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TikTok 101: The Music Edition
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January 26th, 2022

By Meagan Loyst, Founder of Gen Z VCs & Investor at Lerer Hippeau

So tell me about TikTok… and why music?

Even if you don’t understand TikTok or why it’s so popular, you’ve likely heard of it. TikTok has become a part of the cultural zeitgeist: shaping trends, minting new influencers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, and monopolizing the free time of Gen Z and young millennials all over the world. Even speaking from personal experience, I spend more time on TikTok than any other app, averaging a whopping 14 hours a week… and I’m not alone. TikTok achieved the north star “1 billion monthly active users” metric in half the time as Instagram/Facebook/YouTube, largely because of the way TikTok indexes towards entertainment, virality/discovery, and shared experiences.

I average 14 hours a week on TikTok, which far surpasses time spent on any other app.
I average 14 hours a week on TikTok, which far surpasses time spent on any other app.

So… what’s the secret sauce here? Why is TikTok capturing the minds and hearts of Gen Z in a way that other apps are failing to do at scale? In my humble opinion, it’s music. There is no TikTok without trending sounds, which is at the core of the user experience and drives a beautiful mixture of creativity among users, virality in trends, and discovery for artists/musicians. Put simply, music is the connective tissue that makes TikTok magical, and also viral.

There’s a lot to unpack on TikTok holistically, but this article will focus entirely on how music is uniting millions of users all over the world on the app, and simultaneously minting the next generation of artists & musicians. This is a big claim, but I think we’ll see more new artists emerge from TikTok over the next decade than any other platform.

And this is important for everyone, not just artists – IP holders, brands, corporations, startups, and filmmakers alike are utilizing TikTok sounds to create brand value, reach Gen Z, and kickstart growth.

Here’s what we’ll discuss:

  • Why TikTok Wins: Product, Product, Product
    • The “FYP” and UI built for discovery
    • Emphasis on short-form content (and catchy, viral sounds)
    • Filters, Stitching, and Mixing: Empowering Fans to Create Viral Trends (with sounds)
  • TikTok Minting Major Artists
    • Olivia Rodrigo (18)
    • Lil Nas X (22)
  • Music the “TikTok” Way & Emerging Trends
    • Organic “TikTok” Sound vs. Recorded Sound
    • Creators Rewarded for Original Content vs. Covers
    • Everyday Sounds, a Telltale Sign of Gen Z & TikTok Artists
    • The Unspoken Toll on Artists to Create Content
  • The Playbook for New Releases
    • Charlie Puth’s “Light Switch”
    • Gayle’s “abcdefu”
    • Disney Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”
  • How Brands Are Leveraging Sound on TikTok
  • Old Classics for a New Generation
  • In Closing… Download TikTok & Why You Should Care

Why TikTok Wins: Product, Product, Product

According to TikTok, out of the platform’s 1 billion users, 75% say they’ve discovered new artists to listen to on the app and 63% have been introduced to music they’ve never heard before thanks to trending TikTok songs. This is an app that’s changing consumer behavior in enormous ways when it comes to music discovery, but simultaneously making it easier for artists to “blow up” and find overnight success.

Statistics from TikTok's 2021 Music Report
Statistics from TikTok's 2021 Music Report

TikTok is not the first platform to enable discovery of new artists. Before Justin Bieber was selling out stadiums as one of the world’s most famous pop artists, he was singing covers on YouTube under the username “kidrauhl.” Similarly, Shawn Mendes was making 6 second covers on Vine. But the way TikTok is architectured from a product perspective has made this process of discoverability infinitely easier, which I’ll outline below.

The “FYP” and UI built for discovery

TikTok compared to competitors like YouTube Shorts & Vine. TikTok's functionality and architecture, specifically it's FYP and focus on discoverability, is helping them lead the pack
TikTok compared to competitors like YouTube Shorts & Vine. TikTok's functionality and architecture, specifically it's FYP and focus on discoverability, is helping them lead the pack

What makes TikTok particularly special is the “For You” Page (FYP). Most social platforms are optimized for people you already know or follow, whereas TikTok is primed for discovery and entertainment. When you log into TikTok’s app, your home page is your FYP, which is entirely customized “for you,” as the name suggests, by TikTok’s algorithm. My FYP will look entirely different from my friends & family based on the content I engage with, which can be centered around particular sounds, trends, creators, filters, hashtags, how long you linger on videos or like them, and even underlying sentiment. While TikTok hasn’t published much about their infamous algorithm, the Wall Street Journal did a deep investigation which I’ll link here.

From a user’s perspective, you’re served content that’s entirely customized to you, and you’re constantly discovering new creators that show up on your FYP.

  • For example, some of my favorite creators right now are Maia Knight (young single twin mom to Scout & Violet) and Axel Webber (lives in one of the smallest apartments in NYC & became an overnight TikTok star when he was rejected from Juilliard).

Many of these creators are also musicians and singers who create sounds that are embedded in the app, or are even just singing on the app for fun to build a following or promote their music. Because of the FYP, musicians and creators are given the opportunity to be seen. On a personal note, I personally love indie pop and soft music with strong instrumentals – I frequently am discovering new artists on TikTok that show up on my FYP, and then download their original songs or covers on Spotify. For example, Jenna Raine created a popular TikTok song called “see you later (ten years)” which I discovered on my FYP. I then listened to the song so much on Spotify that it showed up on my “Top Songs 2021” playlist on Spotify Wrapped. You won’t see TikTok serving me heavy metal covers by any means.

In addition to the FYP, there’s also a “Discover” page that easily directs users to trending hashtags and sounds. For creators looking to go viral, an easy hack is to use a muted viral sound in the background of videos you’re creating, or you can even just follow the trend by recreating whatever is going viral. TikTok makes it easy for people to participate in what’s currently going viral, and keep coming back to see what’s new.

In contrast, discovery on YouTube is based on search and watch trends, but isn’t as natively primed for discoverability. They’re trying to achieve this with their new YouTube Shorts product (their TikTok competitor), but it’s still in very early innings on how successful they’ll be.

And Vine (rest it’s soul) is unfortunately dead / out of service as of 2017. When Vine was still alive, it looked very similar to TikTok. Vine pioneered short-form content with 6 second looping videos… TikTok’s core feature is 15 second looping videos. Both primed for virality. However, Vine’s “Explore” page (it’s FYP counterpart) was not nearly as strong at TikTok’s, and was notable for promoting recycled content. So users really had to follow creators to get updated content on their pages, making it more difficult for smaller artists to be discovered. I would also argue the level of personalization and even functionality was lesser on Vine.

Emphasis on short-form content (and catchy, viral sounds)

Every TikTok has a sound that you can track back to an album or particular creator, so sound and music are core to the user experience. The average TikTok video is 15 seconds, and therefore, the average song or sound on TikTok is also 15 seconds. Many artists create content and songs now with these potential viral loops in mind, with big emotional choruses or catchy phrases that might be primed for creation of a new trend or accompanying dance.

One artist that routinely nails this is Megan Thee Stallion, who for the 2nd year in a row is the top artist on TikTok with the “most usage by catalog” for songs like “Cognac Queen,” “Thot Shit,” and “Cry Baby” which all manifested into trends/dances repeatedly used within the app. Another TikTok queen, Doja Cat, is second on the list for creating similarly popular bops like “Kiss Me More,” “Get Into It (Yuh)” and “Woman.” Linking two of the viral dance trends here for context, Cognac Queen & Get Into It (Yuh). If you download the TikTok app and click the song at the bottom, you’ll see millions of people that have used that song clip to make a video – 1.7m videos for Cognac Queen and 2.0m videos for Get Into It (Yuh), many being just 15 second clips.

TikTok's Top Artists of 2021, Most Usage by Catalog
TikTok's Top Artists of 2021, Most Usage by Catalog

And when I say these songs are catchy, I mean it. It is a common occurrence to be going out or hanging out with friends and these TikTok sound bytes just make their way into conversation outside of the TikTok platform. For me right now, you can consistently hear me singing and tweeting “i ain’t ever been with a baddie” or “madison but i’m callin’ her maddie” from a popular TikTok trend. Or even using “gorgeous gorgeous girls” in casual conversation. All of this is TikTok culture based on miniature viral sound bytes.

Vine had similar phrases and moments that broke into mainstream conversation, but in a way, it was much more random and chaotic vs. continuous use of trends by multiple people. TikTok is built on familiarity of these trends, which feeds into the addictive nature of its content. You see and hear similar trends and fall more in love with the app, creators, videos, and sounds.

Filters, Stitching, and Mixing: Empowering Fans to Create Viral Trends (with sounds)

The creation of trends is often not predicated on a great sound alone, but rather paired with other things by users in the app. It could be a particular dance that goes with a sound byte as I’ve discussed above, but it could just as easily be a sound paired with a filter, remixing content via the platform’s “stitching” feature, or even creating an absolute bop (a.k.a. amazing song) by mixing a sound with another sound. And remember, 60% of TikTok users are Gen Z, so we’re used to creating things entirely online and in the apps that monopolize our time.

Various ways to empower fans to create alongside trending music on TikTok, many of which are embedded into the product (ie: filters, stitching, etc.)
Various ways to empower fans to create alongside trending music on TikTok, many of which are embedded into the product (ie: filters, stitching, etc.)

Filters

TikTok has hundreds if not thousands of filters creators can choose from to create videos. And contrary to maybe other apps like Instagram, many people create natively within the TikTok app vs. adding their videos retroactively and layering on filters thereafter.

For example, “These Days” by Nico (a song from 1967) has made a resurgence on TikTok in the past few weeks. I had never heard this song (don’t @ me) prior to it going viral on TikTok with now 922.8k videos being made with the sound. But more importantly, it’s going viral because it’s paired with a highly engaging filter called “Outline.” TikTok users are trying to outline their face perfectly, which is actually really challenging (I’ve tried it myself and failed miserably). Even celebrities like Billie Eilish tried the trend and has the most popular video associated with the sound, seeing 136.5 million views and 22 million likes (this is a wildly popular video).

Combining filters (ie: Outline) with trending sounds (ie: These Days) can often lead to viral trends and tons of new listeners who discover artists this way
Combining filters (ie: Outline) with trending sounds (ie: These Days) can often lead to viral trends and tons of new listeners who discover artists this way

Another great example of a filter being paired up with a trending song is Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” with the Slow Zoom filter. If you’re on SwiftTok (aka your FYP is full of Taylor Swift videos) or you’re just a dedicated swiftie, you’ll know that Taylor Swift has been rerecording her masters to own and monetize her work. While she hasn’t released the “Taylor’s Version” of her album 1989 just yet, she made an exception for rerecording “Wildest Dreams” after seeing it blow up on TikTok with this trend. Again to put this in perspective, this is one of the world’s top artists, rerecording an entire version of a song to capitalize on a TikTok trend. Her TikTok announcing the surprise release of “Wildest Dreams (Taylor’s Version)” for use on the app saw 26.4 million views, 3.7 million likes, and 424.6k videos accompanied with the song.

Mixing Songs & Creating Viral Mashups

Within the TikTok ecosystem, there are many DJs that love to put together songs with similar harmonies/tracks into incredible mashups that end up going viral. Olivia Rodrigo’s songs are routinely paired with other songs to create incredible bops, with her hit “Driver’s License” being a classic choice for pairing/mixing. Here are a few of my favorites & their accompanying trends:

  • Drivers License x Take Me to Church: 248.7k videos created from this sound alone, and the original video from @adamusic_ has 4.4m likes – he makes a bunch of mashups. User @taavmaki has grown a huge portion of his following by building his TikTok brand around this sound and #badboy videos captioning “she said she only likes bad boys” and then doing socially unacceptable things, like biting into an entire KitKat bar without breaking them apart. He’s made tons of videos with this sound.
  • Drivers License x Ocean Eyes: 111.8k videos created from this sound alone, and the original video from @carneyval has 6m likes. I think I genuinely cried the first time I heard this mashup it’s so good. Many people have used this sound to tell their journey stories, like @realtoreemilymcallister who’s a 25 year old real estate broker in North Carolina. You watch her share her story and get bought into her goals as a creator, and the emotional music in the background just makes it 1000x better.
  • All Too Well x Champagne Problems: This one’s a bit harder to track the original creator because there are a few versions, but has nonetheless still managed to take over TikTok. One of the trends popping up with this sound is when people call out something embarrassing they did when the song changes halfway through – for @kerbiegrace it was “Thinking about how my parents let me wear the same giant bow in my hair to school for weeks in 5th grade.” Also for my fellow Swifties, this was the perfect mashup that put all of us in a frenzy because in the 10 minute of All Too Well (Taylor’s Version) there’s a nod to dropping her hand in the music video, and then in Champagne Problems she says “dropped your hand while dancing.” CHILLS.
Popular user-generated mashups on TikTok
Popular user-generated mashups on TikTok

Also it doesn’t have to be just real songs. TikTok user Jacob Sutherland (@JacobSutherland) has made a name for himself by creating “cursed mashups” as he notes in his bio, with some of his most popular mashups coming from the famous “Berries and Cream” sound. Back in 2007, Starburst released a commercial for their new berries and cream flavor that consisted of a “little lad” in an old fashioned costume doing the “little lad dance” and singing a berries and cream jingle. This jingle and character found new legs on TikTok as a wildly viral trend earlier this year as the “Berries and Cream” jingle was mashed with popular songs like the YMCA and Time After Time. When I say this was my entire FYP for a few weeks, I am not exaggerating – but honestly I loved it and thought it was hilarious. I even made a Berries and Cream cover photo with the little lad for my Twitter profile which my friends *strongly advised* me not to use… but I’ll include it here to prove the point. Jacob Sutherland has recently done some great mashups with Encanto & Hamilton as well.

my cringey Berries and Cream cover photo i brought out of the archives... just for fun ;)
my cringey Berries and Cream cover photo i brought out of the archives... just for fun ;)

Stitching / Duets

Another popular feature within TikTok that encourages fans to create is the “stitching” feature, also known as duetting. It’s hard to believe it now, but TikTok (at least in the U.S.) started as a music-based platform called Musically, where people would sing covers of songs and duet with other people on the platform. TikTok acquired Musically in 2017 when I was still in college, and I vividly remember my roommates and I getting so many TikTok/Musically ads and completely laughing them off. A. because we weren’t going to sing on an app and B. because everyone on campus was getting the ads and people would legitimately make fun of the ads themselves. TikTok has come a long way from it’s Musically days, but the duetting feature is a great way for emerging artists/musicians in particular to engage with their fans and encourage creativity, especially with the “Open Verse” challenge.

Examples of the popular "Open Verse Challenge" on TikTok, with users utilizing the stitching/duet feature
Examples of the popular "Open Verse Challenge" on TikTok, with users utilizing the stitching/duet feature

No one has used the Stitching/Duet feature better than 19-year-old Sadie Jean, who’s used the “Open Verse” challenge to drive listens to her debut single “WYD Now?”. The song is emotional, raw, and highly relatable since the song is about heartbreak and experiencing “lost love and regret” as she enters her 20s. In November of 2021 she posted a video of herself recording the song in the studio, and a fellow TikTok user commented “you should definitely do an open verse challenge for TikTok”... and she listened. Her WYD Now Open Verse Challenge has 19.4k videos on TIkTok and has seen popular duets from creators like @its.tmariee (12.5m followers) and many others. She has 2.6m monthly listeners on Spotify from a single song… we can undoubtedly thank TikTok for driving that traffic. And again this challenge was prompted by a comment from a fan – the comments section on TikTok is also a huge driver of engagement for artists… but we’ll get to that later in the article.

Another popular song/trend that’s currently all over my FYP is the “Don’t Text Me” Challenge by Stacey Ryan, which currently has 31.8k videos on TikTok and was also prompted by a user comment. These two duets have gotten a ton of views, the one from @spencermusic has 2.6m likes and the one from @zai1k has 8.6m likes. They’re both sooooo good. And again from a personal perspective, I went to Stacey’s Spotify page after hearing these & fell in love with a few of her other covers (mainly Dancing Queen).

For small artists launching their careers, TikTok has become the defacto home to get feedback from fans, engage their fans and fellow creators, and drive listens to their songs. All from the FYP.

Closed Captioning

Another part of TikTok that’s core to the user experience is closed captioning. While every TikTok natively has sound, our generation has become accustomed to having text to read alongside these videos. One of my close friends even noted that she expects captions from TikTok creators and will naturally just swipe past videos that don’t include them.

This is also an incredible accessibility feature, especially for the deaf community. While they might not be able to hear the songs that accompany viral videos, many can still partake in trends and the entertainment aspect because creators include captions or text. This is a huge win for TikTok.

TikTok Minting Major Artists

When I think of the biggest underdog success stories to come from TikTok, especially artists/musicians, my mind immediately turns to Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X. TikTok even called them out in their annual music report on music and trends as two of their biggest stars.

Two of TikTok's biggest musical success stories, Lil Nas X (22) and Olivia Rodrigo (18)
Two of TikTok's biggest musical success stories, Lil Nas X (22) and Olivia Rodrigo (18)

And it makes sense. These are two Gen Zers who have broken into mainstream music by hacking virality on TikTok, and have become household names for our generation. Lil Nas X produced the highest certified song ever, Old Town Road, initially without a record label and barely any money to promote it. So he turned to memes, creativity, and TikTok — skyrocketing to success. Olivia Rodrigo has become the darling of TikTok, but before Driver’s License blew up, she was seen as a Disney Channel star (not as a mainstream musician). Her first national tour for her debut album, Sour, recently sold out in minutes. I didn’t even get tickets as a registered fan and I’m still buggin’ about it… they’re now reselling for over $6,000 in some cities.

They each wrote the playbook for massive TikTok success in their own unique ways, which I’ll outline below.

Olivia Rodrigo (18): From Disney Channel to the Grammys

Storytelling with closed captioning is a core part of the user experience on TikTok, and Olivia utilized this strategy perfectly to launch her debut single. A creator’s intro / story often is their first viral video, with many opening up about hardships or things they’ve overcome to get to where they are. This was the case with Olivia Rodrigo when she debuted her song Driver’s License on TikTok in the form of a story. Rather than a 15s clip, she opted for a longer one that allowed her to take TikTok users through her journey writing and releasing this song (but without actually selling/pushing the song) – the video is all about Olivia as a singer/songwriter. Authentic storytelling is the key here – sharing her perspective on getting her driver’s license, crying in the suburbs in her car after a breakup, writing about the experience on her piano, and more. With captions, she tells the story without actually saying a word, and instead, her song Driver’s License is playing the background as users fall in love with Olivia and the journey… and also the song.

The day she released Driver’s License, it shot to #3 on iTunes and took over the app and most of social media. It hit #1 on the charts within the first week, and then proceeded to break Spotify’s record for most streams in a week worldwide. Her debut album Sour included a ton of other incredible hits which found fame on TikTok, like Good 4 U, Traitor, Happier, and Deja Vu. And as for Driver’s License, it continues to find success through the various user-generated mash-ups I listed above.

Before Driver’s License (1.3Bn streams on Spotify), many viewed Olivia Rodrigo as another talented Disney Star. She had a hit song from the High School Musical reboot called All I Want, but it was TikTok and Driver’s License that put her on the map and won her the VMAs for Best New Artist, Song of the Year, and Push Performance of the Year. And she’s nominated for 7 Grammys in 2022, including Best Pop Solo Performance (Driver’s License), Best Music Video (Good 4 U), Best Pop Vocal Album (Sour), Record of the Year (Driver’s License), Song of the Year, and Best New Artist.

Artful storytelling paired with beautiful songwriting, talent, and music can create magic on TikTok, activating billions of fans all over the world on the FYP. It’s easy to root for her success and buy into her journey, and this is just the beginning. With 45 million monthly listeners on Spotify, she’s only 10 million listeners behind her idol Taylor Swift… and all gathered in under a year.

Lil Nas X (22): From Struggling Musician to Global Fame

Lil Nas X has one of the most incredible “rags to riches” stories in the industry, which he detailed in a giant “Life Story” series on TikTok. In May 2018, Lil Nas X started making songs as a college student, and soon dropped out to pursue music full-time… but he didn’t find instant success. He was kicked out of his sister’s home, his songs weren’t performing on SoundCloud, and then he experienced daily domestic violence soon after he moved in with his brother. However, he changed his fate when he released Old Town Road in December of 2018. With only $0.74 in the bank to promote the song, he turned to making memes and posting them anywhere and everywhere to get discovered. And eventually it worked, with Old Town Road finding its way into the #200 spot on the Apple Country Charts after a few months of memeing. But instead of taking a record deal from a label who only wanted the song but not Lil Nas X as an artist, he turned them all down and continued promoting it on his own through sheer creativity and will. This is where TikTok stepped in.

Around this time, the “Yeehaw Challenge” was making its rounds on the FYP, with “Old Town Road” playing in the background and TikTok users (and even their pets) drinking “yee yee juice” and then transforming into a cowboy. Old Town Road quickly went from a meme to #1 on the Billboard charts, and skyrocketed to even more fame after a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus was released, setting a record for the longest consecutive run in the No. 1 spot. He also signed with Columbia Records and has gone on to release his 2nd studio album, Montero, which has also produced TikTok hits like “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and collabs with the likes of Elton John, Doja Cat, Jack Harlow, and Megan Thee Stallion.

Lil Nas X’s “Life before fame” video really sums up the magnitude of his seemingly “overnight” success, going from 900 monthly listeners on Spotify in 2019 to over 50 million in 2021… a 555,555x increase over two years. He’s since won 2 Grammys and countless other awards. His TikTok content spans more than just music, he’s just as talented as a content creator. He’s also an idol to many in the LGBTQ+ community after coming out in 2019, and never shies away from being his entire authentic self.

With 53 million monthly listeners on Spotify, Lil Nas X is now as mainstream as it gets. And he was able to create this narrative and future for himself without industry connections or money – pure passion, talent, and relentless persistence skyrocketed him to success on TikTok. The app has leveled the playing field for emerging artists all over the world looking to be discovered… today, all you need is your phone, TikTok, and a bit of creativity.

Music the “TikTok” Way & Emerging Trends

This section is really just some personal observations on trends I’ve seen over the past few months, but ones I don’t see widely covered in the media. This is a lens that stems from being a highly active Gen Z user on TikTok, but also someone who just loves music and obsesses over these things (I play the piano and ukulele for fun). I think it’s particularly special to grow up with your favorite artists as they develop as musicians/creators, and a lot of this is changing in real-time with TikTok.

Organic “TikTok” Sound vs. Recorded Sound

Because TikTok songs and trends are often the first touchpoint for many fans’ engagement with an artist, they often become attached to the version of the song that goes viral on TikTok…. even if that’s not the official or recorded song. 67% of TikTokers are more likely to seek out a song they heard on TikTok on a music streaming platform, and this was the case for me with “I AM WOMAN” by Emmy Meli and “Meet Me At Our Spot” by WILLOW.

The "I AM WOMAN" trend on TikTok, focused on female empowerment
The "I AM WOMAN" trend on TikTok, focused on female empowerment

The I AM WOMAN song and trend swift took over TikTok at the end of 2021, with north of 535k videos from creator Emmy Meli’s original video. She posted a video of herself singing an original song called I AM WOMAN with the caption “i write my best sh!t when I ain’t trying hahaha,” and the lyrics themselves are a string of positive affirmations meant to empower women. And that she did.

The song quickly became a trend where women wrote captions like “this trend but pics that make me ✨feel✨ it,” accompanied by pictures that made them feel beautiful in different settings & show off how we as women can be more than just one thing. We can be women, but also fearless, sexy, divine, unbeatable, and creative. Honestly, I loved when this trend took over my FYP – it was incredibly uplifting.

Naturally, soon after it blew up, I turned to Spotify to hear the full song after Emmy released it in full. It was different from the TikTok version, at least in terms of sound quality. The TikTok version feels very raw vs. the published song which is a bit more crisp and polished. I had become so accustomed to the TikTok version of the song that it actually became difficult for me to listen to the real version and fall in love with it in the same way. This is in contrast with how Olivia Rodrigo released Driver’s License, which was the fully recorded version and the version that everyone fell in love with on TikTok.

The same phenomenon occurred for me when I fell in love with the live version of “Meet Me At Our Spot” by WILLOW, which quickly became a trend on TikTok paired with an overly dramatic dance. I didn’t even realize it was the live version and not the official version until I went to add it to my playlist on Spotify, particularly the part where she sings “meet me at our spotttttttt” in the first verse which is super different. Both are great songs, but I LOVE the live version and that’s what I fell in love with on TikTok. And as someone who listened to “Whip My Hair” by WILLOW in middle school, TikTok helped me rediscover her as an artist who grew up and evolved her style… same as me.

As an emerging artist, you can’t always plan for which video will go viral or which hit will put you on the map. But it’s something to think about when it comes to publishing unfiltered versions of a song pre-release vs. the finished product.

Creators Rewarded for Original Content vs. Covers

I’ll start this by saying there’s no one right way to be discovered as an artist, but I think there’s been a material shift in awarding emerging artists for creativity via their original songs than maybe was true a decade ago on social apps.

I have been a long-time fan of Justin Bieber, a Belieber, if you will. All of my boyfriends in 6th grade had the classic Bieber cut, I dreamed of being the “one less lonely girl” brought on stage at his concerts, and even attended one of his meet-and-greets 10 years ago. Here’s an embarrassing old Facebook cover photo with an even more embarrassing caption (how cheugy of me), paired with the 1st vinyl I ever got which I still play now in 2022 over ten years later.

my fan journey with ~the biebs~ over the past 10 years
my fan journey with ~the biebs~ over the past 10 years

I mention this because I feel like I’ve been a part of Justin Bieber’s story as a fan since the early days when he was posting covers as kidrauhl on YouTube. I literally tear up sometimes listening to the famous With You by Chris Brown cover from 2008 which got him discovered, and he posted many similar videos (like this cover of Cry Me A River by Justin Timberlake). It’s easy to hear his clear talent, even at 14 years old. These covers led to him being signed by Scooter Braun and off to instant stardom after his famed single “One Time.”

Shawn Mendes had a similar story on Vine, posting covers there and on YouTube which led to him being discovered… and soon after, a record deal. Us The Duo did the same on Vine, posting popular covers which led to a record deal.

Being discovered for original content is not something that’s unique to TikTok. Ruth B wrote and recorded Lost Boy on Vine for all of her fans to see and fall in love with, and was later signed by Columbia Records.

However, the way TikTok is architectured provides so much room for creativity and discovery in a way that hasn’t existed on other social apps. Many of the most popular artists on TikTok are those who created original music and found creative ways to be heard and seen – Lil Nas X creating memes, Olivia Rodrigo’s caption-led storytelling, Sadie Jean’s open verse challenge, Emmy Meli’s trend around empowering women – while simultaneously empowering fans to be a material part of their music through remixing on the app.

I’m a believer that many of the famed artists we’ll see over the next ten years will not only come from TikTok, but stem from original songs that put them on the map.

Everyday Sounds, a Telltale Sign of Gen Z & TikTok Artists

This is not something that’s unique to TikTok, but seems to be a recurring theme on my FYP and lends to creativity that is a natural part of music creation and storytelling on the app. Artists are routinely finding everyday sounds and adding them to their songs. Here’s a great clip detailing how Finneas & Billie Eilish recorded a traffic light sound in Sydney Australia and added it seamlessly to “Bury a Friend,” which then became a popular trend in early 2021 and has over 686k videos paired with a 9 second clip from the song. In the TikTok video for Driver’s License, Olivia Rodrigo detailed how she recorded the beeping sound from her mom’s car, which serves as the opening to the song. And Charlie Puth is famous for running around his apartment to find everyday sounds to put in his songs, like the sound of a light switch for his new single “Light Switch.”

Entirely unrelated, but I’m also noticing an emerging aesthetic from Gen Z artists on TikTok, women in particular. Many opting for florals, butterflies, or nature-y scenes / accessories for their debut albums and cover art.

The Unspoken Toll on Artists to Create Content

In the next section, I’ll speak to the correlation between top global hits and their virality on TikTok, and how artists are reinventing the playbook for releasing songs with TikTok in mind. But the reality is not all artists and musicians are content creators, and the pressure can be overwhelming to produce constant viral successes. People don’t often speak to the negative side of how this new TikTok-first playbook has affected some artists, but Chelsea Cutler said it best in an open and vulnerable tweet / Instagram post she shared earlier this year on January 3rd, 2022.

“It feels exhausting to constantly be thinking of how to turn my daily life into ‘content’ especially knowing that I feel best mentally when I spend less time on my phone. It also feels exhausting to be told by everyone in the industry that this is the only effective way to market music right now.”

She argues that because of the fast pace of viral hits on social media (aka TikTok, there’s a “massive disconnect between listeners and artists that [she] hasn’t experienced before” and that “albums and comprehensive storytelling seem less relevant as attention spans seem shorter.” The average TikTok video is 15 seconds long, and that’s about the entire attention span of Gen Z… she’s not wrong. Tons of notable musicians (One Republic, Ben Rector, Maggie Rogers, Zedd, Niall Horan, etc.) weighed in on Chelsea’s posts to agree with her sentiment.

Every artist will have different levels of comfort sharing their lives and stories on TikTok. The app is certainly changing the way we all consume and share music (for better or worse), but it’s up to the artists to determine how they can best engage their fans in a way that’s authentic to them. And for some, there certainly needs to be a balance.

The Playbook for New Releases

If you look at the top 3 most popular global songs on Spotify right now, they’re all “TikTok songs.”

The top 3 songs on Spotify's "Top 50 - Global" chart... all being driven by TikTok trends.
The top 3 songs on Spotify's "Top 50 - Global" chart... all being driven by TikTok trends.
  • Heat Waves at #1 with over 4.1 million daily plays: pairs with a specific trend where users reminisce about someone from a previous chapter of their life, or just the past itself as time has gone by. The slowed down, edited version of this song has 1.4m videos on TikTok.
  • abcdefu at #2 with 4.1m plays is a song that originated on TikTok where people flip off the camera or show things in their life where they want to say, well… F U. There’s even a spin off acoustic mashup on the app that goes “abcdefghi love you still, and you know i love you always will” which has a much more endearing or even sad trend centered around love. 1.6m videos on TikTok associated with the sound.
  • STAY (with Justin Bieber) by The Kid Laroi at #3 with 3.9m plays became a TikTok dance trend with people shaking their booty for the camera. 8.5m videos on TikTok associated with the sound.

You simply can’t tell me there’s no correlation between TikTok and the world’s top music today. Artists are being intentional about their distribution strategy on the app, and on the flip side, users are simultaneously using the app for music discovery. For users, even if it’s happening in the background and you’re not intentionally looking to discover new music (as you would perhaps listening to Discover Weekly on Spotify), this is something that just happens as you see and engage with the same trends (and therefore sounds/songs) on TikTok.

I’m going to walk through three case studies that showcase artists (or their management teams) utilizing different methods to successfully seed their music for virality in the TikTok app.

Charlie Puth’s “Light Switch”

Charlie Puth's new hit single, "Light Switch" which had been previewed on TikTok over the past few months before its release
Charlie Puth's new hit single, "Light Switch" which had been previewed on TikTok over the past few months before its release

If any of you follow Charlie Puth on TikTok, you likely find his perfect pitch endearing or annoying, but have also seen countless clips of Light Switch being developed in real-time over the past few months.

In the music industry, generally artists work in private with their record label, crafting and mixing songs until they’re ready for a much anticipated public release. Maybe you release clips here or there in advance for a hit song you’re teasing, but for the most part, a lot of this happens behind closed doors.

Charlie Puth, and many other TikTok artists, are taking the complete opposite approach and involving their fans in the song development process. In September of 2021, Charlie posted a viral video (71.4m views, 14.3m likes) with him dreaming up different sounds and stringing them together on a digital track, including snippets of drums, base, and a “weird sound effect” that ended up being a light switch. As he’s making the video and stringing together all these weird disparate sounds and short lyrics he says “this is actually kind of dope, i’m freaking out right now” – and you as a user are again, bought into this journey with him as a songwriter, seeing this song come together in real-time. He then previews the song and bops around to it at the end of the video, and fans in the comments (95k of them) went nuts. One fan recommended naming it “Light Switch” (which he did), others commenting “when you accidentally create a bop” and “u gotta release this one bro” and “BOP ALERT.” In the startup world, we call this product market fit.

For artists, involving your fans in the writing and development process can be a great way to drive pre-saves and also find validation that a song is going to be a hit. Charlie kept making these videos over the course of the following months: adding guitar and new verses, a beginning / opening for the song and the behind the scenes of developing the lyrics, etc.

On January 20, 2022 (aka last Thursday), Charlie finally released the song to his fans on iTunes and the accompanying sound on TikTok… and fans were more than ready to “blow it up” on the app and drive listens. And I have to say… the song is fire, incredibly catchy. After 1 hour of being released, the song shot up to #5 on the charts. Shortly after, it hit 1 million streams on Spotify and became the fastest rising song on the charts the day it was released.

The song has only been out for 5 days, so who knows how it will perform in the long run. But in my opinion, Charlie wrote a new playbook for releasing hit singles… and he did it very publicly in a way that showed his fans a new side of him, and let them be a part of the process.

Gayle’s “abcdefu”

Gayle went from being a largely unknown artist to producing the #1 song on Spotify after finding viral success... which her marketing manager / label played a role in.
Gayle went from being a largely unknown artist to producing the #1 song on Spotify after finding viral success... which her marketing manager / label played a role in.

As I mentioned above at #2 on the global Spotify charts (previously #1), abcdefu is a song that went viral on TikTok after a user commented “can you write a breakup song using the alphabet” and the creator, Gayle, responded with a soulful rendition of a new original song… abcdefu. We’ve seen this playbook before with other artists who use the comments section for inspiration for song ideas, such as Jenna Raine with “see you later” which similarly turned into a viral hit on both TikTok and Spotify.

What’s really interesting about this one though is the entire thing was manufactured / a marketing strategy… but still worked. TikTok user @danielswall exposed the whole thing (which appropriately came up on my FYP, b/c i love a good scandal) in a longer-form TikTok. Basically the comment I mentioned above that kickstarted abcdefu’s viral video didn’t come from just any user… it was actually from an account named “nancy_berman.” While her TikTok is private/empty, if you search her LinkedIn, you’ll see she’s actually a Digital Marketing Manager at Atlantic Records. And Gayle is an artist signed by none other than… Atlantic Records.

So basically, Atlantic Records and Gayle fabricated the whole thing to soft launch the song on TikTok, see how her fans would react, and then create virality around the sound. I would argue that most people don’t know this backstory (despite 12.2m people viewing the exposé on TIkTok), but it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. Did she maybe lose some followers that feel betrayed by the inauthenticity? Perhaps. However, abcdefu still topped the global charts and put Gayle on the map as an artist with 36 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and even an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you get from point A to point B. Maybe the whole “fake backstory” was intentionally meant to be discovered to drive more views and attention to the song… we can’t really say. However, my advice to artists looking to manufacture a viral hit… maybe just ask your bestie to write the comment instead of your marketing manager to keep up the ruse ;)

Disney Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”

Disney Encanto's We Don't Talk About Bruno is already breaking records after its release back in November 2021, surpassing even Frozen's Let It Go on the charts
Disney Encanto's We Don't Talk About Bruno is already breaking records after its release back in November 2021, surpassing even Frozen's Let It Go on the charts

Disney is famous for releasing timeless animated movies with feature songs that get everyone singing along. Before Disney released Encanto on November 24, 2021, I would say the last big song/film to break the musical stratosphere was “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.

Well, the breakout hit from Encanto is a song called “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and it’s already breaking records. In just 2 months, the song is on its way to becoming the highest-charting song from a Disney animated movie in 26 years, passing even Let It Go on the Billboard 100. The only movies/songs currently ahead are The Lion King (Can You Feel The Love Tonight), Pocahontas (Colors of the Wind), and the top song from Aladdin (A Whole New World). Also where did I learn this? TikTok of course… courtesy of @danielswall great reporting. A quick aside, this entire article required barely any real research. So much of it has come from just living on TikTok as a user and creator.

We can attribute the smashing success of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” to Lin Manuel Miranda’s brilliant and pithy writing / music (very similar vibes to the Hamilton soundtrack)... and also, TikTok. The song already has 369k videos associated with it on TikTok, and a trend where users recreate the dance from the movie. And a brilliant move by the Encanto team, the most liked video associated with the sound is actually from one of the choreographers from the movie who created the movements you see on screen – she took a video from a rehearsal and put it on TikTok, seeing 28 million views and 3.5 million likes. It’s become a larger dance trend of people recreating the moves on TikTok and even spawned an original dance from the famous TikTok dance crew, @cost_n_mayor, which has 17 million views from the past 6 days alone.

I’m sure that this song going viral on TikTok is not only driving listens of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” but also sign ups for Disney+ and people heading over from TikTok who want to actually watch the movie. For context, I haven’t even seen the movie yet, but I can recite the entire first verse of the song because it’s literally all over my FYP. And now I really want to see the movie!!! Maybe after I publish this article…

TikTok wasn’t popular back when Frozen came out in 2013 or for any of the other top charting animated Disney songs. But my guess is we’ll see other original songs from movies, TV shows, and films find their way to TikTok and drive conversation / views. It’s all a virtuous cycle, and who’s at the center? It’s TikTok, babe.

How Brands Are Leveraging Sound on TikTok

Some of the brands finding success on TikTok, leveraging sound as a core driver for brand awareness.
Some of the brands finding success on TikTok, leveraging sound as a core driver for brand awareness.

We’ve already spoken about how TikTok can be an important lever for artists or even filmmakers looking to achieve virality around their songs/videos… the same can be said for brands and startups. If you’re looking for a brand masterclass on innovation or staying “on-trend” within the app, look no further than Duolingo & RyanAir’s TikTok accounts. Duolingo has been in the news a ton lately for their “unhinged” approach at creating content and engaging with users, even threatening to kill their users for not doing their Spanish lessons. For millennial social media managers a decade ago, even fake violence like this from a brand account never would have gotten approvals – now these Gen Z social accounts are being celebrated, as Gen Z loves dark humor and it’s created incredible virality for Duolingo on the app.

Duolingo is always on top of trending sounds and creating on-theme content that supports their mission of language learning. In November 2021, Taylor Swift’s “Enchanted” was going viral on TikTok with users lamenting over lost love. Duolingo has the 2nd most popular video of the 647.6k videos associated with the sound (unusual for a brand account) for their rendition, which captions “when you use Google Translate instead of actually learning a language” and zooms in on their owl mascot dramatically pressed up against the glass.

And brands are even trying to own these trending moments with their own original songs. Gary Veynerchuck’s Gallery Media has created custom jingles specifically for brands looking to go viral on TikTok, including Covergirl and Athleta. One of the biggest success stories on this front is surprisingly… Home Depot. In 2019, their “Home Depot Theme Song” went viral on the app, first as a joke with people dancing to it, but then people realized it was a bop and started making mashups. #homedepot has 1.8 billion views on TikTok, and their theme song has 320.7k videos associated with it – many are home improvement videos on the app, but it’s also become just a popular background song for the everyday TikTok even today.

Many small businesses leverage the “It Costs That Much” sound by Woah Dude when they showcase their work and how long it truly takes them to create their masterpieces, which range from macarons and lipgloss, to soaps, ceramics, and more. Using this sound can be a staple for up-and-coming artisans.

TikTok’s mantra when it comes to working with brands is “Don’t make an ad, make a TikTok.” Staying on top of viral sounds, and therefore trends, is an important piece of this. I’m excited to see more up-and-coming brands leverage TikTok sounds to find virality and bring younger audiences into their ecosystems. My advice for brands? Be weird, be original.

Old Classics for a New Generation

A sampling of the songs & artists making a resurgence on TikTok, introducing old classics to the next generation, Gen Z.
A sampling of the songs & artists making a resurgence on TikTok, introducing old classics to the next generation, Gen Z.

While I may be Gen Z, I’m totally an old soul… and I’m not alone. Gen Z loves vintage y2k fashion, thrift shopping, and things we now deem classic. I have a typewriter & vintage Singer sewing machine in my apartment, LIFE magazines from the 1940s hanging on my walls, and a complete set of Charles Dickens novels from the 1900s on my bookcase. Old/classic music is coming back into style as well, largely finding its way to new audiences via TikTok trends.

The most classic example is the revival of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac for a new generation, driven by one of TikTok’s most popular viral videos ever. The video features an unknown TikTok user named @420doggface208 skateboarding to work holding an entire jug of Ocean Spray’s Cran-Raspberry juice, acting happy and carefree as “Dreams” plays in the background. This video inspired a frenzy of things – Dogg Face being endorsed by OceanSpray and featured in a Superbowl Ad, OceanSpray juice flying off the shelves in grocery stores as TikTokers tried to recreate the trends (and try the juice), and Dreams re-entered the Top 10 on Billboard’s streaming songs chart. Not only did this change Dogg Face’s (real name is Nathan Apodaca) life who was previously a laborer at a potato warehouse in Idaho, but it also led to a new sense of relevance for a 90-year-old juice brand and a song that was released 45 years ago. This TikTok video introduced Gen Z to Fleetwood Mac, and other viral videos and trends are doing the same for other countless classic songs.

Another great one that’s currently a trending sound on TikTok is “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”, which was released by Edison Lighthouse in 1971. This is a band I personally had never heard of before, and the same can be said for the song that’s currently taking over TikTok. But I looooooove it, and the accompanying trend. It’s an endearing trend where you post videos of someone being cute/a bit crazy but you still love them no matter what. My FYP is full of the cutest TikTok babies, and all of them participated in this trend.

  • @brittykitty’s daughter Lilly
  • @wren.eleanor’s daughter Wren
  • @mikaylamatthews’ daughter Haven (aka Honey)
  • @laurahfritz’s daughter Lena
  • @emilyfauver’s daughter Ella
  • Still waiting for one from @maiaknight for Scout and Violet, aka Scotch and Vodka…

Again, this is a song I probably never would have heard in my entire life. But because the sound clip has 1.4 million videos on TikTok, I’m so happy I heard it and grew to love it. And if you’re going to download TikTok after reading this article and watch anything I’ve mentioned, watch these ones to kickstart your FYP — these videos are soooooo cute.

The "Love Grows" trend, which all the TikTok moms are recreating for their daughters.
The "Love Grows" trend, which all the TikTok moms are recreating for their daughters.

And it doesn’t have to be just old songs people call classics. Songs (and artists) are coming back from pretty much every time period.

  • 1979, ABBA’s “Chiquitita”: A mashup of a slowed down version of Chiquitita and the “Silenzio Bruno” from Disney’s Luca made waves on TikTok late last year, seeing 611k videos associated with the sound. I even learned how to play it on the piano!
  • 1996, Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”: This trend features someone belting out the lyrics for the chorus with added drama, typically a fan, backup dancers, and intense lighting. @nnapples killed this trend, by far my favorite rendition. Also, I’ve long been a fan of Celine (even flew to Vegas to see her for her residency in college) and her songs were always my go-to’s for pre-games in college and whenever I was handed the aux cord. Needless to say, my friends rarely gave me the aux cord.
  • 2005, The Backyardigan’s “Into The Thick Of It!”: Now why on earth is a random song from an animated children’s show making its way to TikTok? Well, its because the Backyardigan’s have created a slew of bops for Gen Z. This one turned into a dance trend which you can see here.
  • 2008, The Ting Ting’s “That’s Not My Name”: Ahhhh another classic from the beloved 6th grade. This was when like everyone was going through an emo phase and I really thought I would too… but I couldn’t pull off the side bangs, so that ended quickly. This trend is basically TikTokers reciting all of their various nicknames via captions, like so.
  • 2015, Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge”: This trend emerged because a TikTok user commented that Adele never has backup dancers, and noticed that Megan Thee Stallion’s dance for her song “Body” matches up perfectly with the beat of “Water Under the Bridge” – and the collab we never knew we needed was born on TikTok. Someone even created a mashup of the two songs and Adele seemingly singing/reacting to Megan’s dancing… and it’s incredible. The song slaps too. Here’s Alyson Stoner (tbt to cheaper by the dozen) recreating the Body dance to Adele’s song.
  • 2019, Mason Ramsey’s “Before I Knew It”: Remember the Walmart yodeling kid from a few years back? Well he started making country music shortly thereafter, and his old songs are now going viral on TikTok. The dance trend is basically people acting skeptical at first or making fun of Mason, and then dancing to the trend because they actually like the song a ton. Mason is also making TikToks on the app and now has a job making sandwiches at Subway… gotta love him.

You can find trending sounds / songs on TikTok’s Discover page! Many of the ones I listed above are currently trending, but none more than Mason Ramsey’s “Before I Knew It”... at least on my FYP, that’s all I’m seeing.

In Closing… Download TikTok & Why You Should Care

So why did I even write this? Another freaking manifesto Meagan?? What are you doing!!

Well, I already spend up to 17 hours a week on TikTok, so this article gave me an excuse to call all of that time “productive”, and even help my portfolio companies with their TikTok strategy since I’m a full-time investor. But more importantly, I wrote this for all of you.

To educate people about TikTok, especially those who aren’t currently on the platform today. Even if you don’t have TikTok, understanding how music and these trends are impacting culture, business, and mobilizing the next generation is important.

To make that case that small businesses, corporations, filmmakers, IP holders, and startups alike should be thinking materially about sound as a part of their TikTok strategy. And if you don’t already have a TikTok strategy, build one. Movie and filmmakers should take note of viral quotes, soundbytes, or original music that could have TikTok potential. And startups are actively using sounds and trends to “blow up” on TikTok, driving signups and sales. You’ve got nothing to lose, so start experimenting!

To aspiring musicians who are just getting started on TikTok and looking to find their big break. I hope these examples and case studies were helpful in providing a guide on what’s working today in 2022. But I do think a huge part of finding success as a creator is putting your own spin on things vs. blindly following trends. Creativity is much encouraged, and often celebrated. P.S. you should check out HIFI, they’re working with some of the coolest artists in the music industry… you can thank me l8r.

To my Gen Z peers who are also experiencing the thrills (and time suck) of TikTok in real time. Let me know what you think – our FYPs are all different, and this article will probably be outdated in a couple months based on how quickly trends change these days.

I’m trying to figure out this whole TikTok thing too, so even just writing this was an incredible learning exercise. If you want to join me on my TikTok journey, follow me @meagaverse! You’ll see lots of content about Olipop, startups, crypto, Gen Z, and I will certainly be posting more about music.

xoxo ur fave gen z tiktok author :)
xoxo ur fave gen z tiktok author :)

About me: Meagan Loyst

My name is Meagan Loyst, and I’m a 24 year old Gen Zer who loves all things consumer and culture. I’m a full-time investor at Lerer Hippeau (where we’ve invested in music companies like HIFI, Splice and plenty of Gen Z brands crushing it on TikTok like Parade, Cake, etc.) and the Founder of Gen Z VCs, the largest & fastest growing community for young people in Tech & VC with 13,000+ members and now a Gen Z movement. I love adding the Gen Z perspective to mainstream media and investor/founder conversations alike, which is why I decided to spend my weekend writing a 29 page manifesto on TikTok! I’m the ultimate consumer and spend an ungodly amount of time on TikTok, and hope to help many corporate execs, startups, and musicians alike navigate the next decade on this crazy app :)

If you’re a consumer brand, corporation, or creator/musician on TikTok, I’d love to hear from you & see how I can help (especially if you’re navigating how to reach Gen Z). My email is meagan@lererhippeau.com, and you can keep up with me on Twitter as well.

See you on TikTok ❤️

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