Social short music video app TikTok is on fire with 500 million monthly users, 66% of whom are under 30 years of age. But how to market music on Tik Tok remains a mystery for many. Frank Woodworth of Glacial Concepts unlocks why the platform works so well for music discovery and marketing, as well as how to get started.
Much of the music industry conversation surrounding TikTok has been centered on the platform’s ability to identify new songs and stars. It’s credited with the success of the record-breaking hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, as well as the success of Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” and the signing (by Atlantic Records) of Sueco the Child, whose track “Fast” garnered 17 million Spotify plays after he seeded a clip from the song with a popular creator on Tik Tok. This spurred a slate of articles focusing on TikTok as the new source for A&R. Lost in this A&R gold rush, as scouts scour the service for the next big thing, is a strategy for established artists to take advantage of the platform for marketing and fanbase growth.
When I was at Eleven Seven Music, I learned the concept of creating song familiarity for radio call-out. The idea was to ensure the hook of a track was heard enough times by the listening public to receive a high familiarity rating in radio station focus groups. The higher the rating was in the station research, the more likely the song was to receive airplay. The more airplay a song receives the more likely fans are to purchase music or concert tickets by that artist. Familiarity breeds affinity in music rather than contempt.
Variations of that concept are the core drivers behind all music marketing. Radio play, synch placements, and streaming playlists are all attempts at increasing something I call audio affinity. And with the advent of Tik Tok, the music industry now has access to essentially an audio affinity machine.
The basic mechanics of Tik Tok are that a user creates a short video accompanied by a backing sound clip. This clip can either be a track included on the service or an original sound recorded by the creator. Most videos fall between 15 and 30 seconds, with an upper limit of 60 seconds. (Popular creators are given the ability to post longer videos.) These short-form videos are viewed by followers, or (and this is the secret sauce of Tik Tok), surfaced through something called the “For You Page”, or #FYP, which algorithmically showcases videos to its userbase. Viewers are then given the option to use the same backing sound clip to create their own video and the process repeats.
The platform’s user experience creates two conditions that make it particularly useful for music marketing.
- First, because of its algorithm, a Tik Tok creator can reach a large audience without necessarily having a lot of followers and this allows for any video to potentially reach significant view counts, increasing the opportunity for it to become viral.
- Second, a trending song will naturally be copied by other creators and can reach astonishingly high numbers of aggregate listens. Rather than having just one viral video, a trending song on Tik Tok can be associated with thousands or even millions of viral videos. It is exponential or multi-viral promotion.
For a creator, this process means it doesn’t require as much dedicated or consistent posting to gain a following, as is the case with Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. This should be appealing to music creatives who can already feel overwhelmed by the best practices posting frequency needed to build a fanbase on the other social networks. This should also be appealing to music company budgets, as it doesn’t require a significant advertising spend to amass followers.
In order to best take advantage of the opportunity the platform provides artists should spend time learning the core formats that most videos follow on Tik Tok. These include dances and lip-syncs, challenges, and audio memes.
Dances and lip-syncs are the simplest interaction within Tik Tok. The app is an evolution of Musical.ly, which was a popular platform that only focused on lip-syncing (and, by extension, the accompanying dances).
It’s been true since the days of Chubby Checker and “The Twist” that creating a popular dance to accompany a song can turn an ordinary track into a sensation. This is exactly how “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown broke through on Tik Tok. The song itself explains how to do its signature dance, much like “The Electric Slide,” “The Macarena,” Dem Franchize Boyz’ “Lean Wit It Rock It” or Soulja Boy’s “Superman.” “The Git Up,” which will surely be a staple at weddings for years to come, is a great case study on how to become Tik Tok famous. Come up with a fun dance, set it to music, and watch the Tik Tok algorithm rocket the track to the top of the charts. Of course, it’s not easy to write a popular track that also explains how to do a dance. And while it’s possible to rattle off many popular tracks that follow the formula, taken as a whole this is a very small fraction of the popular music canon.
A song does not have to be specifically about a dance in order to have an accompanying dance sensation. The 2015 track "Til The Morning" by DJ Charisma and Chris brown is an interesting example of this kind of success on the app. The track was never a hit, but a 30-second breakdown in the middle is catchy as hell calling out the refrain, “party party party.” A Tik Tok creator, named faniibabyy, uploaded the sound clip for that perfect moment in the song, another user created a simple dance to that hook, and then it took on a life of its own. The song is not even available on Spotify or Apple Music but has 7.5 million different videos using its sound clip on Tik Tok, totaling hundreds of millions of listens.
Almost every day there is a new dance that spreads through the app with an accompanying tutorial. At the same time, there is new choreography being developed by musicians for their tours and videos. This seems like a natural match. To promote a tour or a music video, the artist could produce a short video highlighting dance moves that fans can expect to see on stage or in the music video. Then they could create a follow-up video tutorial on how to do the moves, perhaps with the choreographer to make fans feel like they are behind the scenes. This idea could be extended to hair and makeup, or any process of creation. By giving fans a simple dance to learn and to enjoy while listening to the music, the artist is both making a connection with existing fans and increasing the likelihood of finding new fans who discover their music after participating in that dance’s trend.
A challenge is an action or endeavor that is meant to be copied by another person. This idea has been popular for a very long time, going back to flagpole sitting in the 1920s or stuffing students in a phone booth in the 1950s. More recently, social media platforms have been taken over by popular challenges like the “ice bucket challenge” for ALS awareness, and the more recent “bottlecap challenge” where people attempt to uncap a bottle with only a kick.
Some challenges become associated with a particular song. A good example of this, before Tik Tok, is the “mannequin challenge,” wherein a group of friends stays perfectly still like mannequins. The mannequin challenge became a key driver in the success of the Rae Semmrund song, "Black Beatles," after a student uploaded a very compelling iteration of the challenge at their school with "Black Beatles" as the backing track. Other participants began using the song for their own mannequin challenge videos and before long nearly all mannequin challenge videos used “Black Beatles” as their accompanying track. It was a great song, but it was out for a long time before anyone took notice. Once it became associated with the mannequin challenge though, the song gained awareness, which their label was able to leverage through radio promotion and other traditional media to elevate the song to a number one hit in January 2017.
Tik Tok makes this behavior natural, because when using the platform, users are encouraged to automatically use the same sound clip in their attempt at the challenge. As more and more users take on the challenge, the song takes off. The Iggy Azalea “Work” challenge consists of walking in something other than shoes to the lines "Walked a mile in these Louboutins." Kids are strapping boxes, cakes, chairs, cars, cups, glasses or even traffic cones on their feet while attempting to walk. They usually fall down. The “Work” sound clip has over 250,000 videos on Tik Tok because of this challenge.
Another interesting example is the “100% challenge” for Lizzo’s hit “Truth Hurts.” In this challenge, a user swabs the inside of their mouth during the lyrics “I just took a DNA test” and then reveals a paper with “100%” written down on their tongue to coincide with the rest of the lyric. While there were many factors that contributed to Lizzo’s breakout success this year, this challenge certainly helped.
Challenges are also where Tik Tok has sold ideas to brands. There’s now a #ZitHappens challenge live on the app (sponsored by Alba Botanica) wherein users are creating videos that show the supposed improvement of their face from acne after using the product with a transformation edit popular on Tik Tok. The challenge has more than 151 million combined views seamlessly integrating with mechanics of the platform.
A natural application of the challenge strategy for the music industry would be to create a branded Tik Tok challenge and deputize popular creators to use a specific track in the hopes of going viral. As an integrated marketing initiative, musicians could also partner with larger brands on their Tik Tok partnership to provide the backing track for a corporate branded challenge.
The Tik Tok community has also started playing within the constraints of the platform to invent new memes that pair text with the audio of a track. I have been calling them audio memes. I think this is where music artists have the best opportunities to participate in the Tik Tok community.
A typical example is a sound clip from the 2010 track “Eenie Meenie” by Justin Bieber and Sean Kingston. The audio meme for this sound is the lyric “Let me show you what you have been missing…paradise.” The typical set up begins with an empty room. The creator then overlays text as the clip begins describing a condition that the audience has theoretically never experienced. Lastly, the creator pops into the picture as the embodiment of that condition. The lyrics play and insinuate that the creator is paradise. One example of the setup is the text “ To
all those who have never dated a tall person before.” As the lyric cues the tall person will stand up, creating a mixed media message where the answer is the audience has been missing paradise which in this case is the creator who is a tall person. This format is infinitely copyable. This meme has been created with a short guy/girl, person with one arm, person who received 1600 on their SATs, person who drives a Toyota Camry, and so on. The meme is that the user with this specific trait is so great to be around that it is literally paradise.
This is a fun audio meme for concert announcements, e.g. “to all of you who have never been to the Electric Daisy Carnival (or Coachella, or a Travis Scott show, etc.) paired with clips of the festival, concert, or show that highlight how great it is to be there.
E-40’s song “Choices (Yup)” is another popular audio meme. The track, originally released in 2016, starts off with a refrain of “Nope…yup” with silent beats in between. Creators have been using it to field mock Q&A sessions about their lives. These can be universal, or hyper-specific. There are Q&As about being adopted, about going into senior year, about having a twin, and about being rich or poor. Each meme uses this same format; starting off with a question where the answer is first “nope” than “yup.” This would be a good way for an artist to do an interview without having to say a word.
For artists who are already popular on Tik Tok, there’s an opportunity to participate in a “meta audio meme” that incorporates their own track the way the users already have been.
If Justin Bieber created a Tik Tok for the “Paradise” audio meme with text along the lines of “if you are not following me on Tik Tok…” then cued the lyric “Let me show you what you’ve been missing…paradise.” it might break the internet. It would also be really fun to see Iggy Azalea do the “Work” Challenge by just strapping on a pair of Louboutins or fully participating with her own bizarre choice of footwear. And we should only be so lucky if Lizzo participates in the DNA test audio meme.
If an artist is fortunate enough to have the world create a popular meme for their track, then they should take that opportunity to participate in its virality. It’s more likely to have an impact than a Tik Tok video created on their own, and it shows that the artist is part of the community.
Tik Tok is the fastest-growing social network in the world right now. Of its 1.2 billion users, more than 100 million live in the United States. Artists should be sure to have a Tik Tok account and engage in this community and Tik Tok should be appealing for musicians because the sound clips take on their own lives and do not require the same amount of consistent time investment as other platforms to gain a following.
Tik Tok also doesn’t require an artist to have a large following in order for their video to reach a significant audience. Each video lives on its own merit. Lil Nas X, Blanco Brown, and Sueco The Child each only have a few videos up on their page, and none of them are at the top of the “Popular Creator” ladder, but they were all successes driven by the Tik Tok community. This is not the case on other social media platforms, where follower count strongly correlates with platform success. Case in point: Lizzo is embraced throughout the Tik Tok platform but currently only has three posted videos and 26k followers.
These artists and others broke through in part thanks to their Tik Tok success, but there’s another opportunity for established artists to leverage the platform mechanics to promote their music and live shows. Most artists are also performers, and Tik Tok is a fun platform in which to perform. And because of its unique mechanics, participation on Tik Tok has a real chance of growing the awareness of musicians and their work.
Tik Tok accelerates the audio affinity process because it directly incorporates repetition into its mechanics. Historically, it could take weeks or months or even longer through traditional channels to build enough familiarity to move the needle on track. A trending sound clip on Tik Tok can gain the same awareness level in a fraction of the time. This audio affinity can then be leveraged through traditional media to create true impact for the artist.
The first step to success is getting on the platform and spending time to determine which trending memes or challenges fall within the artist’s sensibility. Things change fast on Tik Tok. In the course of writing this article, some of the examples I cited are already outdated and no longer part of the zeitgeist, but the core principle of looking at an audio meme and finding its connection to an artist’s music or style does not change. For the foreseeable future, Tik Tok will be a platform that drives real engagement for musical artists and their work, and the music industry would be wise to take advantage of the marketing opportunities possible through the platform.