Is there any music TikTok can’t break? How the social media phenomenon is transforming the industry

From contemporary pop stars to heritage rock acts, TikTok has delivered a vast array of hits over the past 12 months. Mark Sutherland speaks to the platform’s head of UK music operations Paul Hourican to find out just how significant an impact it has had, and continues to have, on the recording industry…

If you want to get a hit, go viral on TikTok.

For the past year, that’s been the music industry maxim. Since Lockdown 1 kicked in, the correlation between the biggest hit singles and TikTok virality has been astonishing, as a housebound nation found some much-needed joy in short-form videos of celebrities and unfeasibly perky influencers dancing to contemporary pop.

But, as well as multiple contemporary TikTok smashes, the platform has become an unlikely vehicle to revive older songs, often by the sort of heritage and alternative artists who wouldn’t normally be seen dead indulging in a viral trend.

The most famous example is Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’, used to soundtrack a video of TikTok user @420doggface208 (aka Nathan Apodaca) skateboarding and quaffing cranberry juice. The video got so much traction it catapulted parent album Rumours back into the US Top 10 for the first time since 1978.

But it’s not just classic songs by superstar artists. Lately, the platform has acted like a viral I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! for neglected bands, giving a second wind to everyone from The Wombats (an unreleased remix of their song ‘Greek Tragedy’ was used by a string of influencers, leading to over three million streams in the UK and an official release) to Hoobastank (whose 2003 hit ‘The Reason’ inspired the #NotAPerfectPerson hashtag and over 430 million views).

So what’s going on?

“The power of TikTok is that it helps fans discover music they might have never stumbled across otherwise,” says Paul Hourican, Tiktok’s head of UK music operations. “It’s breathing new life into older or catalogue tracks and connecting people to songs in unique and creative ways.”

The unique thing about TikTok virality – and the reason why the industry is so focused on it – is that the consumption doesn’t remain on platform. Artists, labels and managers report that TikTok views lead directly to increased streams on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon; more video views on YouTube; and more social media followers on Twitter and Instagram. 

And, while Hourican notes TikTok partnerships with label and management teams brought the music of legends such as Queen, David Bowie, John Lennon and George Michael to the platform, many of the breakouts are much more organic – to the point where artists and managers often aren’t even aware of them until they’ve gone viral.

Take Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Can You Feel My Heart’. Despite being eight years old, it has soundtracked over 300,000 videos on TikTok this year, topped the US Hard Rock Streaming Songs chart and manager Craig Jennings, CEO of Raw Power Management, credits the success in helping to push the band to almost nine million monthly listeners on Spotify. But, while the band has acknowledged the trend, it was not involved with the original creation.

“When those things come along it’s about jumping on the opportunity and keeping the integrity of the act,” says Jennings. “Even though we’ve got a relatively young demographic, there are people who haven’t heard them before who are listening to this TikTok thing, going onto Spotify, enjoying what they’re hearing and sticking with us.”

Now TikTok is fully licensed by the major labels, you can expect more to seek out opportunities to revive older songs. 

But Tim Collins, co-CEO and co-founder of Creed Media, a marketing agency that has helped power many of TikTok’s biggest hits, says it’s much more difficult to predict a catalogue hit.

“The old songs are definitely re-emerging organically,” says Collins, “although some labels might step in and amplify the momentum around a legacy song that’s building traction. It will happen more this year because people have seen the influence it has on old records.”

“With TikTok’s continued growth more artists and their teams will use the TikTok community to share their music,” agrees Hourican. “You can expect more partnerships to revive back catalogues, more exciting content and campaigns, and of course organic viral music trends that are born and thrive on TikTok.”

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With fresh pop, labels are able to target key influencers such as Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and Holly H in order to kickstart a TikTok challenge or dance trend. But catalogue songs often initially go viral thanks to much less prominent creators.

“@420Doggface208 didn’t have a crazy amount of followers when he uploaded his video,” Collins notes. “But that video engaged so many users and continued being shared so, suddenly, ‘Dreams’ became a global phenomenon – and probably more users on the platform associate the song with @420Doggface208 than Fleetwood Mac. He became the artist in one sense.”

That can be a problem for new acts trying to forge an identity beyond a single hit. But it gives legacy artists an advantage.

“If we look at how the music industry is trying to make use of TikTok for new music, it’s about building familiarity,” says Collins. “And these songs already have that. It brings down the barrier for entry to create to it, because it’s already easy to see where you could be inspired to add your creative touch.”

Which leaves one question: is there any music TikTok can’t break?

“Right now we haven’t heard of a phenomenon where black metal has been a huge trend, but if the subculture got a bigger community on the platform that could happen,” laughs Collins. “TikTok has the possibility to break any type of music, but it’s about the context and when the communities are ready to bring those songs to life in an engaging setting.”

“Expect the unexpected,” chortles Hourican. “What we love about TikTok is its unpredictability, which means that there really isn’t a magic formula as to what does well. Anything and anyone can go viral.”

Time, then, to dig out those forgotten catalogue gems. Renewed 2021 stardom could be just a dance trend away…