Recently, a fantastic study was carried out by Vox and The Pudding to truly answer this question. Matt Daniels, Data Journalist at The Pudding embarked on a data project in the autumn of 2021 which looked into whether TikTok virality truly changes the outlook of an independent artist’s music career and what internet fame actually means for new music artists. 

He gave a great example of JVKE, a young male artist who began posting videos in May 2020 which faked the production of his songs – via his mum! JVKE would work making a beat and then format a video which made it look like his mum created it in 2 minutes. She even had a producer tag which became increasingly popular where she hilariously rapped ‘Ayo mamma’s gonna make this a bop’! The videos eventually bumped up in numbers with labels calling left, right and centre. 

Inspired by JVKE’s story, Vox and The Pudding (via Matt) made use of Chartmetrics – a platform which tracks viral TikTok songs among other artist statistics – to rank the top 1500 TikTok songs in 2020. Once this data had been accomplished, Matt wished to establish which of these were ‘big break’ tracks for unknown, developing artists. It narrowed down to 125 artists. 

In answering whether a TikTok viral track makes for an artists career we have to look at TikTok to Spotify transaction. In the case of JVKE, he was getting 500k streams a day directly from TikTok. His viral songs were also added to huge monthly editorial Spotify playlists such as New Music Friday. The study showed that Spotify translations occurred for over 95% of the 125 artists on the lists. This is big news. 

However, while many focus on how virality has affected music culture, this study shines a clearer light on how virality has affected music business. We have seen this through big artist’s such as Charli XCX, FKA Twiggs and Halsey post TikToks on major labels’ obsession with viral TikTok. Labels are now monitoring TikTok like a hawk to catch rising viral songs and sign them in time to make their advance back. 

What’s an advance you ask? Say a small artist on TikTok has a song that’s doing very well, a label may get in touch. The more use the song has the bigger the advance will be and record labels will offer an artist sometimes a million dollars in exchange for all of the artist’s master. They keep 85% of the royalties and you only keep your 15% if you make back the cost of your advance. In essence, an advance is a loan and if you’re only making 15% of the song revenue it will take a long time to make your advance back. This is what a standard major label deal has looked like for decades. 

What TikTok has changed is how much leverage you have as an artist. This has made a bigger shift in artist-favoured deals in the past year than in the past 50 years. The artist has proven they can go viral all on their own so licensing deals and 50/50 splits are becoming more popular. This has never happened before for independent artists. 

It’s also reduced the need for multiple resources. PR and marketing costs are reduced as well as the need for major recording studios. 

Some artists have turned their back on record labels via owning autonomy. Knowledge for independent artists (statistical, financial and marketing) is essential. 

So, as an independent artist is TikTok a must? Social media experts and labels suggest that artists post 3-4 times a day because of the amount of noise online. Artists are also expected to do more and wear a lot of hats if they don’t have the money to hire those with skills – as an independent artist myself I would also suggest developing a team. The more you post, the more you’ll get discovered. 

So is music just content now and are music artists just content creators? Music artists seem to need a knack for content creation as well as musical talent and vision. If not, you’re pretty f**ked. 

Labels also look at virality to IRL transitions. TikTok virality is great but they need to translate into IRL fandom through touring which is often the source of financial security for an artist. However, there have been reports of TikTok artists delivering poor quality shows through inexperience. Artists before really had to do multiple shows and put in the groundwork to truly develop into an accomplished artist. I guess it’s a whole new generation… 

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