In the heady early days of TikTok, the app seemed perfectly engineered to create massive hits in the minimum amount of time. A handful of popular creators, like Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae, became household names in 2019; when someone cooked up a cheerful dance routine to a new single and it bubbled up to one of the heavy-hitters, their posts could send streams spiraling sky-high for tracks like Doja Cat‘s “Say So,” Megan Thee Stallion‘s “Savage” and Benee‘s “Supalonely.” Scoring a hit never seemed easier or more accessible.
That was only a couple of years ago, but it “was a different world,” according to David Kaufman, a digital marketer and founder of the label New 11. As he reminisces, his tone verges on wistful: “All you needed was big people to post [your song], and it flew.”
This era of TikTok — creators-turned-late-night-TV-guests, ubiquitous dances — remains fixed in the popular consciousness. But the app has changed drastically since then. In December 2018, TikTok had around 270 million monthly active users, but that number has now ballooned to over 1 billion. And at the same time, nearly every artist, label, and brand is trying to push a product on the platform, further dividing users’ attention.
“More users means TikTok’s ‘For You’ page algorithm has more content to offer, and it also means more data that allows it to be more targeted with its content recommendations,” explains one digital marketer who requested anonymity to speak freely about campaigns he worked on. “This means people are less likely to all see the same thing, like Charli D’Amelio dancing, and are more likely to see content from niches the algorithm recommends specifically for them.”
As a result, “the era of having a few big influencers post a song and it becomes a hit is not reality any more,” notes Rebecca Versteegh, head of music partnerships for Creed Media, which has run digital marketing campaigns for nearly every major label. “If anything, bigger influencers actually don’t move the needle on music consumption,” adds Lucas Thomashow, senior vp of AVEX USA, which has signed TikTok-savvy acts like Sophie Holohan and Sadie Jean.
“Where Did We Go Wrong?”
Josh Feshbach manages Pink Sweat$ and Kirby while also running the digital marketing agency at Thrice Cooked. “The first and biggest misconception about TikTok,” he says, “is that the point of marketing there is to hit a home run.” The problem with constantly swinging for the fences? You tend to strike out a lot.
In music marketing, strikeouts can be costly. “You see major labels spending $50,000, $100,000 on TikTok budgets,” Kaufman says. “If it doesn’t convert [to popularity on TikTok and then on the streaming services], it’s, ‘Where did we go wrong?'”
But half a dozen marketers who spoke for this story say that, despite having to pose this question often, labels have been slow to adjust to the new reality of the app. As a result, the third-party agencies that often execute TikTok campaigns for the major music companies are becoming increasingly vocal about needing to change the paradigm.
Take Max Bernstein, the man behind Muuser, an independent music marketing agency that also provides services in-house for the label 300 Entertainment. He has a gift for distilling the vague, jargon-heavy terms favored by digital marketers into pithy maxims and quasi-manifestos, and at the end of March, he fired off a newsletter to his clients. “The fantasy of your song going viral on TikTok is a seductive one,” Bernstein acknowledged. “Gather influencer proposals from a half dozen agencies, have management pick their favorite, and voilà! Magic, right?”
But Bernstein wanted to prop up this myth like he wanted to say he still believes in Santa Claus. “Having been on the receiving end of thousands of these requests,” he wrote, “I’m writing to expose the flaws in the popular ‘spray-and-pray’ approach.”
“Everyone’s trying to chase a viral moment and thinking that one viral moment makes your career,” adds Thomashow. “Viral moments are amazing, but they won’t make your career. And if anything, they’re becoming fewer and farther in between, because the platform is so saturated.”
“Repeat After Me: ‘I Am Old and Out of Touch'”
If the music industry still approaches TikTok as if it’s a home run derby, more and more marketers who specialize in the app are effectively trying to convince them to play small ball. There is no consistent approach that marketers say will work with every act and every song; their job is to immerse themselves in a constant feedback loop of trial and error. “To have the notion that you know what the kids like is pretty naive,” Feshbach says.
Or, as Bernstein put it in his newsletter, which also doubled as an announcement of Lauunch, a new marketing product for the music industry — “Repeat after me: ‘I am old and out of touch. I cannot create the next viral TikTok trend out of thin air.'”
When Feshbach is hired to work a track, he usually tries to run a series of different test posts and steers clear of influencer-focused accounts completely. “People are naive to the various corners of TikTok,” he says. “Some of it is lyric edits, some of it talks about horoscopes and zodiac signs, some of them focus on arts and crafts. Any niche on TikTok outside of the influencer space is infinitely less expensive than the influencers. If you put $1,000 into a test-spend, realistically you should be getting at least 20 posts up.”
Then it becomes more of a painstaking grind; no “voila!” here. “You go back through the [user generated videos] that came out of [the test spend clips] to see what’s working,” Feshbach says. “Double down on what’s working. Read and repeat.”
“Songs often resonate and start in these different micro communities — there are an endless amount of corners [on TikTok],” Thomashow notes. “If you find something that starts to work, you can expand. What are the other concentric circles that you can move into?”
“It’s a Patience Game”
This can all take time: Despite the fact that TikTok is revered for its ability to drive tremendous increases in listenership overnight, marketers urge a long-term approach to campaigns. “Everyone wants a hit right away, but we all know it doesn’t work that way,” Kaufman says. “It’s a patience game.”
Versteegh didn’t start to see success with the NEIKED, Mae Muller and Polo G track “Better Days” until nearly three weeks into the campaign. “People really focus on creating trends, but now it’s, how do you focus on longevity on the platform?” Versteegh says. “How can you work a track for a longer time so everyone can rally around it?”
Working on “Better Days,” Versteegh was particularly pleased that the associated artists and labels were involved at an early stage and intent on collaborating throughout the process, even as it took months. Marketers say this level of enthusiasm and persistence can be unusual.
Often labels will “write a check to an agency, and then do nothing at all,” says the marketer who requested anonymity. “An agency can spend your money, but don’t act all surprised when you check back in a few weeks later to find no results. Digital marketing teams within labels are supposed to integrate those campaigns into a broader artist or records campaign. Often they spend money simply to check a box and feel they’ve done all they can do.”
Meanwhile back on TikTok, the experimentation continues. Feshbach has enjoyed success recently pushing tracks like Madtsai’s “Killer Queen,” which went from earning around 55,000 daily Spotify streams to nearly 200,000, and Luke Chiang’s “Shouldn’t Be,” which rose from 30,000 Spotify plays a day to roughly 205,000.
In a world where everyone wants to hit a home run, Feshbach likens the rise of “Shouldn’t Be” to advancing a runner from first base to second to third. “We’re stuck on third,” he jokes. “But we’re a lot closer to home.”