In February 2019, the video-sharing platform, TikTok, reached a major milestone—one billion downloads on the App Store and Google Play. Since then, TikTok’s ascent in the cultural zeitgeist has been nothing short of unprecedented. The app has been responsible for many cultural phenomena, but most interesting is its unforeseen impact on the music industry. With its mainstream notoriety, the app has radically altered the formula for success for up-and-coming music artists. Thanks to the platform’s unique algorithm and design, previously unknown musicians have found success in and beyond the digital world.
Unlike other social media platforms, the reach of user content on TikTok is not dependent on having a pre-existing following. Instead of solely focusing on accounts that a user follows, the “For You” page on TikTok exposes users to unique and personalized content algorithmically determined to appeal to them. The algorithm’s significant role in spreading user content not only differentiates TikTok from its competitors but also means that anyone on the app can go viral if they try hard enough.
As average users call the shots on TikTok, a user with a moderate following can post a dance or comedic bit to a song and single-handedly launch themself into fame. For artists looking to break into the industry, TikTok is an attractive platform to promote music organically as statistics confirm that 63 per cent of TikTok users discover artists they have never heard of through the app.
PinkPantheress, a 21-year-old British film student, is one example of a TikTok musical sensation whose viral songs “Pain” and “Just for me” earned her critical acclaim from music publications like Billboard and Pitchfork. Like many recent fledgling artists, PinkPatheress relied on the TikTok algorithm to transport her garage-rock-inspired bedroom pop tunes to listeners. Within three months of its release, the successful song “Just for me” was used in 2.2 million TikTok videos.
Even music industry veterans recognize the power of the TikTok user base to generate hype and revenue. In anticipation of her album Red’s re-release, Taylor Swift launched a TikTok profile and issued “Taylor’s version” of her song “Wildest Dreams” after it gained traction on the platform.
There is no doubt that TikTok is redefining what music industry success looks like in the digital age. But it remains to be seen whether the platform will continue to offer small-time artists an opportunity in the limelight or whether the TikTok user base will become another demographic that music industry executives seek to charm. For now, the TikTok user base is—perhaps refreshingly—seizing the opportunity to democratize our mainstream music choice.