tiktok music

How TikTok took over the music industry

The viral video app now decides who’ll get their 15 seconds of fame

Imagine, before the internet, the incredible palaver it must have been for record labels to get an album to number one. Picture yourself as a 1970s music industry executive, sitting in a smoky office with no computer, just a Rolodex and dyspepsia, planning how to turn your musicians into rock gods. To promote their new record, you’ve got to pay for adverts in newspapers, on the radio, on the sides of buses and on motorway billboards. You’ve got to lay on lavish press junkets and fly out reporters first class to stay in five star hotels, mini bar included, to meet your band. And then you have to beg your stars not to gobble too many pills before their interviews and be drawn, like victims of KGB brainwashing, into conversations about the latest skeleton stuffed into their closet. Not only does this cost immense amounts of money and hair follicles — but afterwards, you can’t guarantee that customers will actually want to buy your record.

Enough with all that faff. Fast forward to 2020 and the music execs aren’t wearing suits and ties and they no longer have jowls and lunchtime ale breath. They are, instead, twenty-something clean-living, sculpted-beard scions of Generation Z, thinking about how to get music to go viral on TikTok, opening it up to an audience of millions for a fraction of the cost stumped up by their predecessors.


On TikTok, users make and share 15-second videos soundtracked to music. The app was launched by Bytedance, a Beijing-based operation, in late 2018 after merging with Musical.ly, a platform popular for lip sync videos (an infamous one showed a doe-eyed American teenager dancing to Let Me Love You by DJ Snake in front of his grandfather as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed). Since then TikTok has accumulated 800 million users, which is more than Snapchat (360 million) and Twitter (330 million) combined.

TikTokers are mostly teenagers, and the average user opens the app eight times per day, spending 45 minutes on it in total. In that time, they watch and get ideas to copy dance routines, pranks, tricks, gags and memes, all of which, crucially, have a backing track. In the viral world of TikTok, this snippet of song can become so popular that it will be heard and re-used millions of times in bedroom and back garden clips the world over. If a star like Charli D’Amelio, who has more than 78 million followers on TikTok, puts your song in one of her videos, it’s going to have way more impact than taking out an advert on the side of the 22 bus to Oxford Circus.

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