How TikTok Became the World’s Radio Station
TikTok has revolutionised the way music is discovered online by radically simplifying it into the 15-second “Sound”. When music today is bite-sized, transformable and viral, there are ramifications for everything it touches: brands, consumers, producers, publishers and artists alike.
Here Alex Rayner tracks this explosive new phenomenon in conversation with TikTok’s Head of Music Operations, Paul Hourican.
What was the Sound of your summer? Paul Hourican has one particular song in mind. “Andrew Lloyd Webber joined TikTok a few months back,” says Hourican, TikTok’s Head of Music Operations. “He made one of my personal favourite videos of the year: he took the acapella of Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ and replayed it with the tune of ‘Phantom of the Opera’. It’s only 10 seconds long, but it’s the best song of the year that never happened.”
Lloyd Webber is just one of many in the music business who have discovered the joys of the Sound: the seconds-long pop loop that TikTok invented, which now marks a genuine step forward in the history of recorded music and its fans. This tiny snatch of listening time has big implications for fans, for recording artists, and for the music biz itself as well adjacent fields such as branding and advertising.
While Lloyd Webber’s Sound didn’t quite make it to an official release, hundreds of other hits by Drake, The Weekend and Doja Cat, all the way through to nostalgic re-entries by artists such as Fleetwood Mac all first found popularity via TikTok’s creators. Spotify’s Viral 50 chart explicitly tracks this phenomenon, yet the UK Top 40 and in the USA the Billboard Hot 100 are very close behind. Indeed, back in April of 2020 every single entry on the Billboard Top 10, from Justin Bieber to Dua Lipa, found an initial footing via TikTok.
The Sound represents a new evolution in the history of music. Moving from the confines of sheet music through to the player-piano music roll, the shellac disc, the talking picture, the vinyl 33 and 45, the eight-track, the 12-inch single, the cassette tape, the music video, the 74-minute-long CD, the short-lived MiniDisc and the once-ubiquitous MP3, the Sound now rules music discovery and has opened up an entirely new way for music lovers to discover new tunes, and for music makers to reach new audiences.
In posting his own “WAP” creation, Lloyd Webber also joins a smart group of recording artists that runs from Lizzo and Lil Nas X through to the estate of John Lennon, all of whom understand the power of the Sound in music appreciation, composition and discovery. And while those names would figure in any music industry big-hitter list, including Cat Burns, Unknown T, Griff and Blondes, these pages also include some of the newer names who are making the most of the platform’s endless creative possibilities.
Times change, and so do the ways we discover music, and Paul Hourican can remember a time when this all took place offline. A couple of decades ago, he worked behind the counter at the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street in London. “I was in the vinyl department, around the early 2000s,” he recalls. “French dance music was really big, stuff like Cassius. I remember The Strokes coming through. LTJ Bukem was really big, and so were bands like Radiohead and Belle and Sebastian.”
Back then music won popularity through a well-established process: friends recommended tunes, magazines profiled recording artists and reviewed new releases, billboard advertising played its part, as did promotional appearances and airplay on radio and big TV shows such as Top of the Pops. And, as Hourican points out, “there was the good old-fashioned record shop.” Radio edits (shortened and often cleaned-up versions of would-be hits) and early music-video providers, such as MTV, (Paul’s erstwhile employer) transferred new releases onto the airwaves and screens.
“MTV was all about contextualisation,” Hourican explains. “It’s what they put around the music videos; they did an amazing job of making sense of it all, and putting their own stamp of authority on it.” But that role dropped away with the rise of YouTube, where Paul also worked before coming to TikTok. “That’s when the music video moved online,” he says, “algorithmic recommendations came in, and things got global, moving very quickly between borders.”
TikTok took that world and shook it up even further, scattering a wild array of Sounds among a wide variety of listeners and creators, adding new social and visual accompaniments. Within the app a teenage dancer in the Connecticut suburbs might chance upon a clip of Detroit hip-hop, and a Russian singer might re-record an old breakfast cereal jingle, which, in turn is picked up, remixed and championed by a Latino fanbase. And a girl in Hawaii can somehow come across a diss track from the Blackpool grime scene and an Idaho potato packer can skateboard to work, create a video to an old soft rock song, and send the band flying up the charts once more. In the case of those last two, Bella Poarch’s creation of “M To The B” by the Blackpudlian rapper Millie B has been viewed over half a billion times, while the video Nathan Apodaca made of himself while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” has been viewed almost 70m times, and today “420doggface208” has 5.5m followers on TikTok.
Back in January 2020, the New York Times seemed to be overstating the case, when the paper’s pop music critic, Jon Caramanica, argued that having a smash on platforms such as TikTok can be more desirable — and more valuable — than heavy rotation on conventional radio. Today, that’s a widely accepted truism. And tracing a track’s rise is remarkably easy, and free from the nefarious influence of Twentieth Century music industry payola. Every clip on TikTok is soundtracked and the audio is on by default when you open the app. The chosen Sound is also credited on scrolling text at the bottom of the phone screen; touch on a slow-spinning circle (it looks a little bit like an old vinyl record rotating around) and you can see other video clips, or Creations, using the same Sound. You can also search for specific Sounds, or just have a little fun and see what TikTok serves up via its algorithm which is never simply the most-popular or most-viewed clips.
Paul likens this way of finding music to the way we sometimes catch a snippet of something new in our day-to-day lives. “You might be walking past a car at the lights and they might be blasting a song out,” he explains. “Or you might walk into a shop and be thinking about fashion, but you hear music and it inspires a brave choice. TikTok reminds me of all those beautiful touch points. That’s what’s amazing about it: it gives users enough satisfaction, it allows them to express themselves, and it inspires them to go off and find out more about something.”
That’s certainly the experience for Izzy, a 17-year-old TikTok creator who lives in Birmingham. She’s more towards the alt end of things on the app, and posts under the name of p1ss.baby.6.6.6 (“it’s a reference to a song,” she says). In her creations, she sometimes wears The Cure and The Smiths T-shirts, but her music choices are much more wide-ranging, taking in Bill Withers, Arctic Monkeys, MGMT, the LA singer-songwriter Eliza McLamb, the Pixies, the Belarusian rock group Molchat Doma, and even the theme to Mio Mao, a 1970s Italian stop-motion animation starring two plasticine cats.
“That one has these sounds that go ‘meow, miaow’,” she says of the final example. “I had this hat with moving ears, and I moved the ears to the Sound. I would have never become known about that music otherwise.”
Izzy came across the MGMT song “Little Dark Age” via a TikTok trend in which users pose like a Renaissance painting. “If you go to that Sound, almost all the videos are people posing like that,” she says. She says it’s easy to find new music by dipping into subcultures. “If I want to see punks, I’ll search through punk Sounds and if I want to find an alternative audience, I’ll use alternative audios,” she says.
Of course, she understands that TikTok learns what kind of videos she’s likely to like. “I think everyone has a completely different experience because it’s so tailored to the person,” she says. “I hear people talking about TikTok at my school and they have a completely different experience.”
She also appreciates that certain recording artists, such as Doja Cat, more or less owe their career to the power of TikTok’s ubiquitous Sound, but she also says the music she ends up finding via the app is pretty varied. “It’s a really big range. A lot of it sounds like older music, but actually it’s newer bands mimicking Eighties or Nineties music. I think everyone has a completely different experience because it’s so tailored to the person.”
TikTok, unlike other music services, also throws up quite a few surprises, serving popular and little-seen creations to its users. “It’s so random,” Izzy says. “With YouTube, you usually click on a video and you know exactly what you’re about to listen to. But with TikTok you could see a video with 10 views and you could see a video with a million views.” And while some younger users of the app might party-hop between different genres, other more mature users – such as professional talent scouts – take the metrics associated with each of these Sounds very seriously. Jos Watkin, A&R director at BMG UK, is one such user. He can remember hearing about bands via word-of-mouth, and through the music press.
“A friend would tell me about a new singer/songwriter from Glasgow or a lawyer would tell me they had a new client playing that I had to go and see,” Watkins recalls. Even in the early days of social media, unearthing an artist on MySpace was a rarity,” he says.
Now, however, he’s able to turn to his phone, come across a great new singer, rapper or producer, and he’s also able to judge what kind of audience might be into this artist, and how the two relate to one another.
“Not only can a song or artist garner their first bit of momentum on TikTok but you can also see it growing,” he says. “That’s quite a rare thing. In these cases, you can begin working with an artist knowing that you are already off the ground, which is invaluable.
“TikTok is also a great new tool for established artists who are looking to engage with their fanbase or add to it,” Watkin goes on. “BMG has seen worldwide success in both areas - Mabel constantly keeps up a dialogue with her fanbase with dances that are copied and shared. Whereas in the US Blanco Brown’s ‘The Git Up’ became an international hit partly because of a dance that seemed to catch on.” Hourican agrees that, for music biz pros, the app can offer a wealth of early indicators. “Success on TikTok as an artist is such a strong barometer of future success,” he says. “You can see who’s into their music, if it’s big in fashion, or if they have a lot of sport videos being made to their Sound. You can see those data points much more easily.”
And, unlike some platforms, it’s hard to fake the kind of deep engagement that TikTok creates. “You get to see how inspiring a song has been. Has someone taken time out of their day to create a video around it? If they have, that’s way more powerful than a view count or a like.”
Similarly, you can see how recording artists develop relationships with their audience, and the ways they respond to fans. “There’s an amazing bunch of new artists, people such as Cat Burns, who shows off her songwriting abilities and makes great content; she’s just signed a deal with Sony,” says Hourican. “There’s also an incredible artist in Germany called Zoe Wees. She spent a lot of time building her TikTok presence; she’s signed a deal and is getting picked up in America.”
Mature listeners might recoil at the idea of musicians marketing themselves, and perhaps might wonder how bygone recording artists such as The Sex Pistols, Marvin Gaye, Frankie Knuckles or Public Enemy would have succeeded or failed in such a complex and rapid media environment. Hourican has some sympathy for this point of view. “I’m kinda old school,” he says. “I think first and foremost, artists and producers shouldn’t compromise their art. They should ultimately make songs; they shouldn’t be optimized for anything other than their own vision.”
Watkin offers similar advice to musicians taking to the app for the first time. “It’s easy to overthink TikTok,” he says. “If you are a new artist the best thing to do is be yourself, make your content engaging and regular. Someone like Lewis Capaldi comes across so well on social media because he is naturally funny, but not everyone can do that. At the end of the day, the music always comes first. People will begin sharing your content if you are exceptional at what you do. There is no doubt about that. No artists’ path is the same as another’s.” Yet there’s also no reason to reject technology outright. Technological development has always moved recorded music forward, from the ribbon microphone, the Leslie speaker and the humbucker pick-up through to the Roland TB303 bass emulator and the E-mu SP-1200 sampler, to GarageBand, Auto-Tune and Logic. Given the right moment, the Sound can, of course, inspire compositions. “All artists are influenced by the textures of the day,” reasons Hourican. “In some respects, the radio edit might have helped people develop new ideas. TikTok is the same; they might start thinking of this particular section of a song or a hook that might spark creativity.”
He runs through just a few of the mini-trends he’s heard recently: a rediscovery of Lily Allen’s “Smile”, originally released in 2006, and now accompanied by an anti-racism video; a slowed-down versions of Crystal Water’s 1991 hit “Gypsy Woman”; an early 2000s resurgence with hits such as MIA’s “Paper Planes” finding a new audience, having been shrunken down to a 30-second Sound.
“These listeners didn’t grow up with these songs,” says Hourican. “It’s like you or me hearing James Brown for the first time. That’s fascinating.” During the pandemic the Sounds on the app have also become a way to enjoy music as a collective experience again, with a ballooning user base coming together, despite being kept apart in lockdown. “Now there are few, if any opportunities, to see an artist in the flesh,” reasons Watkin. “Any live footage is essential in painting a picture of the artist. I find myself looking at online sessions and live events more and more. TikTok is key for this.”
And with fewer opportunities to catch a snatch of a record at the barbers, booming from the bassbins of a car in traffic, or playing through the speakers of a clothing boutique, TikTok has also become the place to dig into sub-genres that are unlikely to bother the Top Ten any time soon. Over the past few months Hourican has found his own passion points in the app. “I personally love all the rollerskating videos on there,” he says, “and the UK hip-hop community is still going from strength to strength.”
In Birmingham, Izzy has also found plenty to play and play again via the app. “The experimental band 100 gecs – I would have never heard of them were it not for TikTok,” she says. “And Miley Cyrus? She did some rock covers, some goth covers, things like Arctic Monkeys and Blondie. It allowed her to change her image completely. I would never have listened to her otherwise. Is Blondie goth?” Izzy wonders out loud.
Perhaps a more pertinent question is not how this music was once categorised, but how users like Izzy will find a place for the Sounds of any genre in the future. User-generated content is projected to contribute $6 billion to music-related revenues by 2022, according to a recent report. The Sound will be in the vanguard of this new gold rush; TikTok’s creators are going to lead, and many of us will follow.
Inside The Hit Factory
The facts and figures behind five recent hits and the creations they inspired
“DON’T RUSH” BY YOUNG T & BUGSEY 380,700+ CREATIONS These Nottingham MCs released “Don’t Rush” in November 2019, though the tune didn’t become a big TikTok Sound until April 2020. It soundtracked the #DontRushChallenge in which creators jump-cut between casual home clothes and glammed-up eveningwear. It was hit on the app as well as in the UK charts, the US Billboard Top 100, and across Europe. The song was certified Platinum in the UK back in June 2020, achieving over 600,000 sales.
“SOMEONE YOU LOVED” BY LEWIS CAPALDI 2.6M+ CREATIONS The self-described “King of TikTok” has managed to attract 2.6 million followers with just 34 videos. Much of the Scottish singer’s attraction lies in his great reaction videos – there’s a gem of him responding to one particularly inept playa’s chat-up lines – but his heart-breaking 2018 single, “Someone You Loved” lives on in many, many breakup videos.
“ALARM” BY ANNE-MARIE 5.1M+ CREATIONS The East London singer won over her 3m followers partly due to her funny, creative take on the app; there are plenty of goofy hair and beauty videos, as well as more in-depth material. She did a Live with TikTok creator Mr Tov on TikTok’s Music Takeover Weekend, discussing her single “To Be Young” with Doja Cat. However, there’s no denying the power of her Sounds too. “Alarm”, her hard-hitting 2016 song, has had millions of creators lip-syncing along on the app.
“STUPID” BY ASHNIKKO 2.3M+ CREATIONS The US-born, UK-based rapper has won over 1.5m followers on TikTok with her blue hair and glitchy, trap-style tunes. Her 2019 track “Stupid” went viral in October 2019, with many creators using it to soundtrack videos about them not needing boys around. Ashnikko certainly doesn’t need any additional help: her TikTok popularity helped her land a deal with Parlophone.
“MAD LOVE” BY MABEL 97,000+ CREATIONS The British recording artist was pretty well hooked-up prior to joining TikTok; she is, after all, the daughter of Neneh Cherry and Cameron McVey. However, she’s a highly engaged and agile user of the platform. Last year she debuted a 15-second Sound of her track “Mad Love” on the app, and launched #MadLoveTrain (4.7m views), a hashtag challenge encouraging users to create videos inspired by her single.