If you’re a music fan of a certain age browsing through a list of Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles from the early 1980s (Men at Work’s “Down Under,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), you’ll almost certainly recall images of each song’s music video, made unavoidable through heavy airplay on MTV. If you’re a teenage music fan doing the same with 2020 No. 1s (Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage,” Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj’s “Say So,” 24kGoldn and iann dior’s “Mood”), you’d probably remember similar images. But rather than the artists’ own videos, they’d be of viral dance challenges born on TikTok.
In 2019, TikTok became a household name among both teens and adults, in large part thanks to artists who used their popularity on the video-sharing service to springboard to mainstream success. One of the app’s earliest and biggest success stories is Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” first went viral as the soundtrack to a TikTok meme before eventually becoming the longest-running No. 1 in the Hot 100’s 62-year history. But in 2020, with a global pandemic forcing everyone into their homes and onto their phones, TikTok’s influence became impossible to ignore.
As a result, TikTok has become an audiovisual force that hasn’t existed outside of radio and streaming in popular music since MTV first landed on the moon in 1981. “MTV could make artists famous without there being a radio format for them to succeed on, or without their success at radio being a foregone conclusion,” says Craig Marks, co-author of the MTV oral history I Want My MTV and former Billboard editor. “I think TikTok is a much more clear example of [that gatekeeper-bypassing influence]. TikTok is, in some ways, its own little biosphere.”
Like MTV, whose early days were dominated by new wave weirdos from overseas with big hair and dream-logic visuals (Duran Duran, Culture Club, Adam Ant), TikTok has also become a breeding ground for unexpected hits from chart newcomers, from oddball pop songs like BENEE’s “Supalonely” to nontraditional rap tracks like Sada Baby’s electro-fied “Whole Lotta Choppas.” “It’s mostly left-of-center,” says Corey Sheridan, TikTok’s head of music partnerships and content operations. “When I think about the success that we’ve driven for the new generation, that’s what [we] get really excited about.”
And just as MTV forced labels in the ’80s to respond to its success by creating music video divisions out of their promotions departments, labels have now shifted their focus to TikTok. “In 2019, [TikTok] was definitely a part of our marketing rollouts, but in 2020, it’s increased tenfold,” says Harrison Golding, creative director at EMPIRE, responsible for 2020 viral TikTok hits like Money Man’s “24” and Cookiee Kawaii’s “Vibe.” “A lot of times we’re talking to our reps at TikTok … but then also to creatives or influencers in the space, just to let us know what’s doing well on the platform. I can’t say what a 13-year-old is always going to do, so [it’s helpful to have] some young people to keep me informed.”
That need to consult the data and the youth to respond to TikTok’s forever-evolving trends — Golding compares it to chasing thunderstorms, hoping to get struck by lightning — points to a few of the biggest differences between MTV and TikTok. Instead of major artists getting guaranteed airplay, the stars on TikTok aren’t the artists themselves — who are largely absent from the clips that make their songs successful — but rather influencers like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio, who are “more [VJ] Martha Quinn than Madonna,” says Marks, and spark the songs’ virality with their popular dance videos.
“Fans are more or less now affecting how we market,” says Golding. “They’re choosing what songs they like, and then we have to react to that.”The result of that reactive marketing is that album promotional cycles are less premeditated than ever, since there’s often no telling what song from an album will catch fire, or when. “The majority of the music that’s trending on TikTok is outside of its promotional cycle, whether that’s six months, two years, six years,” says Sheridan. Making things even more challenging: These moments of viral success also happen exponentially faster than ever. “With the way the internet works, you can create a video and be famous within two hours if it pops off,” adds Sheridan. Take TikTok user @doggface208, whose September video of him longboarding and singing along to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” made him a mainstream star and caused the hit to reenter the Hot 100 and eventually climb to No. 12.
Of course, MTV remained at pop culture’s center for well over a decade. Can TikTok achieve the same longevity in terms of hitmaking influence? Marks is skeptical that any 2020 phenomenon can replicate MTV’s impact. “MTV had the whole world to themselves for a dozen years, and essentially, MTV’s the one who decided to change what they were airing — it’s not like there was any competition,” he says. “TikTok has competition, will have competition, and its competition doesn’t just come from its competitors, but from whatever we can’t forecast that will be the new TikTok.”
Sheridan is more optimistic about his company. “We’ve been so good at covering so much ground the last two years,” he says. “I hope a few years from now we can look back and say, ‘This is the TikTok generation.’”