Download E-Magazine

    Is TikTok changing the music industry?

    Dianne-Apen Sadler

    An exploration of the social platform's impact on chart-topping hits and the creative process

    It’s not an exaggeration to say that TikTok is everywhere. If you’re not on TikTok, you watch Instagram reels, which more often than not feature content taken from TikTok. And if you’re not on either platform, your friends are talking to you about, or showing you, the latest trends from the apps over WhatsApp or IRL. You might also catch short clips on X (formerly known as Twitter), or even your Facebook feed. 

    The social media platform, which launched internationally in September 2017, is the definition of ubiquitous. And there’s one place where we can feel the full brunt of its cultural force: The charts. A quick glance at the Billboard Global 200 offers up several trending sounds in the top 20, like Jack Harlow’s grooving-in-your-seat LovinOn Me, Tate McRae’s Greedy (which hit the big time thanks to Sabrina Bahsoon, aka Tube Girl), and Doja Cat’s Paint the Town Red, which the internet can’t seem to get enough of despite having a release date in August last year. 

    The symbiotic relationship isn’t a new concept, either – in an interview with Apple Music back in 2021, the singer Adele remarked, “If everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making the music for my generation?” So, are artists really making music for the platform, or is it more of a chicken-and-egg situation where the song is headed for the charts anyway before climbing ever higher thanks to content creators using it as a backing track for recipes, skincare routines or mundane clips of everyday life?

    A (brief) history of new music boosted by the platform sheds some insight. Just over a year after its release in markets outside of China, TikTok catapulted its first star to fame: Lil Nas X. The Yeehaw Challenge, which had its beginnings in December 2018, helped Old Town Road find viral success, culminating in a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus in April 2019 which climbed to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Then, while we were all confined to our homes and our social circle shrunk to those in our household during the Covid-19 pandemic, Iceland’s Eurovision 2020 entry from Daði Freyr, Think About Things, created an inescapable dance trend and led to the song reaching the UK top 40 despite that year’s song contest being cancelled. Another pandemic-related trend sprouted from the artistic endeavour Bo Burnham: Inside, with the three moods trend featuring lyrics from Welcome to the Internet, Look Who’s Inside Again, and Bezos I in 2021, with the album topping Billboard’s Comedy Albums chart. In more recent memory, Mae Stephen’s released the unofficial breakup song for TikTok users, If We Ever Broke Up, which reached the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart.

    While you may stumble upon big tracks via your TikTok for you page, music-lovers are also using the platform to actively pursue new songs, with 48.8 billion views globally and 1.2 billion views in the MENA region of #NewMusic over the last six months. Capitalising on this, the platform launched the ‘Add to Music App’ feature, which allows users to directly save over their favourite songs to Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music, in November 2023 in the US and the UK, before expanding to countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia in December.

    Georges Josh Rouhana, music promotion and programming manager METAPSA at TikTok, says, “With its distinctive format, enabling creators to share bite-sized music moments, whether through catchy original compositions, impressive covers, or by initiating trends with their music, TikTok empowers artists to communicate their musical talents in just a few seconds.”

    He adds, “A prime testament to TikTok’s impact on the music industry lies in its role in propelling emerging artists, such as Kouz1, Bayou, Liamsi, and LLUNR, into the spotlight. 

    “These gifted musicians have not only found a home on TikTok but have utilised the platform to gain exposure and connect with a broad audience, captivating listeners with their distinct styles and creative interpretations. Their success stands as a testament to TikTok’s unparalleled influence on shaping the future of music discovery and artist promotion,” Rouhana concludes.

    While there are some exceptions, the key to creating a TikTok-friendly video is perfectly syncing a series of clips or pictures to a sound. With songs that find viral success, they typically have a really catchy beat that can match multiple clips or a distinct ‘drop’ that can be used for a transition, with remixes from creators like @ianasher and @altegomusic consistently trending; alternatively, many have lyrics that capture the mood of the moment, like Em Beihold’s Numb Little Bug, which peaked at number one on Billboard’s US Adult Top 40 after its release in 2022. 

    UAE-based singer-songwriter Ghaliaa, who has more than two million likes and nearly 300,000 followers on TikTok, has utilised both to help boost her music on the platform. “I believe success in music is not just about hitting the right notes… it’s about creating this melody particularly with the right lyrics that resonate with the hearts of many. There is also beauty in sharing it with a community like TikTok where they see you and hear you as you are,” she says.

    Of course, the same could be said of any pop song, with catchy choruses a key element to success in the charts. Which could explain why many of the trending songs that follow the so-called ‘TikTok music formula’ actually pre-date the platform.

    In 2020, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit Dreams had a resurgence off the back of skateboarding TikToker @420doggface208 lip syncing to the song while enjoying a refreshing bottle of cranberry juice, peaking at number nine on Billboard’s Hot 100, while in the summer of 2022, Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush found new fans among TikTokers thanks to Stranger Things, going on to become her second UK number one 44 years after Wuthering Heights peaked in 1978. 

    Hounds of Love by Kate Bush

    Similarly, Netflix’s Wednesday spawned the Bloody Mary Challenge, which led to Lady Gaga releasing the song from her second studio album, Born This Way, as a single more than a decade after it came out (and filming her own version of the dance on TikTok), with the track going on to peak at number 22 in the UK singles chart. And now, the soundtrack to Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn has become the soundtrack to our FYP (For You Page), and the charts, with two tracks dominating the airwaves: Murder on the Dancefloor by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and Mason vs Princess Superstar’s Perfect (Exceeder), with the former number 10 on Billboard’s Global Hot 200, and the latter number 26 on the UK singles chart at the time of writing.

    After being released in late December, rom-com Anybody but You has seen Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten reach a new generation, two decades on and it spread like wildfire on TikTok. But another song from the British singer had a resurgence long before this in 2010 after the release of Easy A, in which Emma Stone’s character gets the playful song Pocketful of Sunshine stuck in her head. 

    It seem that any catchy pop song, or ear worm, has the potential to go viral on TikTok and then make it to the charts, whether it was discovered, or re-discovered, directly on the app or made its way into the trending sounds section thanks to a separate pop culture moment. But with the average time spent on TikTok coming in at 46 minutes (according to Statista), and with the ideal video length generally accepted as being in between 21 and 34 seconds, we might just have the impression that we’re constantly listening to the same kind of songs, rather than  taking into account the amount of content we’re consuming. Which begs the question – should we try and spend less time on the app, perhaps?

    You May Also Like