Music Columnist


Fred Bruce investigates the influence of social media sensation TikTok and why we shouldn’t discredit the “sounds” of today’s generation.

A defining part of our millennial zeitgeist, Vine’s climb to the forefront of our collective consciousness was unlike anything the world had seen previously. Purchased by Twitter for $30m before its release to the public, the platform’s instant career-launching success happened almost overnight. By December 2015, Vine had around 200m global downloads.

Today, TikTok has over 2bn. 

TikTok’s status in the western mainstream boomed in the middle of 2018 upon its merging with lip-sync app Musical.ly, a name that may horrify or confuse you depending on your internet usage in the last decade. However, to label TikTok merely a platform to share choreographed lip-syncs does it, and its frighteningly large user base, a disservice. It hosts a smorgasbord of bitesize content spanning the entire sub-60-second entertainment spectrum, from cooking to crafting to comedy to contests.

The lifeblood of TikTok is its cornucopia of songs, labelled “sounds”. Earlier this year, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance struck a deal with three of the biggest names in the industry – Sony, Universal, and Warner – giving the app access to their entire music libraries. Alongside these three, reports estimate ByteDance has around 8,000 licencing deals active at the moment. This impossibly vast and constantly updated collection of tracks gives the TikTok community limitless content opportunities. 

So far, so typical of entertainment. Where TikTok eclipses its predecessors, outside its sheer scale of operations, is the app’s unprecedented reach outside its own bubble. While Vine may have permanently altered the Gen Z lexicon, its cultural impact outside that niche is negligible. TikTok, however, has launched artists into superstardom. 

A combination of dance challenges and memes have seen musicians rise from unknown to viral sensations at an unheard-of rate. Anyone with a smartphone and an ego disorder can call themselves an influencer, but TikTok stars wield an undeniable amount of power in the music industry today. For example, see country-trap hybrid Blanco Brown’s first-ever single The Git Up which shot to the top of the app following a dance craze initiated by TikTokker Ajani Huff. Huff, his 4 million followers, and the TikTok community as a unit sent the song to No. 1 on the US Hot Country charts. 

It’s TikTok’s consistent real-world impact that makes it such an intriguing phenomenon. Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road started life as a grassroots meme that quickly spread across the internet. By his own admission, Lil Nas X made “about a hundred” memes of his debut single and posted them across social media, but TikTok was where the tune found fame. Today the track has over 1bn streams on Spotify, and the rapper has six Grammy nominations and a Glastonbury Pyramid Stage appearance across a career that can be measured in months.

In the not very distant past, Musical.ly and its ilk were seen as jokes, apps that no one confessed to owning yet remained inexplicitly chart-topping. Despite this reputational baggage, TikTok’s platform of consumer-generated and curated content has proven time and again to be a cost-free publicity dream. The industry as a whole seems to be catching on, with leading data analysts Chartmetric hosting five unique TikTok charts showing what songs, creators, and videos have been on the rise. 

The app’s impact on the business is an undeniable phenomenon, but where does it end? Only time will tell.


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