Music

How TikTok Changed The Way We Discovered Music In 2019

Lil Nas X isn't the only artist to have found fame in the video app.

TikTok music industry discovery photo

Forget about fifteen minutes of fame, in 2019 it’s all about fifteen seconds.

This year, a generation of teens flocked to the short video-sharing app TikTok, which promised one of the most democratised spaces on the Internet — with a side of routine virality. The app’s hero, Lil Nas X, and his TikTok-meets-country fusion hit ‘Old Town Road’, still lingers on the tips of our tongues months after its initial release.

Spending 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, the Georgia star dethroned Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 1995 ballad, ‘One Sweet Day’, as well as ‘Despacito,’ the 2017 banger by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber, to become the longest-running single on the charts.

“I should maybe be paying TikTok,” Nas X told Time. “They really boosted the song. It was getting to the point that it was almost stagnant. When TikTok hit it, almost every day since that, the streams have been up. I credit them a lot.”

But what makes TikTok so different? Launched by Chinese tech-giant ByteDance as ‘Douyin’ in 2016 after merging with lipsyncing app Musical.ly, TikTok subverts the standard template of follower-based profiles. Operating on a communal homepage, users vertically swipe through an infinite stream of every 15-second video available on the app.

It’s an ecosystem where users can accumulate thousands of views on a video despite having zero followers, and it offers not only a more accessible point of entry than other apps but a particularly enticing one.

Unlike other platforms like Spotify, and Apple Music, which are strictly music platforms, TikTok trades in memes and punchlines rather than music curation — yet there seems to be a natural progression towards the latter. Nas X’s success incited a rush of musicians and labels to the platform with hopes to capitalise on its newfound popularity. News of musicians inking major record deals became increasingly commonplace, effectively shaping the way we discovered, listened, and shared music in 2019.

Following the success of ‘Old Town Road,’ it was almost every other week that news of another artist was signed off the back of TikTok success. Most recently, Stunna Girl, a 21-year-old rapper from Sacramento, signed a deal with Capitol Music Group after her song ‘Runway‘ not only inspired the #RunwayChallenge on the app but racked up 4.4 million views on YouTube — and peaked at number eight on Spotify’s Viral 50 Chart. After spending her teenage years in and out of the prison system, TikTok became her unlikely key to success.

Lil Nas X’s success incited a rush of musicians and labels to the platform with hopes to capitalise on its newfound popularity.

Then there was Los Angeles’ rapper Sueco The Child, who signed with Atlantic Records after his single ‘Fast’ began gaining traction on TikTok. The blue-haired rapper was inspired by none other than Lil Nas X. “When I saw TikTok, I instantly went ‘This is how it’s done’,” Sueco told The Ringer. “They don’t need to make the content, they have other people making the content for them. It blows up and becomes a meme organically on this app.”

In contrast to Soundcloud — where music is often raw meditations on mental health, sex and violence — the songs on TikTok rely on being the punchline. On TikTok users sit with songs, create dance moves, and learn lyrics before adding it to the app’s infinite stream of videos. There’s a strong sense of intimacy — through visual and sound repetition, songs become part of a communal inside joke with millions of others. Popular users who dance or lipsync to songs have the power to start trends, but users with as few as 10 followers can pluck out old hits and reignite their relevance with new memes.

In 2016, rapper KYLE released the upbeat single “iSpy” featuring Lil Yachty on Soundcloud and today, a resurgence on Tiktok has seen the song inspire 2.9 million videos. Lizzo’s 2017 release, ‘Truth Hurts’ experienced a revival on the app with the #DNAtest challenge. Clocking up over 178 million videos, the song entered the charts for the first time and has now remained in the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks (at the time of writing).

“When we hear a song that lends itself to unique content creation, our team wants to help amplify the music and trend,” Mary Rahmani, Director of Music Content and Artist Relations at TikTok told Music Junkee in a statement over email.

Is There A Recipe For TikTok Success?

There is a formula for what is hot on TikTok, and Australian production duo Cookie Cutters have their own theory as to what makes a video successful. Adam Friedman and Sammy Alderson collaborated with TikTok user Andre Swilley (6.5 million followers) to create music in August last year.

“The first song we did with Andre, we weren’t even thinking of TikTok. We knew he had lots of followers on there but it wasn’t a cool app,” Adam told Music Junkee. “This was like 6 months ago, before ‘Old Town Road’ and ‘Mia Khalifa’. When he posted [“You Do You”] we woke up to 20,000 people doing their own TikTok of the song.”

After experiencing success on the app, the duo planned with Swilley to create something more streamlined for the app.

“We’re planning, and writing, while Andre has already been recording 15-second songs. We plan to produce these songs, purely with the intention of blowing up on Tiktok. I want to write the catchiest songs with lyrics completely designed to be mimicked, things that have hand movements,” Friedman said. “We have this one song that Andre is about to go into the studio for this week and it’s 15 seconds, the lyrics are like “waving goodbye”, “hope she calls back”, “her body is like…”, you know, movements you can do with your hands.”

The “hand-dance trend” was key to English electronic producer, Riton and Nigerian singer-songwriter, Kha-Lo’s recent TikTok success. After a video of Selena Gomez singing their song spread on Instagram, “Fake I.D.” was uploaded to TikTok through a venture with the app.

“We have this one song…and it’s 15 seconds, the lyrics are like “waving goodbye”, “hope she calls back”, “her body is like…”, you know, movements you can do with your hands.”

“Last year Riton & Kah-Lo’s record label did a sync deal with [TikTok],” Zac Abroms, Australian project manager at eOne Music, told Music Junkee. “Part of that arrangement was that “Fake I.D.” would be featured prominently within — essentially at the top of — TikTok playlists in the hope that influential users would incorporate it within their videos. To that end it was strategic but what followed was completely user-driven, to the tune of over two million videos.”

The videos, which saw TikTok users mimic the lyrics through hand gestures, reinvigorated their 2018 single with a second-wave of success.

The Boyboy West Coast inspired a slew of memes on the app with only a snippet of his song, the melodic and playfully distorted ‘Bottoms Up‘. The full song was released on April 5, after it had already taken over TikTok with hundreds of thousands of the app’s weirdest videos. Dennis Rodman even took to Twitter to beg his followers to “Stop. Sending. Me. This. Shit.

The Changing Landscape

Twenty years ago, the inner workings of the music industry were shrouded in mystery. Artists were taking bad deals that left them broke, and the point of entry was impossible to locate. Today, more than ever before, artists are being handed the keys to a career in music through avenues like TikTok. For some, it’s a lifesaver.

Michigan-based songwriter Absofacto experienced waves of relief when his music was uploaded by a user on the app. ‘Dissolve‘ was treated to a popular video sequence, “where [people] made it look like they were falling through a portal,” he told us. “A deployed female marine named littlebucksh0t saw it and her video became very popular, and it turned into a challenge. From there it evolved and people kept putting clever twists on the idea.”

This year in music will be remembered through the lens of TikTok, the artists it created, and for those it’s given a chance.

“Before this, it had been a hard road with my music, to be honest,” Absofacto confesses. “I was kind of on the edge of giving up. People who heard [my music] always liked it, but not enough people heard it. TikTok certainly helped change the future of mine.”


Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter.