In the last two years, TikTok has become a force of nature in the music industry. Tracks like Doja Cat’s isolation hit “Say So” may have been destined for radio airplay, even without exploding on the app, but the platform has proved to be an instrumental force for artists across the board. Take singer-songwriter Leith Ross for example, whose acoustic recording of an original song gained over a million views and spawned thousands of TikToks using their soft, whimsical track. So, at this year’s South by Southwest music conference in March, the app had its own spotlight alongside artists.
During the festival, TikTok’s Head of Music Corey Sheridan moderated a panel on the app’s use by musicians, featuring 19-year-old Sadie Jean, who gained 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify since releasing her first single in December, largely due to her audience on TikTok. Through dance challenges and live streams, Jean factors the app into how she both makes and promotes her music. Similar to Jean, a slew of SXSW artists selected to perform at the festival make use of TikTok in their own ways—from smaller artists using the algorithm to their advantage to more established groups whose accounts become a more intimate way to share their personalities.
The power of the ‘For You Page’
Blvck Hippie, a Memphis-based indie rock band spearheaded by Josh Shaw, doesn’t make music to fit the app. Rather, he utilizes TikTok’s algorithm to reach new listeners. “Your music is always going to hit some kind of niche, and [TikTok is] just going to deliver it to the people that like that niche,” Shaw told the Daily Dot.
TikTok helped increase Blvck Hippie’s reach just as its 2021 album If You Feel Alone At Parties was released. While Shaw had been making the self-described “sad boy indie rock” under the moniker since 2018, the pandemic pushed him and his bandmates into focus. Shaw and the band’s drummer, Casey Rittinger, moved in together with their two managers, building a creative environment that prioritized their music, despite needing to work other jobs to support themselves. They scrounged up enough money to afford about four days in a studio to record the album in 2020, melding bold guitar licks reminiscent of the Strokes and smoother grooves with mild shoegaze distortion. “We just went into the studio and just did a record with complete uncertainty, not knowing if we were ever going to get a chance to do anything with it,” Shaw said. “And it kind of worked out, I guess, because we’re here.”
Ecstatic to have landed at SXSW, Shaw attributes a lot of the album’s attention to TikTok, what he calls “the modern-day Tumblr.” At 26, Shaw was reluctant to get on the app at first, thinking it was just a space for Gen-Z dance challenges. However, his manager convinced him otherwise, and soon the band began sharing multiple TikToks daily. One video went viral with over 500,000 views in February, showing Shaw dancing and drinking “apple juice,” encouraging viewers to check out the album’s titular track. “Hey you can’t scroll, it’s Black History Month. Watch me sip on this apple juice & listen to 6.9 seconds of a song I wrote,” the text overlay reads. In addition to day-in-the-life vlogs and fit checks, Shaw promotes each stop on their tour to encourage the algorithm to show Blvck Hippie’s account to people in each city. While content creation adds another layer of work onto the band, Shaw said he just tries to keep it authentic—and the pay-off has been worth it.
“We don’t get covered by as many big publications like a lot of the upcoming indie guys are, which was a little discouraging at the beginning of our record dropping,” Shaw said. “But we do TikTok and tour and stuff like that, and TikTok’s having a huge effect on tour and getting people to listen… even though we haven’t had the lucky break that I feel like a lot of the up-and-comers that aren’t Black have been getting.”
Now on their second self-funded tour throughout the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic, the band noticed that each show had audience members who found them through TikTok. “We’d be in the middle of a set and be like, ‘Who’s here from TikTok?’ And then hands raise,” Shaw said.
Slice of life
While TikTok serves as a jumping point for artists trying to find their audience, the app is a more relaxed affair for artists with an established listening base and a record label. Los Angeles duo Girlpool first rose to prominence in the 2010s indie scene with the title track of 2015’s Before the World Was Big. The members have come a long way since it was released, having switched labels and shifted their sound, but that same track is what brought them to TikTok.
Before the app exploded during the pandemic, the song blew up on the platform, and bandmates Avery Tucker and Harmony Tividad were approached by TikTok to join. They went through an instructional Zoom lesson on how to use the app and gained a verified account. Two years later, they use the app almost like a diary.
“I just like that it’s normalizing casual sharing, because I feel like so much of the internet is curated,” Tividad told the Daily Dot. “I’m obsessed with curation and aesthetic, and that’s very important to me, but I also like how TikTok is a kind-of YouTube/Instagram hybrid where it’s a little more intimate and personal.”
While the nostalgic single brought them to the platform, TikTok has become a place to share their growing personalities, along with their changing sound. New releases like “Lie Love Lullaby” and “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure” tease a darker, synth-infused atmosphere on Girlpool’s upcoming album, Forgiveness. Tividad revealed the process of her bimbofication for the latter’s music video on TikTok and shared its lavish scenes to promote the track. However, Girlpool’s account is also riddled with slices of Tividad’s life, from literal day-in-the-life vlogs to dispatches from an L.A. underpass to Euphoria filter trends.
“I feel like [TikTok] more so has created an energy personality-wise, less like streams. I feel like it’s not made our band more popular but like, more personality,” Tucker said. The Girlpool account is so personality-focused that even viewers who come across its TikToks on their For You Page don’t know that they’re a band. “Then people are commenting, ‘Why are you verified on TikTok?’ That’s a fun thing people love to comment on bands’ TikToks, I’ve noticed, if they [don’t have] like 500,000 followers or whatever,” Tividad said.
TikTok and the MTV complex
Similarly, burgeoning experimental pop five-piece LAUNDRY DAY uses the platform as a peek into its band members’ personalities: Vocalists Jude Lipkin and Sawyer Nunes, drummer Etai Abromavich, guitarist Henry Weingartner, and bassist Henry Pearl (known as HP), met while attending Beacon High School in New York City, and are now on their first tour since graduating high school, or becoming “free men,” as Lipkin told the Daily Dot. Despite being the target age demographic for TikTok, they were hesitant to join; it was something they felt obligated to do in order to grow as a band. However, their account has since become a playful endeavor and fun creative outlet. Lipkin and the band’s manager, JJ, liken the growth of TikTok in the music industry to MTV.
“Artists in the ‘90s didn’t want to do MTV because the people they grew up on didn’t do it,” Lipkin said. “And it’s kind of the same with TikTok now, like the people that we look up to from the past, like, they didn’t do TikTok, so it’s corny in a way. But the next line of artists, 10 years down the line, will wish they could be on TikTok because they have to do some other stupid thing.”
The band’s account is filled with acoustic versions of songs, album song rankings from each band member, tour vlogs, and most recently, a series asking Drake to attend the Toronto show in April. Lipkin said the band is trying to find a way to create its own voice on the app, leaning into its casual side to connect with viewers on a more personal level. “We like cracking jokes almost as much as we like making music, so I think that’s been inherent to our creative process with TikTok,” Lipkin said. “It’s just trying to be funny and kind of trying to do the Vine-style side of TikTok more than like the really promotional, corny music thing.”
These online interactions are a direct contrast to LAUNDRY DAY’s latest album, We Switched Bodies, which was a product of isolation. In late 2020, the group booked a stay at a remote home in upstate New York to focus on writing, but being so devoid of human interaction eventually stilted their progress. Jumping to L.A. and back to New York City to finish the album resulted in a project boasting their most introspective lyrics yet, with a full-fledged atmospheric blend of synth-pop, R&B, and indie rock genres that are sprinkled throughout their previous works. Now on their first headlining tour, the band members can reconnect with their listeners in a more tangible way, but their TikTok account remains an authentic avenue to share the five bandmates’ distinct personalities and touring hijinks. “When you give a piece of yourself, it’s way more certain that you’ll meet someone that forms a connection to it, rather than just like, ‘Here’s a song and you don’t know anything about me,’ or something like that,” Abromavich said.
While they say this element has led to boy band comparisons, their online presence allowed them to extend the antics that take place at live shows to the internet, something that bolstered their growth through the pandemic. “Before COVID, our live show was definitely the way that people found us the most, like that was our most strong form of outreach. And then for a lot of it, we were just so deprived of that dopamine and also just that reach,” Abromavich said. “When COVID happened, there was definitely a bunch of websites that filled in the gaps of that human interaction that was missing.”
The return of live music
SXSW felt like a monumental occasion for artists, if not representing a full-swing return to festivals, at least existing as a brief moment to gather in between the rise in different COVID-19 variants. While TikTok served as a social connector throughout the pandemic, it remains a force in the music industry, working hand-in-hand with live shows to build artists’ communities. Shaw told the Daily Dot that Blvck Hippie gained over 4,000 monthly listeners on Spotify in their first few days at SXSW, cementing the power of stumbling upon a live show, rather than scrolling past a TikTok.
“I don’t remember most of the things that I see on TikTok every day, you know what I mean?” LAUNDRY DAY’s Abromavich said. “Like, I can scroll and it could pass me by, and it registers in my subconscious a little bit. But a concert is something that’s pretty much unforgettable. Even if you hate it, that emotion that you form is going to stick with you.”
With the force that TikTok has become in the cultural and technological landscape in recent years, the return of in-person exchanges certainly haven’t made it obsolete. If anything, it’s become a tool that musicians use in tandem with live shows. Girlpool’s Tucker noted it’s just one of many mediums to reach audiences.
“It’s definitely an amazing tool to penetrate social media and Gen Z, but I feel like there’s people that aren’t on TikTok,” he said.
But for smaller artists that are finding their footing in the industry, TikTok can be an instrumental tool. Shaw argued that it can cut years off of the struggle experienced by small artists, especially those with marginalized identities, offering them a global reach even if they don’t have many resources. “I think it’s one of the greatest things that could happen to artists and help even the playing field,” Shaw said. “Because not everybody has the budget or money to do all the things that help you get signed quick or help you get attention quick.”
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