I think it is inevitable that TikTok has changed the way we listen to music. My partner and I were in a vintage store the other day and as we walked down the stairs he muttered in French “ugh, I used to love this song but I just can’t bare the hook anymore because of TikTok”, it isn’t the first time he has uttered this opinion on music. 

Within the same week, one of my friends was at a conference talking about me to a girl he had met who also happens to be Chilean and a music maker (hence why he brought me up). The girl proceeded to say that she had already heard of me as my song Gold Chains – a song dedicated to Latin immigrant heritage – came up on her TikTok and she has subscribed to my content ever since. She explained that the reason she loved the song (besides its sound) is because I had unpacked its story via various TikToks and as a fellow Londoner with a Chilean immigrant mother, she resonated with its story and therefore streamed the song. 

Say what you like about a trending song on TikTok but it cannot be denied that a tune that goes viral to a mass audience can’t help but feel organic. Take Raye’s Escapism or Pink Patheress. Due to this feeling of easy adoption by potential listeners, it seems that the effect is all record labels have wanted to recreate since. TikTok influencers are being paid by PR agencies and music labels to post videos using a particular song in the hopes of making it go viral. Proof of such efforts can be found in the #MusicAd hashtag recently buried in the captions of various forms of music promotion including the content of Love Island stars Jack Fincham and Andrew Le Page. 

This hashtag is fairly new but the marketing is old. The difficulty now is differentiating between organic hits and strategised ones. What we do know is that it is costing PR agencies and therefore music artists an arm and a leg. “No one knows how these deals work. It’s absolute chaos,” says Jesse Cannon, music producer and author of the 2012 non-fiction book Get More Fans: The DIY Guide to the New Music Business. “It’s the Wild West.” Cannon has 57,600 subscribers on YouTube, a large chunk of those are artists eager to learn the blueprint for going viral. Essentially, how it works, Cannon explains over the phone, is that a music label or PR agency will contact an influencer, their management, or the influencer marketing agency they work with and request them to post a video featuring the song they are promoting. The booming practice is mostly associated with TikTok, but it has also been a strategy on Vine, Musical.ly, and Instagram – where “top tier” users got involved.

“A  lot of the smaller influencers are happy with $100 to $200 (£80 to £160),” Cannon says. “And that deal is usually whatever you specify. You want to write the caption; you want to choose the part of the song that they use? Most of them are pretty game for it.” At the top end of the spectrum, though, are the big names. With them come big figures; payments can be upwards of $10,000. “I was hearing of five-digit deals for one song,” says Cannon, who worked at Atlantic Records until the pandemic in 2020. He recalls speaking with colleagues at the label about “wiring a 16-year-old five digits” to use a certain song in their videos. “That… feels very weird to do.”

When the strategy first launched, some influencers were comfortable to add the hashtag in their caption, others not so much. That was all until November when  the CMA published a document outlining its principles about hidden ads that platforms could follow as a guide. “There’s a grace period for newer apps in the laws about labelling,” explains Cannon. “When I work with smaller influencers, they don’t label anything. They’re just like, ‘Whatever’… So, the hidden hand is there. And it’s not like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is going to come down on some girl in Iowa with 5,000 followers.”

Currently, TikTok keeps track of subliminal influencer ads using a moderation team who attempt to ensure compliance with the rules. (Although, they are vague on what those entail.) But with millions of videos uploaded globally every day, hidden influencer advertising is hard to keep track of manually with its effect over us continuing to grow. “We are all susceptible to messaging, especially when repeated frequently. This is, in part, how propaganda has worked over the ages,” says marketing professor and co-author of Influencer: The Science Behind Swaying Others, Bettina Cornwell of #MusicAd videos, whether labelled or unlabelled. She does, however, admit the latter carries a greater risk.

Back to the organic element, what is so funny is that a TikTok ad can’t guarantee a hit – no matter how much a label is willing to shell out. Cannon says an unsuccessful campaign can cost labels anywhere between $10 to $100,000. “There are tons of flops,” he says. “A recent Kim Petras song had so many misses [on TikTok],” he claims. “When you hear of the budget, that’s just what one agency sunk into it…”

What I would argue and have noticed is that you could put as much money as you like into a TikTok campaign but if the artist themself doesn’t naturally have a strong following and thus generating at least some organic use then it just won’t work. I was working with a manager recently whose artist boasts great Spotify engagement (almost 1 million monthly listeners) and Instagram following (250k followers and an average of 120k views per Reel). However, her TikTok content and engagement really isn’t up to scratch averaging at 400 views per post. They ended up putting money into creators on TikTok in the hope of making her song go viral yet because knowledge and awareness of her voice and art on the app is almost non-existent, the content is very unlikely to travel. On TikTok, culture is important and if something isn’t being shared it is unlikely to go far.

Whether algorithms – including trending songs – are changing consumers’ music tastes for the worse has been a debate for years. “Harlem Shake” by Baauer assaulted our eardrums in early 2013 when creators made endless YouTube videos of one person dancing to the tune, before a jump cut revealed a group of people dancing wildly together – often in fancy dress. (Ed Sheeran, Azealia Banks, and Miles Teller all uploaded their own versions). “‘Harlem Shake’ – the first No 1 of the viral era – wasn’t the greatest song ever written,” admits Cannon, adding that the more “consumable” a promoted song is, the more likely people will “listen to it out of free will”.

There’s an argument to be made that music influencing, as well as being somewhat of a manipulation tool, is also an equaliser for artists. Newcomers can gain attention in the same way Justin Bieber can – or at least try to. Similarly, Bastille’s decade-old song Pompeii has just as much a chance of belated internet success as 23-year-old Lizzie McAlpine’s new hit “Ceilings”. Both songs are trending with hundreds of thousands of posts over the last year. It’s thanks to TikTok and its trending tracks, Cannon argues, that we’re authentically listening to songs rather than looking at who’s singing them. “In the last 20 years, we’ve never had an era where people are listening without judging who the artist is first,” he says. “Judging the song first seems better to me.” But the more money you add into the mix, the less organic this feels – and the less likely that smaller musicians and their smaller budgets will have a shot at competing with the industry bigwigs. 

Categorized in: