TikTok is changing the rules of the music industry

(Image credit: Pemika Chedpiroon / Shutterstock.com)

In a year where our collective attention spans have been obliterated by the ongoing global pandemic, and where we’ve all been stuck at home and scrolling on our phones way too much, TikTok’s cultural influence has continued to grow.

This is most apparent in the music industry – in recent months, TikTok has produced some of our most compelling music industry success stories. Take Nathan Evans, an unknown folk singer, whose TikTok recording of himself singing 19th century sea-shanty ‘The Wellerman’ (of all things) went stratospherically viral, winning him a major label record deal and a string of TV appearances.  

Or Fleetwood Mac, whose classic 1977 album Rumours skyrocketed back into the charts after a relatively unknown TikTok user posted a remarkably chill clip of himself skateboarding while sipping cranberry juice and vibing to the band’s classic, ‘Dreams.’ 

For music industry experts, one of the key, disruptive elements of TikTok is that it’s hard to predict which songs will go viral on the app. To a large extent, streaming services and commercial radio stations still push a predictable range of pop behemoths – your Swifts, your Grandes, your Biebers – but TikTok is a different ball game. Huge pop hits frequently won’t register on the app, while older tracks, tracks by unsigned artists or esoteric remixes reign supreme on the TikTok algorithm. 

How does TikTok compare to other social media apps? 

While TikTok is often presented in the media as a kind of challenger app, this isn’t reflected in the numbers it can rack up. As Dylan Pasqua, Music Partnership Manager at social media marketing company Fanbytes told us: “TikTok is actually on another level to Instagram or YouTube. It’s much easier to get tonnes and tonnes of views on TikTok – it has a much higher growth rate.”

Pasqua works with artists signed to labels like Universal, Sony and Warner on building their TikTok presence. He tells us of a client who has “three million views on YouTube, and about 17.4 million views on TikTok” – seemingly, this is a fairly standard ratio. 

However, unlike streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music, TikTok is primarily a video-sharing app, and was not specifically engineered for music sharing. Consequently, the process of how music actually ends up on TikTok has become contentious. Historically, while TikTok offered users a commercial library of free-to-use music tracks, it also gave users the option to upload their own audio clips. Once an audio clip is uploaded onto the app, it becomes freely available to other users. Industry insiders have estimated that 50% of all music used on TikTok is unlicensed. This has, of course, resulted in a string of DMCA takedowns, and threats of legal action from the major labels. 


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♬ Dreams (2004 Remaster) - Fleetwood Mac

What's changed?

In the last few months, TikTok has announced a string of licensing deals with all three of the major labels – Warner Music, Sony, and most recently, Universal Music Group

Notably, press statements around the deals make it clear that this heralds a wider collaboration between TikTok and the major labels. For example, Universal’s EVP of Digital Strategy, Michael Nash, said that the deal “has the shared objective of developing exciting new music experiences and features”, while Sony Music’s President of Global Business & US Sales, Dennis Kooker, said the company is “pleased to partner with TikTok to drive music discovery, expand opportunities for creativity and support artist careers.” 

Details of what these collaborations might entail haven’t been divulged yet, but statements have hinted at everything from new in-app tools and features to A&R or talent-scouting services. 

What about artists?

One obvious benefit of labels striking up licensing agreements with TikTok is that it will create a new revenue stream for artists. This is a significant development: 2020 was an unprecedentedly difficult year for the music industry, and many labels and artists will have seen entire revenue streams wiped out, as the pandemic made live events and touring impossible. The industry is still struggling in 2021. 

However, as Naomi Pohl, Secretary General of the Musician’s Union tells us, the problems posed by TikTok are the same problems artists face with streaming in general: artists simply don’t get a fair cut. “It’s great news that artists who have their songs featured on TikTok will be properly licensed, but if the deal has been made with a major label, the already tiny payment will have be filtered through the record label – meaning that ultimately, the artist will only get around 10-15% of the total profit.” 

Pohl explains that a particular issue with TikTok is that there’s a lack of transparency involved in their payments: “If you’re an artist, and you go viral on TikTok, it can be very difficult to work out how much you’re being paid, and what the deductions are for.” 

This issue is compounded if your payments are collected through a record label: “The record labels can carefully choose how much information they want to share with the artist.” 

What does this mean for the music industry? 

While TikTok might not be the saviour of the music industry, it looks like it's here to stay – and it’s changing how music sounds. While there have been a number of wildcard success stories, Pasqua tells us of the distinct ‘TikTok effect’ taking place in pop music: “There are some elements that just ‘work’ on the app. We look for a 15-second vocal hook, often with clear, actionable words – a call to action, of sorts. Something the user can riff on, or apply to their own life.” 

From ‘Savage’ to ‘Say So’, many of the biggest hits of the last 12 months have arrived packaged with an accompanying TikTok challenge. In a few years time, we could be looking at a media landscape where singles are accompanied by a TikTok challenge as default, in much the same way that music videos have become a standard part of the release process. 

As well as changing how music sounds, TikTok offers fans new avenues to engage with music. During the pandemic, technology has stepped in to recreate live music experiences. Live-streams and virtual concerts have flourished: Travis Scott pulled in over 27 million viewers to his virtual Fortnite concert, Lil Nas X attracted 33 million views to his series of Roblox shows, and a livestream of a BTS concert attracted nearly 1 million viewers. It’s important to note that while the Travis Scott and Lil Nas X shows were free to attend, the BTS show was a paid livestream – suggesting that a significant number of music fans are willing to pay for virtual experiences.



♬ Holiday by Lil Nas X - lil nas x

As a highly visual platform with a growing fanbase made up primarily of younger users, TikTok is a prime candidate for virtual concert experiences. It’s already been used successfully – a Justin Bieber concert streamed on Valentine’s Day this year pulled in 4 million viewers, making it the most-watched single artist livestream ever seen on TikTok. 

Not everyone is convinced, though. Naomi Pohl for example, feels that streaming economics is “bad for the entire music ecosystem”.

“If payments were shared more fairly with musicians, it would boost creativity, there would be a much more diverse range of music shared with consumers – which would ultimately be better for platforms, as there would be more music out there,” she says. In the meantime, we’ve seen government inquiries across the world into whether music streaming services pay artists fairly, so the dynamic between artists, streaming services, and social media platforms like TikTok could continue to evolve over the next few years.