As a platform, TikTok continues to generate strong opinions within the music industry regarding what kind of licensing deals it needs, and how much it could or should be paying rightsholders. But it’s also generating a lot of interest and activity from the marketing teams working with artists.
It’s certainly not the first platform to spark this dichotomy between revenue and promotion. At yesterday’s Sandbox Summit, a panel on TikTok – moderated by One Little Indian’s Chiara Michieletto – focused on the latter aspect, for an audience of marketers keen to understand how it might be used to their artists’ benefit.
(Or rather: the fact that this conversation did not focus on licensing and copyright matters was a function of the context and audience: those issues are important, and Music Ally continues to cover them in our bulletins and reports.)
“We’ve been looking at the music content for the last 10 months of our existence here in London and we’re trying to find the best ways of promoting artists we work with, with multiple tools we have available,” said Anna Gruszka, music content strategist at TikTok, before talking about its culture.
“TikTok is a very specific kind of social media platform and video platform. It’s very unique in the whole landscape, because of its whole aesthetics… very genuine, raw, authentic content, which is incredibly compelling, and that’s why it creates a viral effect,” she said.
“What really works is the authenticity, and being very genuine in the platform. What doesn’t work is anything that doesn’t seem and doesn’t feel right: that doesn’t feel like you are genuinely expressing your creativity, your talent skills or the values you believe in.”
One of the key points raised in the debate was the way creators (TikTok users who upload videos rather than just watching them) can become popular very quickly. Timothy Armoo, CEO of digital agency Fanbytes, outlined a not-unusual trajectory.
“They might start on 5,000 fans, or even 500 fans, and within a week they’re on 60,000… because they’ve jumped on some trend or hashtag that’s going viral,” he said, before delivering some advice for labels on how to best tap in to this community.
“Give the audience the opportunity to be their own influencer,” he said, recommending campaigns less based on crafting a piece of content for an artist’s own profile, but rather those with lots of freedom for fans to make their own videos, and show off their talents.
That said, artists are joining TikTok regularly with their own profiles. Negla Abdela, head of digital marketing at Ministry of Sound, talked about how it compares to other social apps and networks in that regard.
“It’s so much easier to make creative content without it having to be so structured and polished, as it might have to be on Instagram: so artists have the freedom to just be themselves… to be more playful,” she said.
“And the shareability of the content on the app helps the artists profiles increase massively. It is much more community focused: it is more democratic than other platforms. People are inclined to share good content. it’s not just about who’s got the biggest following.”
To an outsider, it might seem that tracks in certain genres – dance music and hip-hop in particular – seem to blow up most regularly on TikTok. However, the panel suggested that the platform isn’t as narrow in musical focus as you might think.
“Actually what we’ve observed is there’s a huge diversity of genres on TikTok that can go viral,” said Gruszka, citing a recent campaign involving US artist Yungblud called #Rocktober, which focused on rock music. TikTok videos with that hashtag generated more than one billion views, while even musicals and classical-music pieces have trended on the app.
“The message is that anything can really go viral on TikTok, if there is a true connection between the song and the concepts, and the creative responses to it,” said Gruszka, with Armoo nodding his agreement.
“If the creative is right or the concept is right… if you use a bit of creativity, it’s not just about does pop work, does rock work, does soul work, does gospel work? It’s ‘are we able to create something that connects fundamentally with the audience there?’ that will stand us in good stead,” he said. “Any genre works, as long as it keeps the focus on the audience there… making them feel special, making them feel like they’re their own influencer.”
Abdela agreed, and suggested that the question is often not whether a specific genre is right for TikTok, but whether a specific artist is right.
“Not every artist is suited to TikTok. The music can be, but the artist may not be the right sort of artist to have a profile on there, and to engage with the community,” she said. It’s not necessarily an obstacle: again, creative thinking about how a song might be used by TikTokers to soundtrack their videos is the key.
“For some of our catalogue releases, it’s finding the right part of the track to really invigorate that track. And for dance music, there’s so many big drops, so you can always find that big moment that will be compelling for people to use as a sound-bed for their videos,” she said.
When Ministry has artists who wouldn’t be a comfortable fit for TikTok, it takes another approach. “How we counter that is we work closer with the creators on the app,” she said. “The thing I love about TikTok creators is everybody can be an influencer and be influential within the app. It’s just finding the right people to work with.”
That said, TikTok is encouraging more artists to join the app. “It’s possible technically that a song goes viral without an artist even knowing about it, organically,” said Gruszka. “But we really want artists to be involved. That’s our main requirement… When artists get on board to join the campaigns we organise, the performance tends to be much, much better.”
Armoo advised labels and managers to think about the bigger picture, rather than getting sidetracked into specific ways to use TikTok, like the ubiquitous ‘hashtag challenges’.
“Stop thinking about it on a tactical level: ‘We’ve just done a hashtag challenge. Check. We’ve just done a duet. Check’. Think more about ‘How do I create an ongoing conversation around my song?’” he said. “Otherwise you’re just playing a game of not really being firmly part of the platform… those short-term tactics don’t really build a brand or some kind of noise on the platform.”
One track that has been making a big noise on TikTok is ‘Ride It’ by DJ Regard – a remix of a 2008 Jay Sean track which went viral on TikTok, and was subsequently signed and released by Ministry of Sound.
“By that time the track had been used on TikTok for almost a year,” said Abdela. DJ Regard has been active on the app himself, and has also been sharing the fan-created content using the track. Ministry, meanwhile, has made sure the first creators who used it have been part of the overall campaign.
“We reached out to all the initial TikTok users who started sharing it to be in our lyric video at launch and in our social-media that he was sharing outside TikTok,” she said. “The track’s been in the chart now for 65 weeks now on TikTok. We only released it at the end of August! So it wasn’t dying down, and we kept on creating more content, and working with more creators.”
The question of how labels and artists make money from TikTok cropped up, unsurprisingly given the debate around its licensing obligations.
“I treat TikTok as a social media platform, but the success we’ve seen and the adoption outside the app, we do see a correlation in social growth and streaming growth… from my perspective, there is potential,” said Abdela.
Gruszka gave the TikTok view on this question. “There is such a huge level of engagement in those viral songs, it does generate a lot of traffic outside the app… the song is so stuck in their heads, they want to hear the whole song… and ultimately the songs also get boosted in the charts,” she said.
TikTok is keeping an eye on this. “It’s not something we are actively pursuing, but we are monitoring that traffic, and labels are reporting it back to us very often,” she said.
“The engagement we see from the community on the app is so deep that you can drive it off-app,” added Abdela – think tickets, merchandise and music. “Compared to other social media, the fans are more engaged, and they’re incentivised, once they’ve bought into you, to go and take everything you’re offering.”
The final topic in the session was about how TikTok’s recommendation algorithm works. The key point: that videos are recommended to users not based on a ‘social graph’ ranking popularity of creators/channels, but rather on a ‘content graph’ ranking the engagement with the videos themselves.
“The variable to things going viral is not so much the fanbase, it’s actually he creativity and everything behind that,” said Armoo. “There isn’t a numeric threshold for someone to be an ‘influencer’ – it’s more about are they continually creating stuff that resonates with the audience?”