Jaylin Hawkins was working as a court reporter in Washington, D.C. when the pandemic hit. “Suddenly all my work froze,” they say. So the then-25-year-old did what many young adults did at the time: moved back in with their parents. Cooped up in West Palm Beach, Florida, Hawkins recalls friends urging them to get on TikTok. “At the time I thought TikTok was just for kids doing dance moves,” Hawkins admits. But without much else to do, they gave it a try by uploading videos that offered new music suggestions and entertainment news recaps.
Meanwhile in San Luis Obisbo, California, then-college senior Max Motley was also starting to share self-taped videos, highlighting his favorite emerging artists on TikTok. He says he had spent the whole spring relentlessly applying for music business jobs, hoping his summer internship at Paradigm would at least help him land a mail room gig, but with live music shuttered and increased competition for remaining music jobs, Motley found himself 20 applications deep and with no offer letter in sight.
After researching how other people found their first gigs in music, Motley became inspired by the do-it-yourself nature of starting a blog like Jacob Moore’s Pigeons and Planes or a YouTube channel like Anthony Fantano’s The Needle Drop. He thought, since no one was hiring anyway, he might as well spend his quarantine building a TikTok account to recommend music instead, giving the blog and YouTube critic a Gen-Z twist. “I thought this would make sense as the next format for a music blog,” he says, noting the app’s fast-paced nature and its already solid usership of young people.
For many of TikTok’s most successful music curators, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for getting on the app to share recommendations of new songs, and now, about two years later, these videos made in their childhood bedrooms are responsible for launching successful careers in the music business. Plenty of headlines have espoused the merits of using TikTok to promote new artists and songs, but less has been said about the new class of music business executives beginning to break on the app too, circumventing the notoriously exclusive path into the industry usually required.
On TikTok, there seems to be a place for anyone with passion to find an audience, due to algorithms that can quickly connect niche creators with niche audiences. Instead of the traditional model of social media, dependent on following friends to build out news feeds, TikTok serves up content based on shared interests. Because of this, if TikTok thinks a user is a fan of bedroom pop, often that user will be shown Motley’s latest video about the subgenre, even if they don’t follow him.
This constant creator discovery allows fledgling music curators to build a quick, loyal audience on TikTok, perhaps easier than any other app. That’s what happened for Motley’s account “Mostley Music” which swelled to 231K followers for recommending everything “from indie pop to hip-hop,” as he says in his characteristic tagline. Hawkins’ account, called “Pablo the Don,” also quickly amassed a following. Now at 222.5K followers, Hawkins’ is known for telling it to you straight, whether that’s offering their opinion on music news or sharing songs from overlooked artists, often from marginalized communities.
Other curators who started building their accounts at the same time as Motley and Hawkins have come to own other niches as music curators. Jesea Lee, for example, gained a presence sharing his favorite rock, alt, and metal picks to the millennial and older Gen Z set, Carla Turi of “Carla’s Infinite Playlist” built her following by sharing her thoughtful playlists of indie rock, folk and acoustic songs to an audience of mostly women and LGBTQ+ viewers. Ari Elkins went for the everyman by suggesting tracks to fit relatable situations, rather than genres – like driving in the car with the windows down.
“It’s crazy how you can build something yourself and leapfrog these [early steps] in the music business,” Elkins says of building his TikTok account. “Now you don’t have to wait on anyone.” When he started out, he was a student at University of Michigan, working part time as a college rep for Warner. After focusing on widening his TikTok presence during quarantine, he’s now perhaps the biggest music curator on the app with 1.9 million followers and counting and has leveraged that following into a successful hosting career, including Spotify Live’s Soundtrack Your Day, Simon Cowell and TikTok’s Stem Drop, and various Live Nation events. Long term, he says he wants to be thought of as Gen Z’s Zane Lowe.
To William Gruger, global music programs for TikTok, these kinds of music curators are already this generation’s “new media personalities,” pointing out the similarities in cultural taste making between these creators on TikTok and VJs at the height of MTV’s reign.
Within a year of posting as Mostley Music, Motley found himself suddenly able to break into the industry which felt impenetrable to him just months earlier. Atlantic and Interscope/ Darkroom offered him A&R consultant gigs and Spotify tapped him as co-host of their Spotify Live show Lorem Life. And just a few months ago, Motley co-founded a label of his own. Called Music Soup, the record label provides expertise in digital marketing and was the first to use TikTok Sound On as a distributor. Motley says if it hadn’t been for building out Mostley Music during quarantine, he’d probably be working his way up slowly in the ranks from the assistant level of a record label – not founding his own at age 24.
Hawkins is still focusing on building their numbers on TikTok with the long term goal of being a major personality rather than an executive, but in 2021, their account led them to a full time gig on the social media team at United Masters which allows them better access to the industry and the ability to earn a steady wage from content creation.
Turi says curating Carla’s Infinite Playlist proved to be “absolutely instrumental” in landing her “dream” job as folk and acoustic curator at Spotify. “It gave me the credibility to have the position I’m in,” she says. Lee, who is now a DJ for SiriusXM Octane and works with events like Lollapalooza and When We Were Young, goes further to call building his TikTok music curation account “life changing.”
Some curators have slowed their use of the app – like Turi and Motley – after earning the highly-coveted industry roles, but others still make posting on TikTok to be a major priority. For those curators interested in more public-facing roles in music, maintaining their account can be instrumental to landing brand partnerships and paid hosting gigs off-platform.
No matter what they are doing with the app now, their ability to use TikTok as a career launchpad has proven that the app has further democratized not only which artists can succeed but also who can become an industry tastemaker.
“I wasn’t born into this business,” Hawkins says. “So I had to find my own way in. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but now I have even bigger goals for the future.”