Growing up queer in the small town of Upton, Mass., Elissa Ayadi says, “I found my tribe online.” Today, she and Spencer Moya help major-label artists find their own digital communities: With Ayadi’s guidance and analytics, Dua Lipa has boosted her Instagram following exponentially since 2016, while Moya’s best practices helped Billie Eilish amass an audience of over 76 million followers across platforms. Albuquerque, N.M., native Moya, 31, says the support he received from female friends when he came out at age 20 after moving to Los Angeles inspires him to champion female artists at work: “I love helping them tell their stories.”
Lately, the two Los Angeles-based digital gurus have become their labels’ in-house experts on TikTok, the short-form video app owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance that is increasingly fueling hits through memes and dance challenges — and shaping queer culture in unexpected ways.
Moya initially downloaded TikTok for fun, but he soon realized the app’s easy song integration had the potential to break new tracks. “Music is really embedded into its DNA,” he says, “and the dance aspect lends itself to content that’s easily replicated.” Ayadi, meanwhile, already had experience promoting Warner artists on Musical.ly, the lip-syncing video app that ByteDance acquired and merged with TikTok in 2018. “It was entertaining to watch kids create something wholly unique,” she says.
In the wake of TikTok success stories like Lil Nas X and Lizzo, Moya says every project he works on now includes a TikTok strategy, whether that means in-app advertising, partnering with creators to spark music-based trends — which multiple sources tell Billboard typically costs a label low to mid five figures — or teaching artists to create eye-catching content themselves. Ayadi has worked with influencers to promote challenges with music from Saweetie and Ali Gatie, and she recently had success with the #full180 video trend, in which users acted out leaving awkward situations to Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.” Videos using the hashtag have generated over 3.1 billion views, undoubtedly helping the song reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March.
TikTok has had a bumpy relationship with the LGBTQ community: In multiple instances last year, users in the United States and abroad accused the app of taking down videos that were made by LGBTQ creators or featured pro-LGBTQ content; TikTok has said it was the unintended consequence of blanket measures to curb bullying content. Yet thanks to its free-flowing, anything-goes mentality, TikTok is fostering a supportive community for queer youth, who use the app to share coming-out experiences, explore gender expression in makeup tutorials and otherwise find themselves through dance and humor. “I wish I had something like this when I was a teenager,” says Moya. “I might have come out much sooner.”
One of Ayadi’s favorite TikTok trends happened organically: Earlier this year, young women started posting videos set to Warner artist Jason Derulo’s “Get Ugly,” lip-syncing to the lyric “This girl straight and this girl not” as a way to come out to friends and loved ones — a method as heartfelt as it is refreshingly nonchalant. “It’s empowering for it to be just a facet of who you are,” says Ayadi. “That’s something I’ve been waiting for since I was a kid.”
This article originally appeared in the June 13, 2020 issue of Billboard.
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