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Instagram’s in-test ‘Reels’ feature takes aim at TikTok


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‘Killer’ is one of the most overused words in the field of tech journalism, when it’s appended to the name of digital services thought to be under threat from a rival or copycat launched by a much-bigger technology company. Was Apple Music a ‘Spotify-killer’? Nope. Was Google+ a ‘Facebook-killer’? Absolutely not. Vine’s killer turned out to be its own parent company. And Facebook may be the world’s leading serial not-killer when it comes to Snapchat: its Poke and Slingshot apps didn’t do the job, and while there’s a better argument for Instagram’s stories feature impeding the growth of Snapchat, the latter is still far from dead. Meanwhile, the Lasso app it launched a year ago has yet to see off TikTok.

Which brings us neatly to something called ‘Reels’ which history tells us nobody should rush to dub a ‘TikTok-killer’ just yet. Reels is an Instagram feature that’s being tested in Brazil, and yes, it’s heavily inspired by TikTok, with its 15-second videos backed by music soundtracks, in an environment tuned for meme-sharing and video-remixing. “I think Musical·ly before TikTok, and TikTok deserve a ton of credit for popularising this format,” Instagram’s director of product management Robby Stein told TechCrunch, albeit while adding “sharing video with music is a pretty universal idea we think everyone might be interested in using. The focus has been on how to make this a unique format for us”.

Part of Instagram’s argument is that Reels can tap in to its huge community, where people are already connected to their friends. However, the biggest difference to TikTok from the music industry’s perspective is licensing: Reels will benefit from Facebook’s wide-ranging, user-generated-content focused licensing deals with music rightsholders and collecting societies from the get-go, whereas for some of those entities, TikTok is still at a different stage. Reels’ competitive impact on TikTok isn’t just about whether users will migrate away from the latter, but also about the template / expectations that it may establish with rightsholders ahead of future negotiations with TikTok.

Any time Instagram does something new and more-engaging with music, it’s a good moment for the music industry, regardless of whether it kil… has an adverse impact on another app like TikTok. But on that front, it’s important to remember that at this point in time, TikTok is not *just* an ‘app for sharing 15-second miming’n’dancing music clips’. It has been rapidly evolving a wider (and often baffling to non-users, as it should be) culture of its own, which is why its young audience love it so much.

Instagram can copy the features, and that may have some interesting results, but copying the culture successfully is much harder. TikTok certainly has some existential challenges looming (from regulatory scrutiny in the west to the task of keeping a particularly-young user-base engaged long-term), but Reels – and Instagram more generally – isn’t yet one of them. But as we said, on its own merits, it could be interesting for the music industry.

Stuart Dredge

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