The Next Generation Of Music Critics Is Here – And They’ve Found A Home On TikTok
"I think my viewers value my opinions because they feel like they know me...a faceless music reviewer can be tough for people to get behind these days."
Last September, Will Koart uploaded a 30-second video to his TikTok page, @willtalksmusic.
The video was fairly standard for Koart — short, simple, and earnest, just a touch of snark. In it, he quickly ran through some of the biggest Grammy Awards upsets in recent history: Taylor Swift’s 1989 beating Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Adele’s 21 winning over Lemonade, how Lorde was cruelly and bizarrely robbed by Bruno fucking Mars in 2018.
Koart — a sound engineer by trade, based in Los Angeles — had started uploading TikToks in late August, but his Grammy snubs video was the first time he really noticed people taking an interest. It flooded people’s For You pages and ended up raking in more than 700,000 views.
Buoyed by the sudden success, he began posting in earnest — covering everything from album reviews and genre-based rankings to content like ‘How To Get Into Dream Pop’ and more grabby posts like ‘Hit Songs That Suck’. At the time of writing, Koart is sitting on just over 50,000 followers, with more than 2.1 million likes across his videos.
His followers are fiercely engaged, earnestly asking Koart his opinion on everything from Frank Ocean’s best tracks to the best headphones to buy; requests for Koart to roast their music taste are common. It’s overwhelmingly a positive space — a community of like-minded music nerds.
“I try my best to encourage positive discussions, and I’ve made many videos attempting to teach good ethics in music discussion,” Koart tells Music Junkee. “My consistent viewers know at this point that I don’t think it’s cool or funny to be toxic in my comment section. But of course there is going to be negativity in my comments, especially when I do reviews that aren’t positive. Sometimes people attach their identity too closely to their favourite artists, and they take it personally when I don’t like something they make. That just comes with the territory of reviewing any art though, I encourage different opinions than mine, as long as they are being respectful about it.”
Koart is in an increasingly crowded market — over the last six months, the popularity of amateur music critics and reviewers has steadily grown. @Mostleymusic, who, like Koart, runs a relatively genreless account with more of a focus on spotlighting emerging acts, boasts nearly 230,000 followers on the app — views on his videos frequently top a million views. Other accounts, like @ahamgod (74K followers), and @angelichybrid (87K followers) almost strictly cover hip-hop, and have smaller but equally engaged followings.
Closer to home, triple j Unearthed community producer Abby Butler (@flabbygutler, 61K followers) has quickly grown a following, offering mostly Australian music and recommendations takes alongside lighter, comedy content. Like the others, her fanbase is devoted, frequently asking her to build playlists for them and suggest new music. She’s quick to react to the news cycle — in a recent video she offered Aus music suggestions for people looking for tracks with ‘drivers license’ energy:
“I downloaded TikTok towards the end of 2019, but it took me a few months to start actually uploading my own because (as is the case with most folks) no one really knows how the algorithm works and making TikToks is objectively a bit cringey,” she tells Music Junkee. “But I embraced the cringe and started making random videos until a few of them blew up out of nowhere. Once I had established a pretty solid audience from those videos, I began shifting to music-based content and the audience really responded.”
Music video content isn’t new, of course — YouTube creators like The Needle Drop have been shaping tastes for well over a decade — but the sudden proliferation and rise in popularity of critics on TikTok suggests a changing of the guard is underway, and the traditional music media is once again being left behind.
The Fantano Effect
Anthony Fantano, the man behind The Needle Drop, has defined the role of a music critic in the internet age. In a profile last year, the New York Times proclaimed he was the only music critic that matters (if you’re under 25, that is). He’s certainly the only one the average punter could name.
As his profile and influence have grown, traditional music media has been decimated — the magazine industry is in shambles, veteran mastheads have shuttered, major publications have been absorbed into huge multi-national corporations.
In the New York Times piece, Fantano largely avoided the question of where the rise in video critics would leave traditional media. “What’s most important to me is not the form that it takes, or the vehicle that it’s being driven to me in, but really that it’s observant, that it’s passionate, and that the people who are doing it care,” Fantano told fellow critic Joe Coscarelli in the interview.
“A faceless music reviewer can be tough for people to get behind these days.”
Koart is less ambiguous. “Definitely,” he answers, on whether music publications are losing their influence with younger listeners. “Above anything else, because people like to associate a personality with the opinions they are receiving. I think my viewers value my opinions because they feel like they know me at least a little bit, and can count on me being not being biased. A faceless music reviewer can be tough for people to get behind these days.”
People watch for him, he says, not just for what he recommends. Butler isn’t quite as decisive as Koart — she doesn’t think TikTok is pushing out establish platforms, rather she thinks it’s simply broadening the horizons of music journalism, and reaching audiences that wouldn’t otherwise engage with this kind of music content.
“I see my content as another step in the process of musical discovery,” she adds. “You might see a 15-second introduction to an artist that I’ve done on TikTok, want to know more and seek that out with longer-form content.”
Koart’s point regarding the “faceless music reviewer” is pertinent — readers and viewers want to know they’re engaging with someone they can trust, who they feel has integrity and genuine love and knowledge of music. They don’t want to be condescended to, and the intimacy and immediacy of TikTok feel like your best friend just giving you some tips, rather than an ivory-tower encased critic delivering missives from on-high.
Those critics have continually been dismissive of video content. Robert Christgau, the legendary music journalist, haughtily dismissed the success of Fantano during a Q&A with readers in early 2019.
“I don’t “watch” reviews. I read writing,” he wrote. “Moreover, no one I know “discusses” Anthony Fantano, a name I barely recognized…Fantano seems to have figured out a way to make some kind of living by disseminating his own criticism in the online age. That’s an achievement. But until he starts putting it in written language, I’ll live without.”
Koart clearly takes after Fantano — the laid-back demeanor, the relaxed, assured authority — he even dressed as him for Halloween, and Fantano’s influence is obvious across a lot of the TikTok music critics. But where Fantano clearly leads his devoted army of followers, Koart and Butler’s spaces feel more like an interactive and egalitarian community, rather than an expert delivering an opinion to then be discussed in the comments.
Brave New World
YouTube has come a long way from the scratchy, lo-fi uploads that defined its early years. A decade ago, three-minute-long vlogs ruled the space — now, popular creators like The Try Guys upload 40-minute long videos with incredibly high production value. It’s no longer the space for quick, unfiltered, barely edited thoughts.
TikTok is the opposite. A spiritual descendent of Vine, it’s an inherently more reactive space than YouTube. Videos can be cobbled together and uploaded on the fly, trends rise and fall within a matter of days, and the ‘stitch’ and ‘duet’ features encourage users to react to engage with other creators’ content. There’s plenty of polished, well-shot and well-edited content on the platform — but the handheld or mounted phone is still, by far, the most popular method of recording.
There’s also the length of videos and the app layout — TikTok has a one-minute maximum time limit in place (although it has recently begun testing longer video lengths) and a scrolling, algorithm-driven For You page meaning that shorter, sharper videos that engage users immediately will succeed over longer waffly content.
“Personally, I don’t have the time to make longform videos,” Butler answers when asked why she prefers TikTok over YouTube for her content. “It’s much easier for me with a full-time job to whip together a 15-second video for TikTok.”
Koart is in the process of setting up a YouTube channel, but says it’s much easier to grow a following on TikTok due to the algorithm. “You don’t need a high production value to make a video,” he adds.
That said, Koart says there are distinct limitations on the app: “TikTok can be a very limiting platform, being that there is a one-minute time limit,” he argues. “It’s really hard to get across everything I want to say in such a short period of time.”
“It’s much easier for me with a full-time job to whip together a 15-second video for TikTok.”
Along with YouTube, he’ll be streaming more on Twitch in the future, so he can more closely interact with his audience. “I get too many comments at this point on TikTok, so it’s impossible to answer all the questions I get. Twitch will give my loyal fans a chance to interact more with me personally,” he says.
Of course, there’s also the fact that TikTok is set up for music discovery. Music has been integral to the app since its beginning as the lip-sync app Musical.ly — and while the app has grown way beyond simple dance and lip-syncing videos, it’s still a key part of the operation. Success on the app has proven to be replicated on the charts: Lil Nas X, Lizzo, BENEE, Olivia Rodrigo, Jack Harlow, and so many more have been boosted by trending audio tracks. It’s clearly a fertile place for music, whether you’re making it or commenting on it.
“I just want to keep introducing the world to local talent,” Butler says. “Anything above that is a huge bonus.”
“I’m excited to see how much more I can grow doing what I’ve been doing on the platform,” Koart says. “And hopefully I can make the transition to a full-time content creator at some point, that would be insane.”
Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.