A few years ago, after working with labels and managing artists for close to two decades, Mary Rahmani was itching for a change. “The music industry can be stuck in its traditional ways — ‘if this has worked for a decade, we’ll keep doing it,'” she explains. In contrast, she suspected that “startups are really open in terms of taking chances, seeing what works and what doesn’t, using data to determine if they want to pivot or continue.”
She eventually found a job with the Chinese company ByteDance, which had recently purchased Musical.ly, an app known for lip-syncing videos, and relaunched it as TikTok.
In November 2018, Rahmani became the company’s first music hire in North America. “When I started there weren’t even internal meetings yet,” she recalls. “I remember talking with several executives to determine how often we should have marketing and data meetings.” At the time, much of the music industry looked at TikTok as an upstart, if not a potential embarrassment. “Major labels were hesitant pitching the platform to their priority artists,” Rahmani says. “Platforms come and go, and they thought it was a place for kids and for dancing. And a lot of the power users today didn’t want to onboard in the beginning.”
Suffice it to say that the music industry’s opinion of TikTok has shifted radically since late 2018; it is now widely acknowledged as the most important driver of streaming activity. And after having played a part as TikTok became a juggernaut, Rahmani left the company and hopped back into the label game, partnering with Republic on a new joint venture, Moon Projects, and using her experience with TikTok to help find and market talent. Her first signing, Em Beihold, just scored a top 20 hit on the Hot 100 with “Numb Little Bug.”
“I always say my For You feed is one of the best,” Rahmani quips. “Don’t send me a cat video — it’ll ruin my algorithm.”
“Social media is essential for emerging artists, but utilizing these platforms correctly requires an understanding on the label side of each artist’s authenticity,” says Ben Adelson, GM of Mercury Records, who helped broker Rahmani’s relationship with Republic. (Republic re-launched Mercury as an imprint in April.) “Mary’s previous experience helps tremendously in this space and her skills are clearly evident with the success of Em Beihold’s campaign thus far.”
Rahmani has worked across multiple sectors of the music industry — interning in publicity (“I didn’t enjoy cutting press clippings”), joining Astralwerks as an artist development rep, moving to Interscope to help with financial marketing (“It wasn’t very creative, but I learned how record labels spendt”) while also managing artists on the side; one of these acts, Airborne Toxic Event, earned enough buzz to land a deal with what was then the Island Def Jam Music Group. She also did a stint in publishing and later led A&R for Harvest Records.
In 2016, Rahmani split to start an individual consultancy advising apps that were intent on breaking into the music space. It was a new challenge — “I didn’t know much about the digital sector,” she says — and a rejuvenating one. “Tech doesn’t deem something a failure if it’s not successful,” she explains. “It’s more like, ‘How can we learn from this for next time?'”
Once she started at TikTok, Rahmani also found that “ByteDance was really interested in my opinions” in a way the music business hadn’t always been. “I was validated,” she remembers. “They were really looking to me as an expert in the industry.”
Though music is now inextricably linked with TikTok, it’s just one of the verticals within the company; a key component of Rahmani’s job, especially early on, was to fight to prioritize musical content. “The beauty team advocated for their brands; the creator team advocated for their influencers,” she says. “The music team was very small [Rahmani and two others], and we were the stepchildren a little bit in the beginning.”
Musical.ly was known for younger users that liked lip-syncing and dance videos; when ByteDance bought the company and launched TikTok, it worked hard to attract older users and diversify the type of clips that flourished on the platform. Early on, though, some of the prominent music-related trends hewed closely to the Musical.ly formula. “We can’t ignore tracks or trends because it happens to be a dance, it happens to be a lip-sync,” was one of Rahmani’s mantras. “We still have to allocate resources behind it.”
She also spent time aggressively trying to convince labels that TikTok could help their artists, while also assuaging the fears of acts who felt like they couldn’t match the level of creativity exhibited by some of the app’s prominent influencers. “I would be sent to a lot of artists’ houses and studios to reassure them: ‘You just have to be yourself and acknowledge that your song is being used,'” Rahmani says.
Labels started to come around to TikTok once they saw its users volley single after single onto the charts. “There would be so many artists working with labels who weren’t being prioritized, and all of a sudden, their song would trend, I would bring them in, help to onboard them and keep the moment going, and suddenly they’re being taken seriously, they’re going on tour, they’re on the radio,” Rahmani says. “Having that button-pressing power was really enticing to me.”
She started to think about leaving TikTok during the pandemic. “I felt like I had to fight harder for my campaigns, for budgets, for attention, and it was frustrating for me,” she says. And when President Trump started attacking the platform and threatening to ban it, labels started calling Rahmani, asking if she had any plans in terms of next steps. (It’s not unusual for labels to poach talent from prominent streaming platforms like Spotify, and sometimes vice versa.)
Rahmani decided to keep a foot in both worlds. On the one hand, she launched her label with Republic. (“Watching the care and consideration she had with our own acts while at TikTok made it very easy to partner with her when the time came,” Adelson adds.) But Rahmani also maintains a consultancy to help music and management companies with their digital marketing strategy.
She stumbled across Em Beihold on TikTok, of course. “There was no trend around her, but the tone of her voice I loved so much,” Rahmani says. “It reminded me of Fiona Apple and Sara Bareilles.” Beihold was already working with Live2, a group of filmmakers that helps rising artists tell their stories, and she also became Moon Projects’ first signing. So far, she’s the label’s only act, though Rahmani is in the “wining and dining” phase with a second act.
Beihold had already written “Numb Little Bug” — an unexpectedly chirpy song, considering it’s about the anesthetizing effects of antidepressants — but had not released it. The singer posted a series of videos teasing the song on TikTok; in one clip from January 19, Beihold spins on a gurney as people leap around behind her. It’s dizzying and popular, with nearly seven million views.
Rahmani chipped in with “best practices 101” on TikTok: “Let’s make sure there’s more light [in your videos], let’s do more personality posts, talk about who you are as a person, share some of them on your Instagram stories.” She worked to seed the track with small influencers who specialized in videos about mental health, beauty and fashion, and food, among others.
Pre-save campaigns have become prized in the music industry; labels believe that the number of fans who take the extra step of clicking a link, logging into their streaming service of choice, and pre-saving a track that’s added to their personal library immediately upon release serves as a strong sign of future streaming potential. “Numb Little Bug” amassed a pre-save count in the high five figures before release.
During Rahmani’s last go-round as a label executive, pre-saves hadn’t been viewed as an important metric, so she started canvassing people she knew. “What is this number, is it good?” Her friends responded in the affirmative. “Avery and Monte [Lipman] were texting me about it,” Rahmani says. “That’s how I knew: Something’s different about this one.”
When I strategize…
I get a clear understanding of the client’s or artist’s project, including their goals in the short and long term. It’s important to lean into authentic, organic moments and creators within pop culture. By doing so, your song, presence and campaigns will have a more sustained connection to your audience. In parallel, you’ll build a foundation within various other relevant, diverse verticals. Human curation is essential in building discovery and growth.
That there is only one me, and that comparing myself to others doesn’t do me any good. I’ve learned to step into my confidence and all my experience that my roles have provided me. There’s a reason why I love what I do — it’s a part of who I am. It’s essential to listen to your instincts and follow your own approach. Building my lane has been a journey and I’m so thankful to have done it my way.
It was always obvious to me…
When I’d discover an artist or song and knew it would make an impact. It’s about the initial emotion and feeling you get as a listener or user, and trusting that others will celebrate it the same way. I love being a part of creativity and building something new, whether it’s for the first time or reimagined by a new generation. It’s about advocating for what’s next.
I knew I was committed to music when…
I was on my journey of building my career and went through a few ups and many downs. I was tested by negative environments, people, low salaries, layoffs, harassments and the sad but typical stories many have experienced in the entertainment industries. I had moments where I’d take a year or so to dive into another career path, but music and working with artists would always pull at my soul and nothing else was fulfilling my happiness and goals. I knew if I just kept at it, and learned as much as I could to diversify and empower my background and experience, that the balance of my work and vision would one day click.