When I first heard about TikTok a few years ago, I didn’t really pay much attention. It sounded like another goofy social media app with grandiose dreams of taking a seat alongside Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.
Something that existed on quick servings of videos with goofy dance moves, memes, and lip-syncing to songs hardly seemed like something that had any legs. It looked like another social media app experiment that would end up with Vine, Meerkat, Periscope, and so many others.
But things were iterating quickly and now TikTok has an estimated 820 million regular users surviving an endangered threat from Donald Trump. Additionally, the platform – the first global social media juggernaut to emerge from China – has had a significant impact on the direction of recorded music.
Initially, TikTok was called Douyin, a video sharing social network founded in 2016 by ByteDance based in Beijing, whose legal and financial affairs were handled through the Cayman Islands. Originally called A.me, Douyin began expanding overseas and adopted the international name TikTok. But it had to grow, so the company started looking at a startup in Shanghai that had grown incredibly quickly in just three years.
Musical.ly was co-founded by Alex Zhu, an elusive software entrepreneur who had an incredible understanding of teenagers. After failing with an educational app that he hoped would allow people to teach each other things with short videos, he noticed a group of teenagers giggling at what they were doing with their phones. Half the time, he found, they were listening to music. The other half made videos and posted selfies. What if these two activities could be combined in a super divisible way? And so Musical.ly was born just 30 days later and launched in July 2014.
At first, Silicon Valley and venture capitalists were unimpressed by a karaoke app for kids. Given the dominance of Facebook and Twitter and the growing popularity of Snapchat, there seemed to be no place in the social media ecosystem. Plus, everyone knew that the next video sharing app was Vine, which was acquired by Twitter.
But as the number of Musical.ly users increased – mostly among teenagers and teenagers – Zhu did some stealth research and formed dozens of fake accounts just to see how Musical.ly fans interacted and why they were posting what they were doing did. When he found someone who was doing particularly well on the platform, he would arrange face-to-face visits with them and even take users and their families out to dinner so he could learn more.
But Musical.ly didn’t stop there. The most successful posters were invited to speak to the TikTok team, who then gave them tips on how to get even bigger on the platform. The feedback worked and these youthful influencers – known only to other teams – became massive TikTok stars. Some managed to get three million likes in an hour. Celebrities, from Katy Perry to Lady Gaga to Jason Derulo, noticed and joined in. The snowball got bigger and bigger.
The app also learned better about what a single user wants to see and secretly picked just the right videos for each person, making everything seem extremely personalized.
ByteDance watched closely, and when Musical.ly hit 200 million users in mid-2017, it was done with a $ 1 billion offer. The deal was closed in November of this year, with Muiscal.ly being fully incorporated into TikTok. (Facebook considered buying the company, but a deal could not be reached, partly because they did not want to put up with a Chinese company. Facebook is blocked in China.)
While things were slow to take hold in China, it was a hit among American teenagers. With TikTok, anyone could cheaply create their own creative short videos, including effects and soundtrack, using just their phones. Deals were made with the music industry in which TikTok paid royalties for the music clips used in the app.
TikTok worked better than anything else out there. Within a few months, the app was one of the most downloaded apps ever.
Then came Donald Trump. Angry that a China-based company had such an impact on young Americans, he threatened to ban the app in the US in 2020. After several months of noise and court records, the storm was over. The net effect has been to raise awareness of TikTok beyond tweens and teens.
The growth was explosive. A recent survey of 1,000 users found that:
- 47 percent of respondents believe that TikTok is the future of the music industry
- 55 percent say TikTok influenced their music tastes
- 60 percent use TikTok to discover new music and are in second place after Spotify
- Almost three in four people have discovered a new favorite song through TikTok
- 40 percent have discovered a new genre of music
- When it comes to genres, hip-hop (74 percent), pop (58 percent), alternative (23 percent), and EDM (23 percent) are the genres that TikToker claims were first exposed to Time
- 81 percent of users think that artists should work with TikTok developers
An internal deck for advertisers was leaked last month. We learned:
- Around 14 million new users are added every day. Projected, TikTok will reach one billion users in about a year. That’s more than double the total number of Spotify users.
- An average of 100 million people reliably use TikTok each month in the US only.
- The average TikTok user checks in 19 (!!!) times a day with the app. The average user spends 89 minutes a day using TikTok. (Douyin and then TikTok had to introduce an addiction reduction feature that encourages users to take a break every 90 minutes.)
- The user demos are as follows: 13-17, 17 percent; 18-24, 42 percent; 25-34, 22 percent; and 34-44 12 percent. Only seven percent are over 45 years old.
- 47 percent of users say they bought something because they saw it on TikTok.
Powerful stuff, right? Especially if you are in the music industry. The youth drives the music culture. So where better to find out what the kids are hearing than on TikTok? The industry may not fully understand TikTok, but they know they can no longer ignore it.
Much of the company’s growth strategy is centered around developers, certainly more than any other social media platform. TikTok has tremendous control over who gets famous and who doesn’t. And unlike Vine on Twitter, these users are paid.
The company is very, very dedicated to promoting and promoting artists with its Music Partnerships department dedicated to discovering emerging artists and navigating them through the platform with tips and tricks to increase their reach and popularity. Hashtags promoting videos are often created by the company itself, often in collaboration with an advertiser. The users with the most views are even assigned a single manager to make that user even more popular. This leads to a loyalty to the platform. The net result was a churn of users from other social media apps.
And it works. Some TikTok stars – people the mainstream never heard of – made $ 5 million in 12 months. Even a moderately popular star can bring in $ 20,000 a month. And these are Teenagers. There are even mansions like The Hype House, a $ 9 million pile in the Hollywood Hills where several TikTok developers, ages 17-22, live with millions of followers and make videos. They are happy factories. And they do all seven numbers a year.
So, this idea that TikTok stars are created organically and stars are chosen by people? A total myth.
To date, around 70 have signed record deals as a direct result of their TikTok fame. Others, like Dua Lipa and Doja Cat, have seen their fortunes explode with TikTok. And when people like Jimmy Fallon started making TikTok videos, you knew something special was happening. Established mainstream artists are now testing potential singles with the TikTok universe before making a decision on what to release. Ask Megan Thee Stallion how she did it Wild to number one. There’s even a new terrestrial radio station based on TikTok content.
Right now, TikTok doesn’t just seem like an important place for music, but an unstoppable force. With a near bottomless budget for, the app is China’s first successful demonstration of soft power on a global scale. Where will this lead? We will see.
If you want to know more, I highly recommend listening to Bloomberg’s The Foundering podcast, especially the third episode. Are you paying attention, Instagram / Facebook / Snapchat?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for News Gob.
Subscribe to Alan’s Current History of New Music podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play