TikTok is an essential promotional tool for music artists and record labels.
Songs can rise up organically on the app even if they've been outside the mainstream for decades. Marketers can also hire influencers to help a song take off, sparking a wave of user-generated posts from their fans. And some artists even set up private listening sessions with TikTok influencers in the hope that it will help new songs gain steam on the app.
The company has a global team that works with artists and record labels, negotiates licensing deals with rights holders, and builds new ways for TikTok to convert its cultural influence into recurring revenue. It's testing showing "Hot 50" and "Viral" song charts in its app to some users. In July, it rolled out a dedicated music-streaming service called TikTok Music in five countries.
Its music ambitions could end up ruffling feathers at the record labels, particularly as it breaks into overlapping business lines like artist services. For instance, the company has done direct deals with artists and courted SoundOn staffers to "identify, sign, and develop new artists"; to help "supervise the production of records and oversee all aspects of the recording process"; and to "design live show and merchandise strategies for artists globally."
TikTok can avoid tension with the industry by showing its partners how its various experiments in music will lead to paydays for all. Its ability to maintain close relationships with the major rights holders is critical as the parties negotiate licensing agreements.
"If they want to be a long-lasting platform, they need to kind of lock arms with artists in the music industry," Jonny Kaps, cofounder and CEO of the independent label +1 Records, told Insider. "There's money to be made all over the place here if it's done in collaboration."
For artists, the hyper-focus on TikTok can be draining. Performers like Halsey and Charli XCX have posted videos expressing frustration at being asked to make TikToks by their labels. One performer, the artist Taylor Upsahl, told Insider it can be "really stressful" to be expected to balance social promotion with touring and writing and recording new music.
But the industry's attention on TikTok isn't unfounded. Songs that trend on TikTok often end up charting on the Billboard 100 or Spotify Viral 50. And 67% of the app's users are more likely to seek out songs on music-streaming services after hearing them on TikTok, according to a November 2021 study conducted for TikTok by the music-analytics company MRC Data.
TikTok has become a hub for labels to promote both new releases and back catalog tracks. And a new cohort of social-media music marketers has sprung up to support promotional efforts on the app.
"TikTok has really become a critical part of artist storytelling," Kristen Bender, SVP of digital innovation strategy and business development at Universal Music Group, told Insider during a webinar on TikTok's impact on the music industry. "Our labels have been extremely leaned into the platform."
The blending of short-form video with music has spread well beyond TikTok onto other apps like Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram. YouTube's top music exec Lyor Cohen told GQ in November that short-form video is one of his biggest focuses when it comes to the company's music strategy.
"Every short-format platform's got music on it now," Ted Suh, global head of music partnerships at Snap Inc., told Insider. "All this engagement on these types of services is really leading to the music industry finding incremental business value, whether it's leveraging this data to help them get radio play, or more spins on Pandora, to even kicking off national tours."
Paying creators to promote songs on TikTok
Song promo deals between music marketers and influencers have become an important source of income for TikTok creators. Some users can earn hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single video where they promote an artist's track.
"Music marketing on TikTok is huge," Jesse Callahan, founder of the upstart marketing firm Montford Agency, told Insider. "It's a big way that labels have brought artists into the spotlight the last couple of years. It's also a big way that creators have made a lot of money."
As TikTok's user base has grown and content has become more saturated, marketers are turning more to micro influencers over superstars for song campaigns.
"The price point for mega stars is extremely high," Zach Friedman, a cofounder at the upstart record label Homemade Projects, which was acquired by 10K Projects, told Insider. "The way the TikTok algorithm works, it's hard to know what's going to be successful. Instead of paying a premium for a D'Amelio, you could pay a micro influencer $200 and their TikTok could get 10 million views. Because of this, it's better to cast a wider net."
Working with non-influencer accounts on song campaigns
While the strategy of hiring influencers to spark a music trend is tried-and-true, record labels also regularly pay general-interest accounts to put songs in the background of videos.
Working with a non-influencer account, like a creator who uploads close-up shots of slime or films a hydraulic press crushing random objects, can be an equally effective way to drive interest in a song, music marketers told Insider.
"Using these accounts like the hydraulic press accounts are helpful with giving the song a chance to sort of work outwards first, and just kind of get in front of people and make the algorithm aware of it," Acrophase Records' founder Dan Asip told Insider.
Creating TikTok music challenges to spark user-generated videos
And some marketers are opening the door for social-media users who wouldn't traditionally be considered influencers to get paid to promote music.
Platforms like Pearpop and Preffy allow labels and artists to create user-generated video challenges that invite users with any size following to get paid on a sliding scale for participating in a song or artist campaign. TikTok has tested its own in-app challenges product as well.
"The initial way influencer marketing would work would be you would go and pay a few people with big followings, but it would be like throwing a few big logs onto a non-existent fire," Pearpop cofounder Cole Mason told Insider. "With challenges, there's a way to actually start the fire."
Augmented-reality effects can also help songs take off
In addition to creating music challenges and working with influencers and general-interest accounts, marketers are also building custom AR filters that feature a particular song in order to boost plays for that track in user-generated videos.
Unlike influencer campaigns centered on a dance challenge or comedy skit, adding AR effects to videos is a low lift way to get users to engage with a song, marketers told Insider.
"There's not always a dance trend or a storyline that makes sense to seed with a song," said Johnny Cloherty, Songfluencer's CEO. "If you do come up with a cool AR filter, it's easier for the regular user to create a TikTok with than to create a dance."
How record labels track performance on TikTok
Many record labels have teams dedicated to monitoring TikTok so they can help fan the flames on a trending song when it starts to take off.
"Our entire music catalog is effectively tracked on a daily basis," said Andy McGrath, the senior vice president of global catalog marketing at Sony Music focused on the label's older releases dating back decades. "We're constantly monitoring actions, reactions, and trends that happen on TikTok."
RCA Records' SVP of digital marketing Tarek Al-Hamdouni said the label relies on a series of signals like an increase in streams on Spotify or shifts in audience numbers on YouTube to track the efficacy of a TikTok song campaign.
"If I see that in the course of a week our audience [on YouTube] went from being primarily 25- to 34-year-old male and a week later the majority is 13-to-24 female, then that's a pretty easy bridge to connect between those two platforms," Al-Hamdouni told Insider.
Writing songs specifically for TikTok
While TikTok is often a go-to platform for promoting a newly released track, some artists incorporate the app even earlier in their creative process.
The Canadian rapper Tiagz (Tiago Garcia-Arenas) built a following of 4.1 million fans on the app by writing songs that directly referenced the app's popular memes and trends, effectively gaming its search and content recommendation algorithms.
"I tried to understand the platform," Tiagz told Insider. "I kept doing these memes because I saw that it worked."
Remixes and mashups
Remixes are wildly popular on TikTok.
Whether sped up, slowed down, layered with a clap track, or mashed up with another track, songs are constantly being remixed on the app.
To tap into the trend, record labels and marketers are collaborating with remix and mashup artists as part of their song release strategies on TikTok. The tactic expands on what artists have long done to get their songs in front of a wider audience.
"Back in the day, you'd go get a bunch of club DJs to remix your records so that you could appeal to the drum-and-bass market, to the techno market, to the underground market," said Nima Nasseri, the A&R lead for UMG's music strategy and tactics team. "You want to be able to have your record get discovered in spaces that it normally wouldn't be discovered in."
TikTok fatigue among artists is rising
Not all performers are thrilled about spending time on TikTok.
The app's grip on the music industry has led some artists to speak out about the pressure they feel to be content creators.
"TikTok has now become a whole other part of our job that takes up such a significant amount of time," performer Taylor Upsahl told Insider. "As artists, we're all still in a transitional phase of like, 'Okay, cool, how do we find time and energy to now be essentially content creators and influencers?'"
Inside TikTok's internal music division
Not all song trends on TikTok happen serendipitously or via external music marketing campaigns.
TikTok also has an internal music division dedicated to monitoring music trends on the app. Led by former Warner Music digital chief Ole Obermann, the company's music team handles artist and record label relations, licensing deals, and newer products such as SoundOn and Resso.
TikTok's music operations team has a series of "promo levers" that it uses to boost the popularity of songs. The company can add new tracks to playlists in the "Sounds" section of its app and apply keywords on the back end to optimize song discoverability in the app's search interface.
TikTok's editorial team even overrode its own algorithm to boost views for Taylor Swift and Beyoncé when they first joined the platform.
Hosting private listening parties with TikTok creators
Some artists and labels work with TikTok's team to host private listening sessions with creators in order to promote a song ahead of its release.
In the summer of 2020, as Miley Cyrus was preparing to release her single "Midnight Sky," her team partnered with TikTok to schedule two private Zoom calls with around 15 creators to give them an early listen to the track.
"These creators are needed in the process," Olivia Rudensky, founder and CEO of Fanmade, a marketing and fan engagement upstart that works on digital strategy with clients like Cyrus and Hailey Bieber, told Insider. "They're just as important as all the relevant stops when you're doing promo or when you're going to tastemakers because they really are the audience that's making or breaking music right now."
Other artists like Khalid, Demi Lovato, and Marshmellow have joined similar events. Running a listening session with creators can help an artist's marketing team understand the types of videos or snippets of a song that might break through on TikTok.
A dedicated TikTok Music streaming app is born
In July, TikTok stepped deeper into the music business by launching its own dedicated music-streaming app, TikTok Music, in Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, Mexico, and Singapore.
ByteDance had already piloted an app called Resso in India, Brazil, and Indonesia for a few years. Swapping Resso for a TikTok-branded product could help the company better link its main app, known for song discovery, to a full audio-streaming subscription service.
Insider tested TikTok Music in Singapore, where it launched in a closed beta, to learn more about how it works. Like TikTok, TikTok Music includes a "For You" feed of recommended content and a variety of social features that set it apart from incumbents like Spotify and Apple Music.
"We find in our consumer surveys that younger consumers are more interested in having a more social streaming experience," Tatiana Cirisano, a music-industry analyst and consultant at the research firm MIDiA Research, told Insider. "Spotify is starting to offer more things in that vein, but I just see it as an opportunity that's ripe for TikTok's taking."
TikTok has yet to launch its dedicated music app in other markets like the US, though its owner filed a trademark application for the name in May 2022.
How the radio industry is responding to TikTok's rise
For decades, the radio industry has had to adapt to shifts in how music is consumed, as platforms like MTV, Spotify, and YouTube have changed user habits.
With the arrival of TikTok, many radio stations and their talent have embraced short-form video as both a promotional tool and a resource for discovering new music.
"I wound up on TikTok because I was looking for another way to connect with the listeners of my show, [and] I was looking for a way to expand the listenership of my show," Jeffrey Ramsay, an on-air personality at iHeart's Denver, Colorado, station HITS 95.7, told Insider.
SiriusXM, which streams audio over satellite, digital, and via partnerships with auto manufacturers, took it one step further, launching a dedicated TikTok Radio channel in partnership with the short-video app.
"What we do at SiriusXM is very much a complement to some of the other experiences that are available with music digitally," Steve Blatter, the senior vice president and general manager of music programming at SiriusXM, told Insider.