Thundercat‘s “Them Changes” is steeped in funk history, with drums that nod to The Isley Brothers‘ “Footsteps in the Dark,” stutter-stepping at 82 beats per minute, and a wobbling bass line. On Sept. 22, the TikTok account Ezzsounds posted a simple remix of the track, pushing the tempo until the song catches the jitters. This new version was a world away from the slow-and-low original — at 114 beats per minute, it’s like a train threatening to jump the tracks. TikTokers loved it.
“By the next Monday, we had already seen the streams double,” says Will Slattery, vp of North American marketing operations for the independent label Ninja Tune. The company sent an official sped-up rendition of “Them Changes” to streaming services and worked with marketing companies to increase the new version’s exposure on TikTok. The single cracked Billboard‘s Hot R&B Songs chart in October, a first for Thundercat as a lead artist. (Thundercat is signed to Brainfeeder, which is distributed by Ninja Tune.)
“Sped-up tracks feel like a thing, but I was not expecting it to happen to Thundercat,” says Josh Berman, who leads marketing efforts for the artist’s management company, Really Happening. “I’ve seen trends happen and they’re gone in 72 hours. We’re really blessed that this one’s still going.”
Sped-up versions of songs, especially older ones, have thrived on TikTok for years — Cafuné’s “Tek It,” Demi Lovato‘s “Cool for the Summer,” Ellie Goulding‘s “Lights,” Sam Smith‘s “I’m Not the Only One,” and Nelly Furtado‘s “Say It Right,” for example, all enjoyed streaming bumps thanks to the success of uptempo reworks. This style now appears to be on the verge of reaching a new level of mainstream exposure. “Sped up songs are becoming insanely popular,” says Tyler Blatchley, co-founder of the label Black 17 Media, which has producers working on pell-mell renditions of many major-label tracks.
“Back in the day, we used club remixes to diversify the visibility of a record,” explains Nima Nasseri, global head of A&R strategy for Universal Music Group’s music strategy and tactics team. “The purpose was to bring back visibility to the main version. Now people are discovering the main version from the sped-up or slowed one. Instead of spending $50,000 for a remix from a big-name DJ, you’re spending relatively minimal amounts [on a sped-up rendition] and getting much more return and reach.”
“These remixes have been a thing for a while,” adds 20-year-old Tristan Olsen (xxtristanxo on TikTok), who has amassed more than 3 million followers on the app with videos of him playing tempo-shifted edits, usually in a red-lit room, while sporting dark sunglasses. Happily for him, “the industry is catching up now.”
It’s easy to survey TikTok or scan streaming charts and conclude that songs which zip along at a breakneck pace are popular on the app. It’s much harder to explain why.
The genre known as nightcore, which also centers on music that’s sped up and pitched up, was popular long before the debut of TikTok. Nightcore eventually filtered into the PC Music scene, which spawned artists like SOPHIE and A.G. Cook, who went on to work with pop stars (Charli XCX, Madonna). But its hit-making power was negligible compared to TikTok’s sped-up song ecosystem.
Steven Pardo, digital marketing director at Secretly Group, believes that “in a video platform that prioritizes catching attention immediately, being able to get the impact of the lyrics across more quickly is advantageous.” On top of that, “dancers [on TikTok] love the chipmunk versions” of songs, according to Kuya Magik, a producer and DJ with more than 11 million TikTok followers.
Part of TikTok’s power also stems from the way it makes room for users to fiddle with songs and upload their versions of popular sounds, changing the stakes of fan engagement. “We’re seeing in consumer surveys how much Gen Z wants to actively participate in music,” notes Tatiana Cirisano, an analyst at MIDiA Research and former Billboard reporter. “They don’t just listen and consume passively; they make their own videos, remix the song.”
This ethos doesn’t only impact TikTok through sped-up tracks. The platform is awash in “sped-up versions, slowed-down versions, clap-track versions, versions that are super heavy on reverb, like turned-all-the-way-up-to-11 kind of sh–,” says Johnny Cloherty, co-founder of the digital marketing company Songfluencer. “Everyone’s experimenting with this stuff.” Jacob Byrnes, director of creator relations and content strategy for Universal Music Group’s music strategy and tactics team, recently had a meeting with a TikTok marketing company that informed him that 80% of the top 100 sounds on the app were tempo-altered; some sprint, while others crawl. (A rep for TikTok declined to comment.)
There are a number of popular TikTok pages that specialize in this material — not only KuyaMagik and xxtristanxo, but also Itsjovynn (9.7 million followers), Spxedupsongs (5 million followers), Speedysongs (2.7 million followers), and Bestspedup (2 million followers). Now artists and labels are paying some the creators in this niche to edit their tracks, seeking to harness their promotional firepower; these accounts seem to have captured some of the king-making abilities once reserved for top influencers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae.
While some of these pages post remixes along with eye-catching visual clips, others don’t do much more than post a new version of a track next to its lyrics. Ezzsounds, which helped launch Thundercat’s “Them Changes” onto the Hot R&B Songs chart, hails from the latter camp; the account is more than 700,000 followers strong. Pardo from Secretly Group has his eye on the page Ex7stence (4.4 million followers), which recently helped popularize sped-up versions of songs by Phoebe Bridgers and Bon Iver. “The velocity of sounds that come off that page in the past couple of weeks has been fascinating,” Pardo says.
Historically, the music industry has not been comfortable with unauthorized remixes. Nasseri and Byrnes even initially encountered some resistance from artists’ teams when they started pushing to release official tempo-altered versions of singles. “It was six months of explaining to people what this is and begging them to approve it,” Nasseri says.
“There was a long period of ‘trust us on this,'” Byrnes adds. His pitch: “This is the new remix. This is better than a remix.”
Suffice it to say that “long period” of doubt has come to an end. “I see artists dropping the sped-up version with the official one on release date to try to see if that catches on and points back to the original,” says Johnny Minardi, vp of A&R at Elektra Music Group. “It’s become one of those alternate looks to try to start the song or get a little bit more life out of it.” Two marketers say it’s routine for them to pay TikTok accounts to put out edits of songs they’re promoting; the cost is usually between $50 and $200.
Interscope just released an accelerated version of Summer Walker‘s entire Last Day of Summer project, billing it as the “first sped-up album.” UMG does “bulk agreements” with Xxtristanxo for remixes of its music, according to Byrnes. “He has 3 million monthly listeners [on Spotify] from these remixes — they generate so much money for us and for these artists,” the executive says.
The Spotify account Sped Up Nightcore, which only posts uptempo remixes of songs from Warner Music Group, is earning close to 2 million plays a day, according to the Spotify for Artists app — numbers many acts would hack off an arm for. (While none of Sped Up Nightcore’s releases on Spotify have any public credit information, Warner is claiming ownership of most of these songs on YouTube; a rep for Warner did not respond to a question about the label’s relationship with the account.)
Kuya Magik, who also does remixes for UMG, says messing with a track’s tempo and posting it on TikTok “doesn’t always work — but if that sound goes in front of the right person, you’ve got a gold mine in terms of a viral song.” Case in point: Cafuné’s “Tek It – Sped Up” has more than 95 million Spotify streams, almost as many as there are on the original, which surely makes it one of the most commercially successful singles in this style. (Minardi signed the band to Elektra.) The popularity of the jittery “Them Changes” on TikTok led weekly streams of the original to triple from mid-September to mid-October, according to Luminate. Slattery from Ninja Tune says streams of the rest of Thundercat’s catalog increased as well.
Most executives who have engaged with the sped-up ecosystem agree that it’s particularly effective for reviving songs that are more than 18 months old. “It’s a great avenue for promoting catalog tracks,” says Slattery. “People enjoy sped-up versions of songs that they already know” — like “Them Changes,” which already had more than 150 million Spotify streams before its recent surge. “When there’s familiarity with the song to begin with,” Slattery continues, “it helps it go farther and increases demand.”
That means there’s a potential opportunity for record companies. “If I was a label with a big catalog, I would start creating three to five versions of all my biggest hits with different tempos,” Cloherty says. “I would just have a producer on staff creating them nonstop all day every day.”
“What would ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ sound like sped up?” he wonders. “I don’t know. But that could be the next TikTok hit.”