How a potential TikTok ban would affect the music industry

Oftentimes, the conversations I have with other aspiring artists revolve around conversations with potential management. Most of the time, the management will miraculously ask the magic question; have you tried TikTok? As if we haven’t already thought of that…
They all believe that TikTok represents the future of the music industry. The Chinese-owned video-sharing and social media app is viewed by many people in the music world as having the same revolutionary potential as the CD or the digital download in decades gone by. It’s no surprise, then, that you can hear industry-wide shudders as the prospect of state-enforced TikTok bans creeps up the news agenda. 

In early March, a powerful US committee of lawmakers backed legislation that could give President Joe Biden the power to ban the social video app for its estimated 100 million US users. The Republican chair of the US House foreign affairs committee Michael McCaul described TikTok – a division of a Chinese company called ByteDance – as a “spy balloon on your phone”, referring to the Chinese surveillance balloon that was recently shot down off the US coast. India has already banned TikTok.

If the unthinkable were to happen – if there were to be a widespread shock TikTok block – what impact would this have on a music industry that has invested so much hope in the app? The obsession by the music industry with TikTok makes sense because the stats are mind-blowing. TikTok is the most downloaded app of all time with an estimated 1.6 billion users in 154 countries, including 23 million in the UK; it’s used by between 20 and 30 percent of the world’s internet users; a billion videos are watched daily; and the average user spends 90 minutes on the platform each and every day, a six-fold increase on just four years ago. A recent Bloomberg survey of fifty media industry heavyweights found that TikTok is the most important platform for breaking new artists.

Beyond the ability of viral videos is the sense of community TikTok brings. TikTok gives users one thing that rival audio-only streaming services like Spotify can’t: a sense of connection. It is the ultimate forum for fandom. Users participate rather than just listen; they can remix their favourite artists’ songs and make their own versions of their videos, which is why people like Beyoncé are also on it. This virtual proximity is the digital equivalent of sitting round a campfire with like-minded people.

Most interestingly, however, Mark Mulligan, a media and technology analyst and co-founder of Midia Consulting, says that rather than having an obsession with TikTok, the music industry has “an addiction” to it. “That’s the problem,” he says. “The industry’s addicted because virtually any artist campaign will involve TikTok at the top of it. Tik Tok is where you create your viral moment. You get the song discovered and you create the buzz and then that trickles down to YouTube and Spotify at these other places. The record industry always likes to have a ‘top-of-funnel’ tool. It used to be the radio. Today it’s TikTok.”

All this means that if TikTok were to disappear, the industry would have a massive hole to fill. It would, to continue Mulligan’s addiction analogy, have to go cold turkey. “The industry would certainly have to find new places to try to make music happen. Spotify is going be thinking, ‘Hah, you spent the last two years telling us how you want to make life difficult for us. Now we’re more important than we ever were.’” 

Naturally, the cancellation of TikTok would stunt a lot of artists’ growth. 

On the other hand, I know plenty musicians who would be thrilled to see the end of the TikTok era. Record labels mainly, who admire TikTok’s reach and sizzle, worry about its power. Nevertheless, we must remember that TikTok is not unique. The thing for which it is most famous in the West – allowing users to film themselves lip-synching or acting out sketches to music and then collaborating with other users via a split-screen should they so wish – has been around for a while. Indeed, TikTok is essentially a rebranded version of Musical.ly, a lip-synching social media platform that TikTok’s parent company bought in 2017. “They bought Musical.ly to close it down and launch Tik Tok, which was, you know, essentially just a bigger, better version of Musical.ly,” explains Mulligan. So any void could pretty easily be filled.

Side note; on our side of the pond we seem all good for now. The UK government said last week it has no plans to ban employees – or anyone else – from using TikTok, saying it’s down to “personal choice”. A TikTok spokesman says the bans implemented elsewhere are “misguided”. So TikTok’s UK ban is all a theory for now… 

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