By: Nicole Damron
March 15th, 2023
Since its inception in 2016, TikTok has become a social and cultural tour de force, connecting people all over the world through a complicated and somewhat mysterious content algorithm. Now, it’s easier than ever to access quite literally any type of content at any given time.
For music artists, the app has changed parts of the industry for the good and the bad. On one hand, it’s possible for an emerging artist to be discovered if their video falls into the right hands. On the other, some artists struggle with the authenticity of using the platform for promotional purposes.
In an era of consumerism, short attention spans and constant media consumption, it’s not surprising that TikTok has become a hub for music content and promotion. The app’s algorithm alone allows any one person to potentially reach millions, and this was not lost on record labels and executives.
Successful pop artists like Halsey and Charli XCX have voiced their concerns over the growing industry push to use the app as a marketing tool, which many already established artists find difficult to do while maintaining a sense of authenticity. The artist took to TikTok to voice these concerns, writing “I’ve been in this industry for eight years and I’ve sold over 165 million records and my record company is saying that I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok,” in response to the label refusing to release their music. In the post Halsey writes, “I just wanna release music, man. And I deserve better tbh … I’m tired.”
Halsey is not the only artist to raise their voice to the matter. Charli XCX posted a video on her TikTok account in 2021 to satirize a similar situation with her record company, in which she suggests that she is told to create content by the label. While unclear whether the singer has a strong opinion on the matter, it is becoming evident that the industry is utilizing the platform for everything it offers. While some like Halsey and Charli XCX seem dubious of embracing the app, others claim that it’s simply a new age upgrade of an already existing concept: MTV.
When music television first arrived on the airwaves in 1981, the music industry as we knew it changed forever. Artists were now not only in the business of recording and performing music—they had to give it a “look”. This brought music marketing to a whole new level. Performers were not just promoting their music; they were promoting themselves through design and production. In 1983, Michael Jackson found success after the premiere of the “Thriller” music video, changing the way people consumed music as a product. MTV created a sort of culture for youth, and acquired a following that defined a generation. In the same way that older generations scoffed at the emerging channel and its counterculture-driven content, older generations now refuse to accept TikTok as a cultural influence. In many ways, the platforms are extremely similar. The biggest difference is the availability and shareability of content.
TikTok’s influence on modern music charts has been undeniable. Singer and rapper Lil Nas X found overnight fame after his song “Old Town Road” went viral on the app in 2019. The song charted at No. 1 for 19 consecutive weeks, which became the longest-running No. 1 in Hot 100 history. Other artists like Lizzo have also gone on to achieve TikTok song stardom, with her 2022 hit “About Damn Time” even inspiring its own dance trend.
The app’s affinity for popularizing music has not been restricted to the new and modern, and has helped legacy artists like Elton John find themselves once again in the mainstream. Many of his songs have been used in video trends, and his 2021 release with Dua Lipa, “Cold Heart,” became extremely popular. Season 5 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” featured the 1985 Kate Bush hit “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” which then blew up on TikTok. The platform’s capability to spread popular content like wildfire has proven itself not just full of possibility for new artists, but potentially profitable for “old” artists in a new era.
TikTok as a platform has unquestionably changed the landscape of social media and online spaces, and its function has allowed the average person to reach potentially millions of people.
The debate over its viability has been multifaceted and ongoing, and will probably continue as long as the app exists. One thing is for certain, though: the way music culture has evolved under the app’s influence is undeniable, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon.
Nicole Damron is a senior majoring in Arts and Humanities and Professional and Public Writing with a minor in Spanish. She aspires to work as a culture and entertainment writer, potentially freelance. In her leisure time Nicole enjoys playing guitar and trumpet, true crime, listening to music, and sleeping in concerningly late.