Tech

TikTok’s Fate Matters to the Music Industry, But Not For The Reasons You Think

TikTok
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TikTok

TikTok’s potential U.S ban has sent alarm bells ringing throughout the creator community. Here’s how the music business is preparing for a world without it.

Since early last year, TikTok has become a valuable tool for record label executives like RCA Records senior vp digital marketing Tarek Al-Hamdouni, who has secured partnerships with top influencers on the platform to promote SAYGRACE’s "Boys Ain't Shit," Doja Cat’s "Say So" and other songs in their videos. So when President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this month effectively banning the Chinese-owned app in the U.S. unless it sells its operations there to an American company, citing national security risks, Al-Hamdouni was understandably concerned.

"For us, TikTok has been a tremendous way of reaching a very young music listener who is the base of our whole industry," he says. "I’m still really hopeful that the idea of a shutdown is largely a political tool and not necessarily a real conversation."

A TikTok ban would be an obvious blow to the platform’s community of more than 100 million U.S. users, who benefit from the app’s ability to “give creators a voice,” as 20 top creators (with a combined 129 million followers) explained in an open letter to Trump on Aug. 2 -- not to mention the company’s more than 1,500 employees at offices across the U.S., including in New York, Silicon Valley and a new Los Angeles outpost that opened in January. Microsoft, Twitter and Oracle are currently among the tech companies in talks to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations before Trump’s now-extended Nov. 12 deadline, although TikTok has threatened legal action against the executive order, which the company said came with "no due process or adherence to the law."

Regardless of how it all shakes out, numerous music and influencer marketing executives agree that the future of digital content is in short-form video (generally meaning 15- to 30-second clips) and that the same strategies the music industry uses to promote music on TikTok will continue to be applicable -- and just as important -- in the future. In that sense, it matters less whether TikTok itself survives or not, explains Brian Nelson, the co-founder of digital marketing agency The Network Effect, and more that "we’re actually witnessing the birth of a format."

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TikTok -- which grew out of the lip-synching social app Musical.ly after the Chinese tech firm ByteDance bought and then merged it with its own similar app in 2018 -- has enjoyed a status as the dominant short-form video app for the past two years (Twitter’s six-second video platform Vine shut down in early 2017). But similar platforms have been creeping up and are taking the opportunity of TikTok’s political troubles to grow their own popularity. Instagram launched its own short-form video platform, Reels, on Aug. 5. As of this month, longtime TikTok competitor Triller says it has 250 million global downloads (compared to TikTok’s more than 2 billion) and 65 million monthly active users -- an impressive spike from last October when the company reported 60 million downloads and 13 million monthly active users.

Creators & Labels Are Diversifying Platform Use

While many executives have a soft spot for TikTok’s particularly creative, diverse and hilarious community, savvy ones like Outshine Talent influencer management agency founder Barbara Jones -- who manages Charli D’Amelio, the 16-year-old with 80 million TikTok followers, alongside Manncom Creative Partners management company founder Billy Mann -- have always recommended that their clients cultivate followings across multiple platforms, since even the most powerful social media platforms fall out of style eventually. "For any credible talent or artist that lives in the digital space," she says, "a one-platform strategy is no longer an option."

She adds that competition makes platforms "better in the long run," and Mann, a Grammy Award-nominated songwriter-producer, thinks the record business benefits from that competition, too. "I think this is no different than a music industry that historically had a handful of distribution points, which now has a plethora of distribution points," Mann says. "It does provide a lot more à la carte distribution alternatives to talent."

As creators diversify across platforms, labels are doing the same. At RCA, Al-Hamdouni says his team is becoming fluent on Triller and other similar apps, "so that if we do have to change gears or shift our attention and focus, we don’t have to go through those learnings at the same time as we’re making that transition." He and several other industry sources have also begun adding clauses to their contracts with influencers, to specify which platforms the influencer will post on in the event that TikTok disappears or loses steam while the campaign is underway. "We’re not asking for anything more," Al-Hamdouni says. "We’re just asking for, if we end up getting less [than what we paid for], to help us make up the gap."

TikTok’s Changing Role in Music Discovery

Before marketers like Al-Hamdouni caught on to TikTok’s promotional opportunities, though, the platform had served as a path for undiscovered acts to find new listeners organically (like Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” blew up through a dance challenge on the platform). So if we lose TikTok, will we lose its democratization of music discovery as well?

Al-Hamdouni says not so fast, since as stars like D’Amelio and Addison Rae now dominate TikTok, the app isn’t kicking off trends as organically as it used to anyway. "It stops becoming a democracy and it starts becoming a little bit more like a fiefdom," he says. "Trends haven’t been coming out of nowhere as much as they did early-on. They’re much more coordinated, they’re much more centered around big songs and they tend to roll through really quickly."

Jacob Pace, the CEO of multiplatform media brand Flighthouse (which helps labels shape TikTok campaigns and connect with influencers), also thinks concerns that TikTok’s demise would seriously hamper music discovery are overblown.

"TikTok is the center of attention right now, and it’s the new way that records are obviously breaking," he says. "But people are like, 'There are going to be no more hits if TikTok gets shut down!' I’m like, 'Guys. There were hits before TikTok, and there are going to be hits after TikTok.'"

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Sizing Up the Competition: Triller, Reels and Others

TikTok’s major selling point as a platform is its discovery-focused algorithm, which serves each user a personalized “For You Page” feed of content it thinks the user will enjoy, placing less emphasis on views, follower counts and other metrics. While the process of creating a video on TikTok is similar to that on Triller -- so much so, in fact, that the company is suing TikTok over patent infringement -- the platform takes a more top-down approach in populating users’ feeds, and opens to a display of top videos and trending content. Whereas TikTok has clashed with the music industry over licensing, Triller seems to have prioritized working hand-in-hand with the music business: It counts Snoop Dogg, Marshmello and Lil Wayne as investors with active accounts of their own, has licensing deals with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Group and allows users to stream up to one minute of a song, while song clips on TikTok max out at 15 seconds. After India banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps in late June over national security concerns, Triller surged to No. 1 on the App Store in India. As of this week, Trump himself is a verified user.

But behind closed doors, some music industry executives are skeptical of Triller, which displays a sign with the phrase "TikTok is for kids" inside its Los Angeles headquarters. "They have a little bit too much of a top-down approach, where they get these big celebrities and investors and all of these different things," said one executive in the influencer and music space, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harming business relationships. "It doesn’t really lead to die-hard users; it just kind of gets you a flash-in-the-pan moment."

As for the platform’s choice to hire social media influencer Josh Richards as chief strategy officer in July? "I thought it was kind of a corny move," the executive said, "but hopefully [Triller] gets what they want."

Meanwhile, Instagram has an obvious advantage with Reels: "It’s amazing that the [new] features live inside of a platform with billions of users every month," says Network Effect co-founder Brian Mandler. Another prominent executive in the influencer space who asked to remain anonymous thinks that any brands looking for a TikTok alternative will head to Reels first. "Brands are comfortable working through Instagram, Facebook and Business Manager," the executive said. "They like the data they can get, the ad placement they can do. That will feel the most comfortable, versus another platform that’s still in its evolution." Even so, it’s too early to tell whether Reels will rally enough creators to compete with TikTok -- and for now, many Instagram users appear to be simply re-uploading their TikTok videos to Reels, with the TikTok watermark still attached.

Other platforms are bubbling up, such as Byte, which launched in February from the creator of Vine; the Chinese-owned Zynn, which launched in May; and Dubsmash, the platform known as the originator of the “Renegade” dance challenge which has been around since 2014 but has seen renewed popularity in the age of TikTok. According to a report from app analytics firm SensorTower, these three apps plus Triller collectively saw close to 1.5 million downloads in the week of July 27, after Trump threatened to ban TikTok -- a 361% uptick from the prior week.

More competitors are still to come. YouTube and Snapchat are reportedly working on TikTok-like products or features, and their user bases "already fit right between Gen-Z and young millennials," notes Mandler, "so it’s really the perfect space, if they can get it right and get it in front of them."

Audiences Aren’t Beholden to TikTok or Any Platform

Any creators who migrate to other platforms will surely have to rebuild some of their followings, but Mann says that in today’s digital environment, users are more comfortable switching platforms to follow an influencer than we may think. That’s as good news for the influencer community as it is for the music business.

"What shouldn’t be underestimated is how fluid digital native Gen-Z-ers are at maneuvering the changing tides in the digital world," he says. "My 6-year-old will adapt to whatever digital platform is the platform being used."

To put things in perspective, Jones adds, TikTok has only been around in the U.S. since 2018, and really only rose to prominence over the past year. While she and other executives interviewed for this story think TikTok will ultimately survive (and maybe even benefit from the current publicity), in truth, she says all platforms are simply "renting" their audiences, and the ability to adapt is crucial for both influencers and music marketers. In these coming weeks and months, that will prove truer than ever.

"One [platform] is always going to feel like the O.G.," she says, referring to TikTok. "But if that one doesn’t exist, they'll find another."