Is TikTok Bad for the Music Industry?
TikTok does a lot of good things for the music industry, but it harms music as a whole by incentivizing the proliferation of fake viral hits, being based on an unfair revenue system, having too much power over music creators, and creating shorter attention spans by being extremely addictive.
There’s still a lot more to learn about TikTok, and the fact is that the ins and outs of how the app’s algorithm works continue to be, for the most part, a complete mystery. However, what we already know about TikTok and its influence on pop culture should be enough to analyze how it benefits (and harms) the music industry.
In a nutshell, TikTok is bad for the music industry because it takes the focus away from the quality of the songs and places it on how well a song performs on the app. Below, I will explain how even the best things about TikTok can have a negative impact on music when put into a different context.
TikTok makes unknown artists go big
Overnight success is the dream of every unknown musician trying to make it; that’s something that TikTok does better than arguably any other online platform in the world.
The New Zealand singer Benee, for example, became a household name once her song “Supalonely” hit close to seven billion views on TikTok – all because of a viral challenge.
Benee is not alone; other examples of overnight TikTok hits include “Lottery” by K Camp, “death bed” by Powfu, and the Imanbek Slap-House remix for “Roses,” by SAINt JHN.
So, there’s no denying that TikTok provides unknown musicians with the chance of becoming famous from one day to the next. This means that there are more opportunities for small-time artists in the music industry now than before TikTok hit the scene.
It also makes big artists bigger
TikTok is a highway to music success, and it has already helped numerous previously-unknown artists. However, the app has also been (and will continue to be) extensively explored by major record labels trying to make money out of already-established acts.
Drake’s “Toosie Slide” makes for the perfect example of how TikTok helps major artists to become even bigger. The song was released at a moment TikTok was quickly becoming the world’s most popular new social media platform, and it was clearly manufactured to become a TikTok hit.
“Toosie Slide” sounds like a desperate attempt to go big on TikTok, to the point of featuring a TikTok-ready passage with the following lyrics:
It go, right foot up, left foot slide
Left foot up, right foot slide
Basically, I’m saying either way, we ’bout to slide, ayy
Can’t let this one slide, ayy
This type of dance-instruction pop song wasn’t popular at least since the 90s and doesn’t fit well with the rest of Drake’s catalog. However, it’s perfect for a viral TikTok challenge. The music video for “Toosie Slide” is also telling of the song’s bias towards TikTok, showing Drake performing a not-so-elaborate choreography that everybody can copy at home.
So, what’s the problem? Can’t Drake make a song for TikTok if he wants to? Well, the problem is that making songs just so they can do well on TikTok (or any other social media platform) puts a creative restraint on the artist from the very start. And while Drake has never complained about being pressured to make a TikTok hit, others have done so…
The American singer-songwriter Halsey, for example, used TikTok to let her fans know that her label Astralwerks was preventing her from releasing a song just because they wanted to create a fake viral moment on TikTok for it first. If Drake’s “Toosie Slide” is a subtle example of how record labels can manufacture viral TikTok hits, Halsey’s confession is the blunt evidence we needed.
TikTok helps to generate more revenue for artists
It’s hard to make a living as a musician in this day and age, but emerging social media platforms such as TikTok sure come in handy. It’s always a good thing when musicians find a new way of making money, and that’s precisely what TikTok is.
According to Music Business Worldwide (MBW), TikTok paid music rightsholders close to $180 million in a single year. Every time there’s a revenue injection this big in the music industry, that can only mean good news for everyone involved, from artists and record labels to managers and audio engineers.
But not nearly enough
It’s hard to argue with the fact that $180 million is a lot of money. But once you look at the big picture, it starts sounding like a very disappointing number.
While TikTok has effectively made many musicians richer, it has also denied them the opportunity of being fairly compensated. As stated in the aforementioned MBW article, TikTok is far from being generous to music rightsholders, as it pays them a mere 4.5% of their overall revenue. According to data from a Goldman Sachs report, even Peloton (that’s right, the fitness company) pays a higher percentage of its revenue to music rightsholders!
Considering that TikTok started as a dance and lip-sync app with an exclusive database of 30-second snippets of music for content creators to use, it’s almost shocking that it pays musicians less than a company selling smart exercise bikes.
When you add up the fact that TikTok pays musicians not per view, but per video using their song, (as explained by the YouTuber Andrew Southworth) it becomes clear that the app’s revenue system is extremely unfair to music rightsholders.
TikTok is the world’s largest music app
Since it’s fair to say that TikTok can be considered a music app, then it has become abundantly clear that it’s the largest music app in the world. While Spotify has been around for longer, it poses no threat to TikTok’s fanbase. Data from October 2022 shows that TikTok has 750 million active users against Spotify’s 433 million.
Once again, this means that there are plenty of opportunities for artists trying to make it. While TikTok has a bad rep amongst musicians, I can’t argue with the fact that it does help people to connect with music.
As TikTok users scroll through hundreds and hundreds of 30-second-long videos every day, they’re also being continuously exposed to music – this doesn’t happen, at least with the same intensity, on other popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. Given its gigantic scale, it’s undeniable that TikTok has allowed millions of people to learn from, get inspired by, or simply have fun with music.
But it has probably become too big
So, TikTok is arguably the best music-promoting platform in the world right now. But is the sheer volume of music getting promoted more important than how the music is getting promoted?
My point is that, while TikTok has inspired millions of people to love music, it has also heavily constrained the access millions of people have to music. As stated by a second MBW article, “75% of TikTok users say they discover new artists on the platform.” This is bad for two main reasons:
TikTok isn’t the ideal place for finding new music
Streaming platforms such as Spotify present music listeners with an eclectic catalog of full songs, but TikTok blasts them with 30-second snippets of the same viral song over and over again. What’s worse is that TikTok songs aren’t valued by themselves, but because of the video content that’s attached to them.
This means that TikTok users aren’t exactly discovering new music, but discovering new TikTok videos that happen to feature songs they didn’t know yet. Oh, and not the full song: just a seconds-long passage that hardly makes for a legitimate music-listening experience.
TikTok has too big a hold on the music industry
When millions of people use TikTok as their main music-finding app, there’s not much the music industry can do to fight back. In a nutshell, music professionals depend on TikTok, and not the other way around. TikTok is essentially too big to adapt to the needs of the music rightsholders it constantly explores. Given the app’s rapid expansion, there’s no reason to believe TikTok will get any less powerful in the future.
TikTok’s impact on music listeners
I’ve talked about how TikTok means good (but mainly bad) news for the music industry. But what’s the impact of TikTok on music listeners?
According to The Science Times, TikTok has helped to narrow humanity’s collective attention span, which reportedly sits at a staggering eight seconds. The Science Times also states that too much TikTok can be bad for one’s brain and aggravate mental health issues.
In sum, TikTok is dangerously addictive. So more addictive than any other social media platform that everybody, from Instagram to YouTube, has decided to copy its short-video format! But how does this negatively impact music as a whole?
Well, shorter attention spans hurt music creators. If not all music creators, at least the music creators who put artistry over profit and want to make songs that last more than 30 seconds and demand a little bit of effort from the listener.
I love music, and I’m fine with one-minute-long, social-media-ready pop hits; but what will happen to alternative, erudite, and experimental musicians once cheap TikTok pop is the only “genre” most people will want to listen to?
While it seems a bit too harsh to say that TikTok is “helping” music listeners to become more ignorant, it’s more than reasonable to assume that it utterly ignores music creators who are trying to push the envelope, challenge pre-established formats, and create outside-the-box music that will inevitably never sit right with a viral TikTok challenge or choreography.
From Musical.ly to TikTok
TikTok is a social media platform based in China that allows its users to create and view short videos with a maximum duration of 10 minutes. TikTok became the most downloaded app in the United States in October 2018, shortly after merging with the music-sharing app Musical.ly (also based in China). It has since become one of the most popular and fast-growing social media platforms in the world.
TikTok’s rapid expansion can be explained by how the app works. Users are exposed to semi-random content mainly comprised of 15 to 30-second-long videos exploring all sorts of topics and creating clips that can be easily recorded, edited, and shared inside the app.
TikTok is also filled with viral and wannabe-viral videos; popular TikTok challenges, for example, tend to be performed by millions of content creators and are heavily backed by celebrities and influencers. These videos tend to be accompanied by a short snippet of a song, meaning that songs featured in viral TikTok content usually become chart-topping hits.
But how does TikTok decide which videos and songs become viral or not? According to this LinkedIn article, TikTok’s algorithm tests new content by exposing it to 500 random users and analyzing how it performs. If the video does well in terms of views, shares, likes, and video completion, then it gets to the feeds of more and more users.
TikTok content creators will inevitably try to adapt to the way the app’s algorithm works to get more views and make more money. The video completion factor (whether viewers watch the whole video or not) has directly incentivized creators to make videos and songs as short as possible. However, there’s no evidence showing that shorter content equals better content.
When it comes to music, TikTok is different from other music-based platforms. While most streaming and music-sharing services pay music rightsholders per view, TikTok does so per video that uses the song. This means that musicians get paid when their songs are uploaded to a video made by a TikTok content creator, not when videos containing their songs are viewed.
This is an opinion article on how TikTok has impacted, in both good and bad ways, the music industry. Generally, TikTok seems to have more negatives than positives (from a music professional’s perspective), but that doesn’t mean there’s still a tiny window of room for change. Hope, as the famous expression goes, is the last to die.