Mondo.NYC: How Digital Marketers at Arista, RCA & More Are Shifting Their Strategies to TikTok

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California-based rapper 24kGoldn, 18, was on bed rest after getting his wisdom teeth removed when he noticed his April 2018 song "Valentino" popping off on TikTok. The song appeared in everything from a science experiment caught on camera to a dance video and a cooking tutorial.

"Every hour, it was going up by 1,000 [videos]," he remembers. "I watched it and tracked it, and it’s really amazing how one video can really spur a trend." He soon landed a record deal with Barry Weiss' RECORDS, a subsidiary of Columbia, and by now, "Valentino" has generated more than 673,000 videos on the app.

He joins numerous artists who have gotten a boost from TikTok over the past year, most notably Hot 100 record-breaker Lil Nas X. But at the Mondo.NYC conference in Brooklyn on Thursday (Oct. 17), 2kGoldn along with panelists Ethan Geltzer (Arista Records), Tarek Al-Hamdouni (RCA Records) and Max Bernstein (Muuser) discussed how labels are now reverse-engineering hits to take off on the platform -- by following video trends, pushing dance challenges and even changing the rhythm of songs. 

"We've A&R'd records for the platform, and delivered exclusive versions for the platform," said Geltzer, head of digital marketing at Arista. That has meant hitting a particular BPM or adding a call-and-response bit to the song, he added.

24kGoldn says he favors lyrics that are "easy to follow along" with. Another favored strategy is to look at what video effects and meme formats are trending on the platform -- from the reverse effect to wardrobe transformations -- and adjust accordingly.

"If you think of TikTok like a high school, things are trendy," added Bernstein, founder of music marketing agency Muuser. "When I was in middle school, I would never get caught wearing my backpack on both shoulders -- it was just what you did. It’s the same on TikTok."

TikTok's rise has not been without controversy. The panel, presented in partnership with Rolling Stone and moderated by staff writer Brittany Spanos, came the day after the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) called on Congress to investigate the app over potential copyright theft. Major labels have bargained for better licensing deals with the company, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance. And in July, the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office launched an investigation into TikTok's use of children's personal data.

Labels are also being swept into action when songs blow up on TikTok months to years after release. RCA senior vp digital marketing Al-Hamdouni says the label is releasing a new take on Lykke Li's 2018 track "sex money feelings die" after a fan's rejiggered, slowed-down version recently made the rounds on TikTok. 

"We saw these constant lifts from people on Spotify and Apple Music [...] and we had never worked it as a single," he says. That's when he realized that on TikTok, "a fan had slowed it down into a different BPM, and that version of the song started taking off." Currently, it's Lykke Li's third most popular song on Spotify.

Even so, Al-Hamdouni warns against relying only on TikTok: "It's not going to guarantee you success," he said. Plus, it's hard to predict when a song will get a bump on the app, or how long the impact will last. When a meme about Miley Cyrus' character in a Black Mirror episode lasted two weeks on the platform, Al-Hamdouni says RCA was "pretty happy." 

"A viral moment can be a day, a week, or months," added 24kGoldn. "You do have to create good music and be focused on everything around TikTok as well."

Bernstein added that TikTok's grip is strong because, thanks to its basis in meme-making, every video on the platform reinforces more video creation -- and everyone's competing for the same goal.

"Every single user on the platform is there to become famous," he said. "And TikTok has done an amazing job convincing the world that you can become famous overnight."