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TikTok is Altering the Music Industry

It’s not just Lil Nas X: musicians are making their songs shorter and more memeable

Illustration: Chris Stokel-Walker

Montero Lamar Hill grew up in Lithia Springs, Georgia, a small city in the far suburbs of Atlanta, and had a childhood loaded with the challenges typically faced by black boys in the Deep South.

His parents divorced when he was six and Hill spent years living on a notorious housing project called Bankhead Courts. He quit playing trumpet, despite a glaring talent that saw him become first chair at elementary school, due to social pressure. (It wasn’t great for street credit.) A familiar pattern of abandonment emerged and after a year studying computer science at the University of West Georgia, he dropped out.

Until the end of 2018 he was sleeping on his sister’s couch with a negative bank balance and an obsession with Twitter bordering on the unhealthy, posting memes and stanning Nicki Minaj.

All the while, though, Hill had been tinkering with music in private. One night around Halloween last year, he was browsing YouTube and found a beat by a 19-year-old from the Netherlands called YoungKio. He paid $30 to lease it, and spent a month writing lyrics. By December, he uploaded a song called Old Town Road to SoundCloud under the moniker Lil Nas X. The response was muted.

But Old Town Road became a meme on TikTok as part of the YeeHaw challenge, where people switch into cowboy outfits and dance. Its blend of trap and country music was fresh and, along with evocative Wild West lyrics, caught the imagination. It went viral, as do countless videos every day. But this was different.

With the help of a remix with country star Billy Ray Cyrus and a contract with Columbia Records, Old Town Road has received more than 300 million views on YouTube to date and the 20-year-old has spent the past 17 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 — the longest run ever recorded in the chart’s 60-year history.

“I should maybe be paying TikTok,” admitted Lil Nas X in an interview with TIME amid his very 2019 version of the American Dream. “They really boosted the song.”

The top of Spotify’s United States Viral 50 charts is studded with songs popularised on TikTok

That’s an understatement. Old Town Road is the most obvious sign yet of how TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app that has been downloaded a billion times, is changing the global music industry.

While there are other apps where users can create short, looping videos, a niche that the now-defunct Vine once filled, what makes TikTok tick is its huge library of officially licensed song snippets that can be used to soundtrack videos. These generally come in the form of 15-second clips, the most popular evoking a dramatic or bombastic mood.

The impact has been enormous. The top of Spotify’s United States Viral 50 charts, for one, is studded with songs popularised on TikTok.

Another key indicator is the shrinking length of songs. According to analysis by Quartz, the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell by 20 seconds between 2013 and 2018, down to 3 minutes 30 seconds. With TikTok, that process has accelerated.

Los Angeles rapper Sueco the Child’s song Fast (2:56), for example, has been used in over 3 million videos that range from shoe painting to getting ready for prom. English singer-songwriter Mabel’s single Mad Love (2:51), clips of which were debuted on TikTok, has racked up more than 25 million YouTube views. The original Old Town Road ran for just 1 minute 53 seconds.

“In the history of music, from the 7-inch record to Spotify, songs have always adapted to the medium,” says Eamonn Forde, a veteran music business and technology journalist. “But I could definitely see the industry moving towards more short form content. Songs are now being made in a way that shows an awareness of the context of consumption and TikTok favours music that can be chopped up into pieces.”

Yet TikTok is not only influencing consumption, but also the production of music too. Little-known New York rapper Supa Dupa Humble released Steppin to a scant reaction until hundreds of thousands of TikToks earned it more than 8 million views on YouTube. He’s now taking a meme-first approach. “When creating music, the number one thing on my mind is: ‘How are we going to market this?’” he explains. “It can be the simplest part of a song that’ll make it meme worthy.”

Similarly, UK-based dancehall and Afrobeat artist Rudebone is focusing on writing seconds-long beats that will work on the platform. Thanks to the TikTok hashtag #RollYourBandana, Rudebone’s song Bandana shot to fame with over 3 million views. “TikTok has changed the way I operate, it’s changed my career,” he says.

Image: Instagram/Lil Nas X

These artists are in effect focusing on the smallest, fundamental components of a song — a loopable beat, a memeable lyric — to catapult them to success. Or to keep them there.

“Old Town Road itself is being treated as a meme,” says Craig Hamilton, a postdoctoral music researcher at Birmingham City University. “Rather than push a follow-up single, then an album, then a tour — as is the established model — they are instead mirroring and to some extent trying to harness and control what would probably happen organically on digital platforms, with fan-made remixes and other response videos.”

The era of the TikTok single could be upon us, potentially giving birth to the 15-second or minute-long song. It may not. Yet it without doubt is going to disrupt the landscape of traditional record labels.

TikTok and its owner ByteDance — which was last year estimated to be the most valuable startup in the world at $75 billion — are well aware of the opportunity.

In April, it launched “TikTok Spotlight”, a program to discover independent and unsigned artists. It was reported in May that TikTok’s mother company ByteDance is in the process of developing a paid music streaming service. Last week, ByteDance also reportedly struck a deal with Jukedeck, whose software uses artificial intelligence to make royalty-free music for online videos, hinting at an altogether less rosy future for musicians.

The company declined to comment on the latter reports, but a spokesperson said: “Music is an integral part of TikTok since we launched.”

For now, TikTok is an undeniable tastemaker and it’s well placed to alter the most intimate workings of the industry.

“I’m making my songs more danceable and easy to sing along to because that’s what TikTok users love,” adds Rudebone. “It’s the number one place on my list to get my music heard and reach people globally.”



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Peter Yeung

Peter Yeung is a freelance journalist that specialises in digital storytelling, data journalism and humanitarian reporting. www.peter-yeung.com