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Why the music industry is paying close attention to TikTok

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

The artist Doja Cat has a hit song called "Say So," with its own signature dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY SO")

DOJA CAT: (Singing) Day to night to morning, keep with me in the moment.

KEITH: She didn't invent the dance. That was a teenager on TikTok named Haley Sharpe. It went viral. Doja Cat noticed, put it in her music video and then performed it at the Grammy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY SO")

DOJA CAT: (Singing) You want it, say so.

KEITH: Perhaps you don't use TikTok or don't use it to discover music. But as Doja Cat proves, the music industry certainly does. NPR's Mia Venkat explains.

MIA VENKAT, BYLINE: Tyler Colon played college basketball. He won an MTV reality show. He's tried podcasting, modeling, acting. But in 2019, he got serious about pursuing music.

TYLER COLON: After singing in my car for, like, six months for an hour and a half every single day, I released "Stuck In The Middle" under Tai Verdes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

COLON: (Singing) You know what she said to me? She said, you're a player, aren't you? I hope you know that it shows.

VENKAT: He put it up on TikTok under that name - Tai Verdes. At the time, he was working at a Verizon store.

COLON: I saw other people like me that had no following end up on the radio. And when you see that happen multiple times because of one app, it's kind of like a duh, you know what I'm saying? Like, why not?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

COLON: (Singing) 'Cause we're stuck in the middle of lovers and friends, and we're losing every part of the benefits.

VENKAT: Before he knew it, he was fielding calls from presidents of record labels during his lunch break. He got a record deal, made a debut album and is going on tour this year. "Stuck In The Middle" has been streamed well over 100 million times on Spotify.

Verdes says he thinks he would have made it even without TikTok, but he also noticed that his fans on the app were especially engaged. They'd go from his TikTok to his Spotify page or his YouTube channel.

COLON: You just made this video. You have this song. You have this melody that they really like. They want to go get that. You just gave them something.

TATIANA CIRISANO: They're not just listening to music in a sort of, like, lean-back, passive way. But they're more likely to do more lean-forward activities, like creating playlists or listening to full albums on streaming or buying merchandise.

VENKAT: Tatiana Cirisano is a music industry analyst. She says consumer behavior data shows that TikTok users are more likely to spend money on music. What's more, TikTok users often respond to music with their own videos. They might lip-sync a song, make up a dance or try to sing it.

CIRISANO: It's changed music listening from being a one-way relationship where a song comes out and you listen to it on your own, to something that you participate in. I mean, I don't think that any other social media app has done that to this degree. TikTok is like peak UGC in that way.

VENKAT: UGC - short for user-generated content - it's one of the buzzwords currently going around in the music industry.

NINA WEBB: When I first started, it used to be a puzzle for a 3-year-old. You had video and radio.

VENKAT: That's Nina Webb. She's the head of marketing at Atlantic Records.

WEBB: And you just - you needed money and leverage and influence as a label. And now I feel like it's the thousand-piece gray sky where TikTok is the only piece that will individually move the dial the way it does.

VENKAT: Last August, an Atlantic Records artist named Gayle released a song called "Abcdefu."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABCDEFU")

GAYLE: (Singing) Forget you and your mom and your sister and your job and your broke-down car and the things you call art.

VENKAT: They promoted the song on TikTok a lot, but it didn't really take off until months later when the sign language sub-community of TikTok got a hold of it in the middle of her tour.

WEBB: She saw the difference from playing at the beginning of the tour, when people, like, somewhat kind of heard this or looked it up, to by the end - I mean, it was like the whole place was going crazy. So November was really the tipping point, and it was 100% the sign language community.

VENKAT: That user-generated content made all the difference for Gayle. Her song has been sitting at No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 chart for three weeks now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABCDEFU")

GAYLE: (Singing) A-B-C-D-E forget you and your mom and your sister and your job and your broke-down car and the things you call art.

VENKAT: These days, there's a cottage industry dedicated to marketing a song or artist on TikTok - paying influencers to promote a song, posting short clips to see what people respond to, trying to get a dance challenge going. Webb says she's certainly tried different strategies, but most times when a song takes off on TikTok, it seems to happen organically.

WEBB: I mean, there's a million examples of a lot of very expensive campaigns that had no return. Like, we can't do it. It has to come from fans or the artist because you're talking to Gen Z. They smell everything out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL COMING BACK TO ME NOW")

CELINE DION: (Singing) There were nights of endless pleasure. It was more than any laws allow. Baby, baby, if I kiss you like this...

VENKAT: Sometimes those fans work in unexpected ways. Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" came out 25 years ago but recently set one-day streaming records on Spotify and YouTube after lip-syncing the most dramatic part of the song became a viral TikTok trend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWMAN")

SIA: (Singing) Don't cry, snowman...

VENKAT: Or take the song "Snowman" by Sia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOWMAN")

SIA: (Singing) Who'll catch your tears if you can't catch me, darling.

VENKAT: That came out in 2017, but the TikTok challenge came in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm going to try to see if I could do this one breath. (Singing) I want you to know that I'm never leaving 'cause...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) ...I'm Mrs. Snow, till death we'll be freezing. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) You are my home, my home for all seasons. So...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing) ...Come on. Let's go.

VENKAT: Analyst Tatiana Cirisano says the ability for a song to go this viral is baked into TikTok since the whole app prioritizes discovery.

CIRISANO: When you open TikTok, even if you've never used the app before and aren't following anyone, it opens immediately to a discovery page and just starts feeding you content. Like, you open it, and you're on the train.

VENKAT: She says the music industry used to hunt for unknown talent and develop it. But the rise of TikTok has helped to flip that formula.

CIRISANO: I think that we are increasingly in an era where audiences are choosing what they want to hear, and record labels and the rest of the music industry are sort of listening to that.

VENKAT: Independent artists have taken notice.

DAMOYEE: Hi. My name is Damoyee. I am 21. I'm originally from Dallas, Texas, and I am a multi-hyphenate music artist/content creator.

VENKAT: Damoyee is a composer, producer, singer, songwriter, and she plays a lot of instruments.

DAMOYEE: I'm primarily a piano player first. I started around age 2. I picked up a guitar, electric and acoustic. I can play ukulele, dulcimer...

VENKAT: She posts a lot of covers and remixes of other songs, usually trending songs. And it's a lot of work. A minute-long TikTok usually takes around six hours to create.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

DAMOYEE: (Singing) I could do this for hours and hours and hours. I could do this for...

I know starting out, it took me a little less than a week to get 100 followers. And I remember, like, seeing one-zero-zero, I freaked out. I thought, hey, I'm famous, you know? (Laughter) I was grateful.

VENKAT: Sometimes a video flops, and sometimes it takes off. But Damoyee says that she generally feels TikTok helps boost musicians like her.

DAMOYEE: I will say for now, the goal is to thrive as an independent artist without looking at any labels at the moment and to still build a platform to the point where I would feel comfortable releasing music alone.

VENKAT: In other words, she's hoping that eventually she won't have to ask the traditional powers in the music industry for recognition. Thanks to TikTok and other platforms, they may recognize her first.

Mia Venkat, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIA SONG, "SNOWMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.