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Deep Dive

How TikTok Is Blurring the Lines Between ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Music

In an era when TikTok regularly catapults old songs onto the charts, "new," increasingly, is in the ears of the beholders.

When Glass Animals’ hit “Heat Waves” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in March, it had been out for more than 20 months – an eternity by hit single standards – and it had already fallen off the chart last year. By that point, usually, a song settles into a calm catalog run. But while “Heat Waves” is considered catalog by Luminate (formerly MRC Data), its performance has been anything but calm.

Last summer, “Heat Waves” took off on TikTok, driven by its sentimental lyrics — “Last night, all I think about is you / Don’t stop, baby, you can walk through.” That second life drove streaming, which in turn gave the track another shot at radio. And it’s not the only song to come back to life after fading away and then getting added to streaming playlists along with newer releases. A Billboard analysis of the top 10,000 on-demand audio streaming tracks of the first six weeks of 2022 found that TikTok boosted several songs from semi-obscurity into the top 100 – among them The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” from 2012, The Walters’ “I Love You So” from 2014 and Steve Lacy’s “Dark Red” from 2017 – and many more into the top thousand.

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These songs aren’t new, but they might feel that way to listeners who haven’t heard them before – and playlists present them alongside new releases. “We’re seeing music that’s chronologically older than 18 months that’s trending as current music in a major way,” says Amazon Music global head of music programming Mike Tierney. As an example, he cites Frank Ocean’s 2012 track “Lost,” which appears on a dozen of the streaming service’s contemporary playlists. “There’s a huge trend for music that’s chronologically old to have a second life as frontline,” Tierney says, “and the lines are getting incredibly blurry.”

“New,” increasingly, is in the ears of the beholders. It seems fair to assume that only so many of the listeners who streamed Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” after it was used in The Batman remember the song from Nevermind. “Whatever the context is right now, people are going to consume, regardless of when it came out,” says RCA Records COO John Fleckenstein.

That means songs often stick around longer, which is one reason why songs from the last decade account for so much of the most popular catalog music. It also means that many consumers seem to be listening to older songs with the same intensity as new ones – especially if they discovered them on TikTok. While radio, television and print publications tend to focus on new releases, music of any age can go viral on TikTok – especially with a memorable video.

The results can seem random – but that doesn’t mean they’re any less significant. The number of artists represented in the top 10,000 tracks increased from 3,056 in the first six weeks of 2020 to 3,505 in the same period this year. And while several factors might have contributed to this, a number of artists who weren’t previously in the top 10,000 received a boost from popular TikTok clips. Among them: Farruko, whose 2015 track “Chillax” soundtracked summer 2021 TikTok dance challenges; SoFayGo, whose 2019 “Knock Knock” took off on TikTok last summer; and Miki Matsubara, whose 1979 song “Mayonaka No Door/Stay with Me” soared after a cover version by an Indonesian YouTube star drove its TikTok popularity.

In other cases, TikTok has given small acts a significant audience. The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” was No. 53 in the first six weeks of 2022, and it pulled 16 of the band’s tracks into the top 10,000. Steve Lacy’s “Dark Red,” the No. 63 track, had just 9.5 million streams in 2017 and 145 million in 2021. Chicago rock band The Walters had broken up in the years since releasing “I Love You So” in 2014, but they signed a deal with Warner Records after the song took off on TikTok and came in at No. 38.

These TikTok triumphs can represent a challenge as well as an opportunity for major labels, each of which has a division devoted to catalog – Universal Music Enterprises, Sony Legacy and Warner’s Rhino Entertainment – that have traditionally focused on compilations and reissues. These days, they also promote older tracks, like Fleetwood Mac‘s “Dreams” or Billy Joel‘s “Zanzibar,” that take off on TikTok or find an audience through film synchs.

The major labels move current music to their catalog divisions in different ways, but they tend not to reclassify music as current. Sometimes, though, the frontline team that handles current music gets called in to help. When singer-songwriter Elley Duhé‘s January 2020 song “Middle of the Night” went viral after blowing up on TikTok in Turkey and Russia, RCA, which handles Duhé’s catalog (she is no longer a Sony artist), had to determine whether its catalog or frontline team would handle promotion and marketing. In that case, the frontline team stepped in “because the front-line team still has a good relationship with [Duhé], and we picked back up and leaned in,” Fleckenstein says. Decisions like that, he says, are “really specific to the artist.”

Other times both divisions coordinate their efforts. When Kygo remixed Whitney Houston‘s cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” in 2019, which ultimately drew 670 million streams on Spotify alone, the DJ-producer’s frontline team marketed the track along with Sony Legacy’s staff, says Lyn Koppe, Sony executive vp of global catalog for Legacy Recordings. “Sometimes we don’t use the word ‘catalog,’” Koppe says. “We just say ‘hits.’”