TikTok Is Rewriting How Hits Get Made

From left: Loren Gray, Lykke Li, Lizzo and Lil Nas X
Getty Images, Shutterstock

From left: Loren Gray, Lykke Li, Lizzo and Lil Nas X

Last year, when RCA Records executives noticed a surge in streams for Lykke Li’s 2018 song “sex money feelings die,” they traced the uptick to a fan-made, slowed-down version that TikTok users had been including in thousands of videos — and responded by releasing an official version in October to keep the trend going. Now, as artists like Lizzo and Lil Nas X score massive hits thanks in part to their popularity on the short-form-video app, labels and songwriters are figuring out how to reverse-engineer such viral moments, often from a track’s inception.

“If you can visualize something quickly while listening, it’s probably going to work for the platform,” says RCA senior vp digital marketing Tarek Al-Hamdouni. That means big bass drops, call-and-response lyrics and pop culture references. In fact, RCA has started releasing new versions of songs with embedded audio from other areas of pop culture exclusively for the platform. To further tap into TikTok tropes, the label recently added a clip from the 2010 movie Hot Tub Time Machine to the start of Oliver Heldens and Riton’s “Turn Me On,” which samples Yaz’s 1982 classic “Don’t Go.” Says Al-Hamdouni, “What we’ve seen work well is costume changes, so the idea was [to get users] to start doing transitions into ’80s clothing.”

Songwriter Jesse Saint John, who co-wrote Lizzo’s No. 1 hit “Truth Hurts,” thinks the song took off on TikTok because of its instantly quotable “I just took a DNA test” lyric — and he has since seen an uptick in what he calls “hook-y, bad bitch” catchphrases. “If a song has a standout clever line, it’s fun to use for your video,” he says. But not everything has to be upbeat: Warner Records senior vp fan engagement and digital marketing Elissa Ayadi says the label found success promoting Disturbed’s “Hold on to Memories” on TikTok, where the number of videos featuring the song jumped from only 10 to over 1,000 following a late-2019 campaign. “You wouldn’t say this is a band that’s TikTok-able, but they had a powerful song [that touched on] depression,” she says. “That’s TikTok-able because it’s something people related to.”

Still, TikTok users’ tastes are constantly evolving. Al-Hamdouni estimates that memes and challenges have a life span of about four to six weeks; by the time an artist releases a song, he says, they “might make something the platform has moved on from.” Capitol Records artist Loren Gray — TikTok’s most-followed person, with over 35 million followers — believes tailoring music to the app only goes so far. “People will ask me to make videos to their songs because they expect them to blow up, but it doesn’t necessarily work,” she says. “The things that do blow up are authentic and happen organically.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of Billboard.