Under Pressure! (of the Algorithm)
Is TikTok Killing Music and the Industry?
For better or for worse TikTok is everywhere, and so is its influence on music. The app with hundreds of millions of users has a profound effect on much of our lives, from the vernacular we use to the very entertainment we consume after exiting the app. Traditional music industry and radio are dead, and TikTok is dancing on their graves as Music Business Worldwide reports that 75% of TikTok's users suggest that they have discovered new artists through TikTok. This plays a massive part in both the consumption and creation of music. But whether that's a positive or a negative effect of the app has seen users divided.
Accessibility to the industry like this has never been seen before. All it takes is for an aspiring artist to post their talent on TikTok. If they get noticed, they bypass the rigorous process of going through record labels. New talent is constantly emerging from the app. But for some of the established artists in the industry this has become a source of annoyance. Artists like Halsey and Mike Shinoda have complained about pressure from labels to become part-time influencers and content creators in order to promote themselves and their music, to orchestrate the perfect “viral moment”.
Steve Lacy is probably the prime example of this frustration. A big part of his recent success is attributed to the popularity of “Bad Habit” on TikTok, which in March 2023 had close to a million videos under the sound since its release in June 2022. Even if you’re not a Lacy fan the song probably plays in your head by my pure mention of it, in large part due to TikTok’s influence. But videos of Lacy’s live shows often see him annoyed at the crowd for not knowing his discography, and even speeding through songs before leaving the stage. This leads many to speculate whether his frustration is a result of his TikTok fame, unable to secure “real” fans instead of the crowd resembling a TikTok sound on replay.
Similar speculations arose from fans when Fiona Apple’s discography was seemingly wiped from the platform. Fans on Twitter argue that “Apple saw that people on TikTok were appropriating her music for their shallow, reductive aesthetics”. While the real reasons are unclear it’s safe to say that there were no copyright issues involved as Sony has a great relationship with TikTok. It seems like Apple fetched the bolt cutters herself with this decision.
Another polarising part of this debate has been the creation and production of music that gets popular on TikTok. When it comes to music marketing there is nothing quite as powerful as TikTok and new artists are painfully aware of this. The traditional correlation between charting songs and songs that become popular has been reversed since the rise of TikTok. When a song trends on the app it charts.
Many critics claim that music has, as a result, become algorithm based, reducing the merit of songwriting to the ability of a 15-second sound bite to go viral. I’m in the same boat. Seeing the recent re-emergence of the pop-punk sound trending made me happy, but when this resulted in the ‘tiktokification’ of the genre there was a problem. Nursery rhyme music has become a trend; songs like “ABCDEFU” and “Crypto Baby” rely heavily on their pop-culture referential qualities. TikTok popularises music in the same reductive way as fast fashion trends do clothing. Many emerging songs now just “shoot for the sound bite” while their longevity and songwriting are left in the dust.
But others argue in the opposite direction: “if the songs were not good, they would not blow up”. This is true. I’d be a hypocrite to say that I haven’t found some of my favourite songs through the algorithm’s sound bite feature. I, like many, have enjoyed discovering artists new and old through TikTok. Songs like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” have been exposed to a wholly new Gen Z audience, hitting the charts again for the first time since its 1985 release, becoming the song of the summer in 2022 just as it once was in the ‘85. The song “Harness” by the 90s band Pavement gained momentum on TikTok, reigniting their popularity, and exposing them to a younger audience. There is then an intergenerational connecting quality that TikTok provides.
Many of those who criticise TikTok for its impact on music themselves admit that some of the reasons for doing so are “shallow” and “gatekeepy”. Getting caught up in musical snobbery of ‘I knew them before TikTok’, we often forget the positive impact TikTok has had. The industry has become more accessible and we are able to discover hidden gems and artists of whom we become fans as a result. After all, the demands of music are ever-changing. TikTok is simply replacing traditional radio in terms of importance.
Illustration: Calum Mayor