TikTok is known for compulsively addictive short-form video, and for the past three years, much of the music industry has been hooked. By now, the platform is widely viewed as the most potent driver of streaming activity; marketing strategies often center on trying to harness the app’s users to touch off hits.
Lately, however, there’s been a noticeable shift in the way the music business talks about TikTok. One major-label executive with experience running campaigns on the platform recently mused to colleagues that he thought it was “dead” for breaking new songs. Another calls it “not workable.” “Does TikTok break hits now?” asks an A&R executive. “There’s a bunch of stuff going off there that’s not even a hit. We’re running on the inertia of what it was.”
“TikTok is eating itself,” declares Max Bernstein, who founded the marketing agency Muuser. “It still drives consumption if you get it right, but it’s much harder to maneuver now. Trends are siloed when they used to be community-wide, and influencer media is becoming prohibitively expensive.”
A number of A&Rs and marketers feel similarly, and they are trying to adjust strategies when it comes to signing artists and allocating marketing dollars. It’s the music business’ version of algorithmic anxiety: An industry accustomed to figuring out how to leverage promotional tools to favor its artists is learning that TikTok is increasingly tough to control.
Not everyone agrees, of course. Tyler Blatchley, co-founder of the label Black 17 Media, which has had success on TikTok, calls the idea that the platform is “not workable” “absurd.” The app’s users helped singles like Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ “Unholy” soar on streaming services; at this point, it’s hard to think of a recent hit that wasn’t aided and abetted by TikTok. “The biggest game in town is TikTok,” says Chris Anokute, an A&R exec-turned-manager. “Everyone who wants to tell you otherwise is delusional, they don’t understand it, or they missed the boat.”
But even some of those who believe, as one rap label-head puts it, that TikTok “is the main platform to focus on for marketing,” still acknowledge that the industry’s attitude towards it has shifted. “People are frustrated because they can’t finesse the system so easily anymore,” the hip-hop executive says.
This frustration relates to larger anxieties in the music industry. Managers, A&R executives and marketers say it’s harder than ever to command listener attention, and they believe TikTok’s position as the preeminent music discovery platform is partially to blame. “If we’re asking, ‘how do people find new great artists that they’re going to fall in love with,’ hearing a nine-second snippet of a song is probably not the answer that any of us would give,” says Justin Lehmann, founder of Mischief Management (Aminé, Khai Dreams).
Still, TikTok is where people are spending their time — more than 90 minutes a day, according to the data analytics company Sensor Tower, nearly twice as much as they spend on Instagram. The music industry has no choice but to try to reach those potential listeners. It’s just getting harder and harder to do.
“There are a lot of songs that pop quickly [on TikTok], but it doesn’t have the same effect,” says Talya Elitzer, co-founder of the indie label and management company Godmode. “It’s not the golden era of TikTok by any means,” confirms another veteran digital marketer. “Things aren’t performing the way they used to.”
And executives say the impact of their marketing budgets is waning. According to a recent report by music consulting agency ContraBrand, based on analysis of TikTok’s top 200 from the first half of 2022, “paid-for tactics, such as influencers and ads, accounted for success in under 12% of the platform’s viral tracks.” “You can do your best to manufacture something on [TikTok], but I haven’t seen too many people be super successful,” says Cassie Petrey, CEO of the social media company and management firm Crowd Surf. “There’s an illusion of control people think they have over TikTok because we can pay influencers and push more video usage.”
As awareness of that illusion grows, “a lot of major companies, the savvy ones, are not spending as much on TikTok as they once were,” according to Elitzer. Another marketer says that he’s cut TikTok spending in many cases by more than 50%.
Labels may be shifting their signing strategies around TikTok as well. Whereas record companies have been signing acts off a single viral explosion, hoping for quick returns on their investment, a bevy of one-hit wonders has caused some to contemplate changing course. “I’ve heard a lot more A&Rs that I’ve been speaking with go back to signing artists based on musicality, which is exciting,” says Tim Collins, co-founder of Creed Media, an entertainment marketing agency.
“Too many people got caught with empty bags — labels overpaid for these deals, and the artist never delivered a better song or couldn’t rise to the occasion,” Anokute adds. “People were making multi-million dollar offers without even meeting the artist! The race to jump on everything moving on TikTok has slowed down.”
After a period where the app seemed to overshadow everything in music, executives seem more open to the idea that focusing all resources solely on TikTok may not be a viable long-term strategy. Petrey preaches a zen attitude about it all. “You’ll have moments on social media that are big, and you’ll have other times where you thought that song was the one and it didn’t go,” she says. “Continue to make good work.”