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TikTok Curators Are Helping Songs Go Viral — and Labels Are Writing Checks

TikTokers used to find music primarily through dance trends. Now they're gravitating to creators who recommend new songs.

Spencer Stewart got on TikTok in 2020 hoping to promote his own music. He began to post every single day as Syspence, settling on an initial strategy to capture viewers: Uploading a clip about the rise of a well-known artist like Juice WRLD, and then “figuring out a way to loop the video around to my song” so he could plug his own work as well.

Syspence noticed that “people liked the storytelling about artists like Juice,” so he gradually started to remove his own career from his clips, focusing instead on narrating the rise of the hip-hop acts he loved. His videos began to get more views, and his follower count started to climb from around 10,000 to its current level — more than 350,000. Artists and labels are constantly combing TikTok for promotional opportunities, and they began reaching out to see if Syspence would make videos about their artists for a promotional fee. Within the last year, he was able to quit his valet-parking job in Orange County to focus full-time on TikTok. Now he is one of close to a dozen TikTok creators — with followings ranging from around 40,000 to over three million — managed by Against the Grain (ATG), an L.A.-based management and marketing company.

Syspence and many of his peers describe themselves as “music curators,” and while “curator” is a vague and overused term, this job has become increasingly popular recently as a means of music industry promotion. “TikTok is a go-to for music discovery, and these posts hit the exact Gen Z fans we’re trying to target,” says Harrison Golding, director of marketing for Empire, who keeps in touch with more than 50 curators. “With so many labels invested in pushing music on TikTok right now, people are spending a crazy amount of cash on promotion, but we’re finding that we can make a splash [via a curator post] with 400 or 500 bucks.”

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Curator promotion “is a big part of most of our campaigns,” adds Jen Darmafall, associate director of influencer marketing at Warner Records. These accounts “play a big role in songs potentially going viral.”

The creators behind TikTok’s music recommendation accounts are able to facilitate discovery in part because their approach is “more personal” than reading about a song in a publication or finding it on a streaming service, according to Jarred Jermaine, a longtime producer who has mostly abandoned making songs to focus on TikTok. “That’s coming from a corporation; it’s too official,” he says. “This is like learning about music from a kid down the street.” Darmafall uses similar language: “There’s a sense of relatability that these curators have.

“TikTok is not just the dancing platform anymore,” adds Rebecca Versteegh, head of music partnerships for Creed Media, which has run digital marketing campaigns for nearly every major label. “Now you have every sort of community on the platform, and the music discovery community has come into its own.”

The TikTokers who want to turn users on to new tracks employ a variety of methods. Jermaine enjoys unpacking sample references for his three-million-plus followers, quickly identifying the old bones (Robin S’ “Show Me Love,” for example) of a new song (Charli XCX’s “Used to Know Me”). Nicolas Nuvan (1.4 million followers) does man-on-the-street interviews asking people what they’re listening to.

Ari Elkins takes a different approach, often highlighting a hit (Joji’s “Glimpse of Us” for example) and directing his 1.8 million followers to similar tracks (Finneas’ “Break My Heart Again”). (Elkins’ manager, Ryan McAvoy, brought the TikToker to ATG, helped the company build out its curator network, and now works across all their campaigns.) Videos from Annabelle Kline (113,000 followers) run the gamut from “Albums I’ve been loving” to “What his favorite Brent Faiyaz song says about him.”

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Each of these techniques can help a track’s streams to jump. “If one of these posts hits, it can take a song that’s doing 5,000 streams a day on Apple Music and push it to 200,000 a day,” Golding says. “You’re going to see a real translation to streams because that’s the whole subject matter of the TikTok post — you’re talking about a song,” adds a senior label executive who requested anonymity to speak about his marketing efforts. “The music isn’t background noise.” 

It can be difficult to isolate the individual effect of one post, considering that many artists are carrying on multiple marketing efforts simultaneously. Still, examining the rise in Spotify monthly listeners after some TikTok posts from self-described curators shows a positive correlation, especially for young acts who are still in the early stages of building a fanbase.

Axel Tanner, for example, earned around 4 million views on a video recommending Hans Williams’ “Checklist”: in the 48 hours after the Williams clip, the singer’s monthly listener count jumped by 17,000, an increase of 13%. (Tanner partnered with Billboard and Samsung at SXSW.) Similarly, Nuvan’s clip on Kinrose led to a jump of around 14,000 monthly listeners. Like Williams, Kinrose is relatively unknown, so this was a leap of more than 18%. In the 48 hours following a popular “Songs that make you feel like a villain part 11” post from Elkins that featured Neoni’s “Darkside,” the group added close to 40,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.

The money from the additional streams goes to the artists or their labels. But marketers say that TikTok’s human recommendation engines also stand to gain hundreds or even upward of a thousand dollars per post from artists or labels, plus additional revenue from brand partnerships. (While there are rules about paying for play on the airwaves, digital platforms aren’t regulated in the same way, and paying to place songs in TikTok videos is routine.) Gain enough of a following, and this money can add up to the point where highlighting new music on TikTok becomes a full-time job, as it is for Syspence, Jermaine and others.

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But financial incentives can also tempt curators to make poor decisions — taking money to play a pop song on a hip-hop focused account, for example, doesn’t make much sense from a marketing perspective. “You start to see posts from these kids where it’s like, ‘Nobody feels that way about that song,'” the senior label executive says. “That kid probably took a $200 check to make that.”

Omid Noori, the co-founder of ATG along with Ramzi Najdawi, is careful to send promotional opportunities around to his roster to see who opts in, rather than force-feeding songs through their accounts. “We have these conversations — ‘make sure you’re not just taking this one because money’s green,’” Noori explains.

Tanner says he has been turning down paid promotions right and left. “It’s a little painful in the short run saying no to all these bags,” he admits. “But I will only ever put stuff that I genuinely rock with on the platform.”