interesting content wins, irrespective of whether you're an aspiring creator with just a few followers or you’re an established creator with millions.
This “universal basic distribution” is circumventing old gatekeepers by enabling music creators to directly connect with potential fans—letting fans determine a music creators’ success, rather than record labels (aka Meritocracy!)
Hope you enjoy :)
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The rise of TikTok is fundamentally changing how music is created and distributed. TikTok totally obliterates the financial barriers to the distribution of music—thereby changing how it is created. How does TikTok do this? By enabling meritocratic, low capital, universal basic distribution.
TikTok’s FYP, or For You Page, is the best place for music creators to test their Minimum Viable Song—a stripped down demo that conveys the essence of their sonic musings. A sonic prototype normally sent to bandmates or producers, seeking feedback. TikTok however, distributes it among its 1B MAUs, who give instant feedback with their attention and engagement.
Abigail Barlow and the group Avenue Beat have used TikTok to validate their upcoming song before committing to a full release on streaming platforms. Their recent hit song F2020 went viral on TikTok first, before the group decided to record a full version; which (unsurprisingly) hit the iTunes Top 50 chart for pop songs when it was released.
Abigail and her band were able to validate their song because unlike other social platforms, TikTok offers meritocratic distribution. Its recommendations are based on what a user is interested in rather than who they follow. This means TikTok gives emerging and established artists the same level of initial exposure, letting the most interesting content win—irrespective of whether creators have 20,000 or 2,000,000 followers.
This radically new way of distributing music has led to an equally radical shift in the way it's created.
Recently, music creator ASTN covered Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever” on TikTok, reimagining the song as an R&B cover. The video went viral on TikTok’s FYP, receiving 2.5 million likes within 24 hours. ASTN went on to gain 800,000 new followers within the next seven days.
ASTN uploaded a longer version of the cover song to retain the attention of his newly acquired fans, and to gauge whether it was worth releasing a polished studio version on streaming services. ASTN was trying to get his minimum viable song validated by his fans. “What if this song was on Spotify and Apple Music?” he said, prompting them with a pre save link. He released the full version a few days later.
Okay, so what happened when ASTN released the full version of his previously validated minimum viable song?
It's safe to say the song had a powerful ripple effect on Spotify — accumulating 1.6 million streams in 48 hours and 3.4 million streams just 6 days after release. If we look at the engagement rate of each of ASTN’s videos from the day he posted the first snippet right up until the date the full version was released, it's clear that every user who followed him and interacted with his content was eagerly waiting for the full song to come out.
This is not surprising—virality on TikTok often translates into a spike in consumption on services like Spotify. However, with ASTM, something was noticeably different. The initial virality on TikTok and the subsequent explosion on Spotify was not just some ephemeral viral trend—fans coming to ASTN’s Spotify profile seemed to be genuinely interested in him as an artist—they were what the industry calls, “organic” fans. Unlike previous cases of TikTok driven virality, his number of followers and monthly listeners on Spotify have seen substantial growth as well.
This is a radical shift from the traditional music industry. In the legacy music industry, the creation and distribution of music were capital intensive. That's because music creation entailed hiring studios, producers, session musicians, studio engineers, and clearing multiple samples. Music distribution was essentially a manufacturing business—getting a song heard globally entailed retail advances to distributors, fighting for shelf space in brick and mortar stores, and paying DJs to get radio placements.
Major record labels happened to be the sole providers of capital and therefore, the de facto gatekeepers to success.
In the new digital millennium post-Napster, things started changing. The advent of new technology made the creation of music much cheaper. High quality music could now be produced in bedroom studios.
But as the creation of music became more accessible, the supply of new music increased dramatically! This radical increase in supply overwhelmed limited demand i.e. our time and attention.
Advances in music creator tech also converged with the rise of Spotify and other streaming services that enabled the ubiquitous access to music, a celestial jukebox available for free or for $9.99.
The rise in supply paired with limited demand led to the devaluation of music, and the prevalence of a skewed power law among music creators. Today, 0.7% of artists on Spotify are driving 90% of monthly streams. More than 50,000 songs get uploaded to Spotify everyday, and more than half of those are never streamed by anyone. Ever.
Through all this, the label model persisted. Yes, music creators didn’t need big label advances to create music anymore. But they absolutely needed label budgets to distribute music—to cut through the noise and get their music heard in the attention economy. Instead of competing for limited retail space in stores, artists now needed label money to compete for our finite attention spans. Instead of paying retailers for premium shelf space, labels pay Spotify to get their latest releases on the homepage and popular playlists.
Alright, let's pull back for a second to the ASTN example. Seasoned music industry folks could rightfully make the counterargument that ASTN already had a small but bubbling fan base to begin with. Moreover, it was a cover version of an established hit song, which undeniably helped. Didn’t ASTN just piggyback on the success of Billie Eilish? And isn’t Billie Eilish signed by a major label? Therefore, the label model persists, they would say.
For the minimum viable song theory to stand true, we need to determine whether TikTok can enable someone to go from absolute zero to one? Enter Ren Carter.
A few months ago, Ren used TikTok’s duet feature to remix an existing TikTok of a frog making a funny sound. Ren sampled that sound in a highly creative way and his duet blew up on the FYP, garnering more than 400,000 likes and 5,000 comments in the first 24 hours.
Ren realised the song’s potential to go viral, so he decided to tease fans with a longer version of the song. This helped him build up hype around the trend i.e. validate his minimum viable song.
The response from his fans seemed to indicate that they really wanted the full version of the song, so he subsequently promoted a pre save campaign for it.
Ren released the full version of his song on the 14th of July, nearly a month after teasing, testing, and validating it. Given the duet-friendly nature of the song, it received a lot of fans and creators making duets using it.
The song, called “Frog” was Ren’s first ever foray into music, his debut release. Currently, it has 132,000 streams on Spotify and Ren has 754 followers and 9,000 monthly listeners.
TikTok’s distribution can be very powerful—a few months ago, TikTok published a report stating that 70% of TikTok users discover new artists on the platform, while 72% of users associate a particular song with TikTok. TikTok already has more than 2.5x the number of DAUs compared to Spotify—most recent stats state that Spotify has 365 million MAUs while TikTok had 1 billion MAUs.
The FYP allows musicians to test the waters by putting out smaller iterations of songs they have in the pipeline. But it's important to state that even the most viral minimum viable song may not lead to much, unless creators have a carefully crafted artist identity to build relationships with their new fans. It’s like a startup that raises too much money, too quickly, without a well-defined product.
Ren’s second release for instance, Talk Dirty, only has 1,291 streams. Ren’s virality on TikTok almost compelled him to become a music creator, without giving him the time to formulate his identity as one.
I’ve written previously that TikTok is a strong top-of-funnel, but a leaky one. The platform promises viral distribution but does not necessarily lead to authentic relationships between music creators and their fans. How creators leverage TikTok’s distribution is ultimately up to them. In the unforgiving, dog-eat-dog attention economy, TikTok helps aspiring music creators get their foot in the door. Once they're inside the room however, a well thought out artist identity could help them stay.