With more time stuck indoors, many of us stumbled upon TikTok in 2020. The social media phenomenon resulted in millions upon millions of people collectively shimmying to some form of viral song in front of our smartphone cameras. Cue 2021 and lockdown 3.0, and it’s a safe bet that the hordes will be returning to TikTok – if they ever left! Lewis Oakley at Milk and Honey PR says, “consumers are watching more short-form videos than they did six months ago,” with short form videos on TikTok proving a “popular form of escapism and a welcome source of entertainment”. Undoubtedly, the next viral dance trend is about to emerge, and spend too much time on the app and you’ll have a song whirring around in your head as you try to fall asleep at night.
Inevitably, the increased consumption of music on the app spreads onto streaming services. Think of Spotify’s ‘Viral Hits’ playlist: it’s jam-packed with songs, all of which were recently categorised as ‘TikTok songs’. It seems that virality = streaming, and streaming = chart influence. A prime example of this was Nathan Apodaca, an Idaho-based labourer, who posted a TikTok of him on a skateboard, lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’. In the following week, ‘Dreams’ was streamed 8.5 million times in the US alone and returned to the Top 100 in the UK for the first time since it was featured in Glee in 2011.
Mick Fleetwood himself took part in the viral trend
So just how impactful is TikTok on the music charts? Social media agency owner Luisa Christie – who previously worked at Atlantic Records UK as Influencer Marketing Lead – directs us back to 2019, where the TikTok musical revolution began. “Record labels began noticing that a good dance or challenge could be attractive when applied to a song release – new or old – which influenced the song moving up the charts,” she says. “At Atlantic Records, we initially booked Instagram and Youtube campaigns, but with the rise of TikTok, and its direct impact on chart positioning for tracks, we started to create budgets specifically for TikTok”.
So from a record label’s point of view, the fact you couldn’t escape the ‘Dance Monkey’ trend last April was entirely intentional. Some may say that this tarnishes the music charts, while others will argue that it is marketing genius. Regardless, Luisa sums it up perfectly: “Music is all about earworms – when you start seeing a challenge or dance it gets stuck in your head, then people will naturally gravitate to listen to the full track”. And when millions of people head to Spotify to listen to their new favourite song, we’re going to see it fly up the charts faster than the speed of light, due to the streaming provider’s growing dominance.
Record labels aren’t the only ones who are noticing the repercussions of TikTok: artists are too. American duo coverboys have amassed 1.1 million followers on the platform. They describe their experience with TikTok in 2020 to The Indiependent as “absolutely amazing”, adding that it “really changed our lives and gave us a whole new range of connections and fans who have become like family to us”.
Is the concept of connection perhaps an alternative angle, not previously considered, when we look at the charts? We’ve already explored the concept of song virality. However, for the vast majority of artists, while TikTok is the easiest platform to go viral on, they will have to go the extra mile in order to have their tracks noticed and then consequently streamed. This is achieved through the act of forming relationships with listeners – something that coverboys have really capitalised on.
While the boys say that the platform hasn’t really influenced their sound or music, they did say that “people have found our music through our TikTok bio and it has gotten way more exposure for us”. Maybe the creation of TikTok content in addition to a viral song is the key for an artist, then. Creating alternative appealing content may result in increased traffic to the artists profile, and then they may watch their streaming figures soar as a result.
The last two years have seen record labels and artists alike utilise the ability to grow on TikTok, both because of the music itself, and the creation of videos besides music resulting in a traffic surge. Each of these methods have ultimately benefitted all parties involved: with music reaching corners of the globe that could only once be dreamed of.
Following their success on the platform in 2020, coverboys plan to do more of the same in 2021: “We plan on a whole rebranding, with the focus being a proper rollout of high quality original music and music videos.”
With more original music being pumped out, it seems like we’re going to be finding a whole new group of artists to keep us preoccupied. While many of us follow a trend highlighted by Luisa Christie – “we have an account but aren’t posting content, especially whilst being at home” – we have the power to determine who should have that privileged number one spot in our hands, through who we gravitate towards the most on TikTok. In previous years, we may have sourced our popular music taste from the radio, as we listened on the way to work or school. But with more time spent indoors, more of us are finding new music for ourselves: with the highly personal AI algorithm behind TikTok, the charts have never been more personal.
A significant proportion of people praise TikTok for enhancing, or as Lilly Brown stated, “doing bits for”, their music taste. Cerys Turner described it as a “great way to find more obscure songs by smaller artists” and also adds that “if you get your algorithm right, you can find some really great accounts who recommend Spotify playlists and different songs”. Naturally, as more people stumble on these accounts (and consequently songs), we will see the music charts shift.
Many people we’ve spoken to describe TikTok’s influence on the charts as “annoying”, “inauthentic”, with one individual even referring to the charts as a “sham” now, because of digital platforms. One person we spoke to addressed that whilst the charts definitely demonstrate “the extent of the reach” of TikTok, the music itself making the charts “isn’t to my [their] taste”.
Perhaps TikTok is providing a gateway to a wider debate, though. Maybe the definition of what the charts really consist of is evolving. Rather than simply a popularity contest, the charts today are arguably a more accurate representation of an effective marketing plan by the artist: both with regards to the track itself and the release plan thereafter, including social media strategy – more so than in previous years.
So, in lockdown 3.0 will you scroll more mindfully? Are you going to jump over to Spotify to give that irritatingly enticing tune ‘just one listen’, or perhaps give it a miss and instead give that stream to a track you feel should be placed on the charts instead? Do you like the charts being influenced by the app? Some in this camp, such as Kat Smith, finds music snobbery “very annoying”, summing it up by concluding that “when songs I already like [from TikTok] go viral I’m not vexed like some people!”
Regardless of where you position yourself in the debate, it’s abundantly clear to see that the charts in 2021 will continue to be shaped by this mobile app.
Words by Niamh Ingram
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