What TikTok's Explosion Could Mean For Music

Jul 10, 2019

Since it dropped in April, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" has been an inescapable hit. The song's massive blow-up is at least partially thanks to TikTok: the social media platform that launches viral stars 15 seconds at a time, and what writer Alyssa Bereznak called the "future of the music industry" in a recent article for The Ringer.

TikTok, which has over hundreds of millions users and is especially popular among teenagers and young adults, is driven by machine learning and, as Bereznak explained to NPR's Audie Cornish, viral "challenges," often based around music. Using the mobile app, TikTok users watch and post 15-second videos that incorporate and respond to a piece of a song; for instance, in the "Old Town Road" challenge, video-makers suddenly appear in cowboy gear the moment the beat kicks in.

Other up-and-coming artists have also found a foothold in TikTok's format. In videos set to the first 15 seconds of Supa Dupa Humble's song "Steppin," users play along with the repeated opening lyric "I don't know" until they arrive at a visual punchline. Blanco Brown's TikTok hit, "The Git Up," is a country trap-song with dance instructions (in the vein of "Cha Cha Slide" or "Macarena") for lyrics.

"I think the users are looking for high drama in a short amount of time," Bereznak says. "You know, you only have 15 seconds to make your video compelling — so that lends itself really well to bubblegum-pop music, and to trap music, which often has really intense mood shifts or beat drops."

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While TikTok users are crafting their videos to fit the punchy songs spreading on the platform, musicians are also tailoring their songs to suit the format. Supa Dupa Humble, for example, once played Bereznak a piece of his upcoming song featuring an old-school landline tone. "He himself imagined, 'Oh, this will be great for phone challenges. That's the prop that's gonna show up in these videos,' " Bereznak says, paraphrasing the artist.

Beyond motivating artists to write challenge-conducive songs, Bereznak suggests, TikTok marks — and may further influence — a shift towards increasingly short-form music. "I think the issue here is that the music industry itself is shifting away from stories being told in albums and it's moving to stories being told in songs," Bereznak says. "People care a lot more about singles, because playlist culture is very strong, and people can decide what songs they want to listen to ... so that means the labels are kind of having to focus a little bit less on the overall artistic development of a singer or songwriter, and focus more on these quick-hit singles.

"Artists are very savvy, and they know that they need to rise above the noise," she says. "And in some cases, that means catering to the latest hot social network."

Savvy media strategies aside, Bereznak says TikTok-born musical phenomena can still be celebrated for the fun they inspire. "It might not be music that touches you deep in your soul, but it definitely evokes a certain type of emotion, and I think that's the most important thing with art," she says. "It's very uplifting, it can be moody at times; it makes you want to move, it makes you want to participate in a movement. If that's not good music, I don't know what is."

Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

TikTok is an app that lets people create and post 15-second videos, often music videos you can dance and lip sync to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NONSTOP")

DRAKE: (Rapping) Pulling back the curtain by myself. Take a look - ay. I'm a bar spitta. I'm a hard hitta.

CORNISH: TikTok fans act out these short - really short - scenes that fit with the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROM DRESS")

MXMTOON: (Singing) I'm sitting here crying in my prom dress. I'd be the prom queen if crying was contest.

CORNISH: And each video is seen as a challenge to other users - top this. More and more, a song that's a hit on TikTok can end up a song that is a hit everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Rapping) I got the horses in the back, horse tack is attached, hat is matte black, got the boots that's black to match.

CORNISH: The Ringer's Alyssa Bereznak recently wrote a story declaring the Chinese-owned app the future of the music industry. She joins us now to explain. Welcome to the program.

ALYSSA BEREZNAK: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So who's doing the singing along and the challenges? Are we talking 11-year-olds, 14-year-olds? Who is the TikTok user?

BEREZNAK: The TikTok user ranges, I think, from 11 to age of 30, but it skews much younger than that. If you're at 30, you pretty much are aged out of the demographic of TikTok. I've tried very hard to...

CORNISH: (Laughter) We have greater questions about your life then.

BEREZNAK: (Laughter) Yes. But I think - it's very young people. And I think one thing that we have to keep in mind with social networks that are occupied by a lot of young people is it doesn't take much for a thing to go viral. They're just looking to have fun. A lot of them are bored kids in college or on summer break in high school, and they're just looking for other teens who can inspire them and create prompts for, like, their own content and their own videos that they film when they have nothing else to do.

CORNISH: What kind of music tends to work well on TikTok?

BEREZNAK: Yeah. I think the users are looking for high drama in a short amount of time. You know, you only have 15 seconds to make your video compelling, so that lends itself really well to trap music, which often has, like, really intense mood shifts or beat drops and super poppy (ph) bubblegum pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DISSOLVE")

ABSOFACTO: (Singing) I just wanted you to watch me dissolve. I just wanted you to watch me dissolve slowly.

CORNISH: OK. So I want to talk about an artist that is blowing up on TikTok, Blanco Brown, and this song is called "The Git Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT UP")

BLANCO BROWN: (Singing) Gon' and do the two step, then cowboy boogie, grab your sweetheart and spin out with them, do the hoedown and get into it.

BEREZNAK: So this song is much like the "Macarena" that it directs the type of dance moves that you're doing. And it also creates a very thematic atmosphere. You know, you feel really Western. You feel really country listening to it, but it's very poppy, too. Its high energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT UP")

BLANCO BROWN: (Singing) It's simple. You can do it. Slide to the left. Slide to the right, now cool down, have a good time. Slide to the left. Slide to the right. Do the butterfly, have a good time 'round.

BEREZNAK: You can be a bad dancer. Anyone can do it. You can follow along to the instructions in the song. And that's the way that the challenge spreads. And you can also dress up to it. You can put on a cowboy hat. You can put on cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, and all the sudden, you have transformed yourself in the challenge.

CORNISH: And Blanco Brown very much encourages this, right? I mean, this is one aspect of this. There's not some marketing team that says this is how it goes. It sounds like the artists are on board with understanding how to spread the music, how to make it viral.

BEREZNAK: Definitely. They want to encourage participation on these social networks. And it might not necessarily show up in every song, but artists are savvy. They know that they need to rise above the noise and stand out on the hottest new social network. And by including lyrics that are easy to dance to, easy to sing along to, they're doing that.

CORNISH: Another song that fits the bill, let's talk about "Steppin" by Supa Dupa Humble.

BEREZNAK: So with "Steppin," the intro is the most important part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEPPIN")

SUPA DUPA HUMBLE: I don't know. I don't know.

BEREZNAK: This I don't know to a beat actually is a frame for a challenge, and that's why it was picked up on TikTok. People really liked to sing along to the song and use it for visual cues like they didn't know about something. And so he didn't do that on purpose at first, but he recognized that that is the part of the song that caught on on TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEPPIN")

SUPA DUPA HUMBLE: I don't know. I don't know. (Rapping) 'Cause I'm steppin' on my toes, but I don't stop. I make flips out of my flops. My swag drippin' out my socks.

CORNISH: Is TikTok generating a shift in how these artists write music? Or are these artists just - is it able to take advantage of a kind of songwriting that was already happening?

BEREZNAK: I think it takes advantage of the songwriting that was already happening and sort of exploits it to the nth degree. So we all know that artists, they want to be taken seriously. They put out a full album of music that's supposed to have a cohesive theme. But there's always one or two singles that are definitely for that top 40 chart. You know, it's for radio hits. It's to be blasted in cars during the summertime. And I think that, like anything else, they're taking note of this medium and adding in elements that would make it popular on the medium. Artists are very savvy, and they know that they need to rise above the noise. And in some cases, that means catering to the latest hot social network.

CORNISH: Is TikTok the future of the music industry? There's been a lot of writing out there saying, look; this - you're not going to see Lil Nas X selling out any stadiums 20 years from now.

BEREZNAK: Yeah. And I spoke to a NYU professor who said as much. And I think that the issue here is that the music industry itself is shifting away from stories being told in albums and it's moving to stories being told in songs. So people care a lot more about singles because playlist culture is very strong, and people can decide what songs they want to listen to. They don't have to stick around for the whole album. People have shorter attention spans in that sense. And so that means the labels are kind of having to focus a little bit less on the overall artistic development of a singer or songwriter and focus more on these quick-hit singles. And TikTok's power in this area is very apparent, and they're looking to start a streaming service of their own in emerging markets like India. So they could very well be a really big player in the music industry a couple years from now, especially as we're becoming more global, more connected over the Internet.

CORNISH: Whether it's the advent of the radio or the MP3, there's always a question of, like, are people making good music on this new platform? What's the consensus around TikTok?

BEREZNAK: I'm not going to say that it's bad music. It's definitely a type of music. It might not be music that touches you deep in your soul, but it definitely evokes a certain type of emotion. And I think that's the most important thing with art. It's very uplifting. It can be moody at times, and it makes you want to move. It makes you want to participate in a movement. And if that's not good music, I don't know what is. I'm a complete poptimist in that sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT UP")

BLANCO BROWN: (Rapping) To the left. Take it down now. Take it - take it down now. Take it down now. Take it - take it down now.

CORNISH: Alyssa Bereznak writes about tech and culture for The Ringer. Thanks so much.

BEREZNAK: Thank you.

CORNISH: And by the way, this week, Blanco Brown's "The Git Up" hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT UP")

BLANCO BROWN: (Rapping) Do whatever you like right here. Just have fun. Gon' and do the two step... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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