In 2019 and 2020, promoting music on TikTok often meant paying prominent influencers to use a song in their videos. The concept was straightforward — cash for exposure — and on a good day, the results were easy to notice: Streams shot up. “All you needed was those [popular] people to post and a song flew,” one digital marketer reminisced earlier this year.
If this strategy once helped a track fly, it is now more likely to flop. “Bigger influencers actually don’t move the needle on music consumption” anymore, another digital marketer told Billboard in April. Lately worry has been spreading in the music industry that the link between song usage on TikTok more generally and consumption on streaming platforms appears to be losing potency. “For a while it was like, ‘All you gotta do is get a song going on TikTok, and it’s outta here!’” one major label executive says. “It’s not a guarantee anymore” that a song will become a hit.
This sentiment was reflected in a year-end report that TikTok published last week outlining the most popular songs and artists on the app. The top 10 TikTok tracks in the U.S. were streamed far less in 2022 than they were in 2021, according to data from Luminate. And the winners in 2021 were streamed far less than they were in 2020.
This indicates that the correlation between TikTok usage and U.S. streams is weakening. And it offers supports for a growing chorus of marketers who whisper that TikTok video usage isn’t “translating” as well to streams as it did in years past.
In 2020, being a top TikTok track in the U.S. practically ensured streaming success: Luminate data shows that nearly every song in TikTok’s top 10 earned more than 250 million on-demand plays Stateside. Just two years later, that no longer appears to be the case: See Luclover’s “L$d” (20.4 million, No. 2 on TikTok in the U.S.), Yung Lean’s “Ginseng Strip 2002” (71.1 million, No. 3), and Duke & Jones and Louis Theroux’s “Jiggle Jiggle” (82.5 million streams, No. 8). Now “There’s a bunch of stuff going off [on TikTok] that’s not even a hit,” says one A&R.
The overall streaming totals for TikTok’s biggest songs show a sharp decline year over year. Back in 2020, the top 10 singles on TikTok in the U.S. — from Doja Cat’s “Say So” to Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” — collectively amassed more than 4.9 billion Stateside streams. The top 10 songs on TikTok in the U.S. in 2021 — think back to Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More” and Cardi B’s “Up” — garnered only a little more than 3 billion streams between them in America. And the top 10 TikTok songs in the U.S. in 2022, ranging from Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” amassed just 1.9 billion Stateside streams combined. That’s a drop of roughly 3 billion streams, or 61%, in two years.
A representative for TikTok declined to comment for this story. In the platform’s year-end report, Ole Obermann, Global Head of Music, said that “13 out of 14 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1’s were supported by viral trends on TikTok.” “Our platform continues to unlock real-world opportunities for artists and labels,” Obermann added, “helping talent to secure record deals, brand collaborations, chart success, or be re-discovered decades later.”
But TikTok has changed markedly in the last few years, making it harder to turn success on the app into those opportunities — at least in the world of streaming. The first challenge for the music industry is saturation. “There’s so much noise; it’s harder to cut through,” says one manager whose acts have been at the center of multiple bidding wars following viral moments. “Once upon a time there wasn’t a lot of money pouring into TikTok. Now the music business, Hollywood, fashion, retail, beverage, everybody is trying to use TikTok to drive their product.” Music is competing for attention not only with other music, the huge amount of new songs and user-generated remixes that pop up each day, but with Marvel movies and canned cocktails.
And as TikTok’s user-base has swelled, it’s splintered into smaller communities that share the same interests, meaning that capturing everyone’s eyeballs — and ears — is increasingly difficult. “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,” one digital marketer told Billboard earlier this year. “People are less likely to 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, “trends are siloed when they used to be community-wide,” a digital marketing company owner explained recently.
In addition, a handful of executives posit that TikTok is addictive enough that some users, especially younger ones, are starting to “use it as their music service,” according to one indie label-head, rather than leaving the app to go stream music elsewhere. Obermann hit back against this idea in November: “Our community comes to TikTok to watch videos,” he told Billboard, “not to listen to full-length tracks.”
It’s not clear that everyone wants to listen to full-length tracks these days. What is clear is that the interactivity that users find so compelling on TikTok threatens to undermine the traditional streaming experience. When music encountered on the app in a goofy or galvanizing video “is listened to [later] on streaming, it is stripped of all that creative and cultural context,” Mark Mulligan, managing director for music consultancy MIDiA Research, wrote recently. “It is like only listening to the soundtrack of a movie.” Some users may prefer to hear the music along with the video clips, even if it comes in short bursts.
The music industry views TikTok as a means to an end, and the equation has always been simple: More videos on the app using our music = more streams for our music. If the connection between the two weakens, it will have notable implications for A&R and marketing strategy. “There’s very little predictability now,” says one A&R. “You just can’t know how long something will sustain anymore.”