TikTok Illustration

TikTok... Boom

The app redefined what it means to break as a musician. But could a host of new challenges threaten its dominance?

Before pursuing music full-time, John Roseboro was a mortician. This past April he started sharing his songs on TikTok. "It's the best way to reach an organic audience," the 26-year-old says from his home outside Atlanta, where he lives with his wife and toddler son. Since his first video, where he played his self-described "post–bossa" sound on guitar, he's added more than 45,000 followers and attracted nearly a half-million likes.

Roseboro's story isn't a fluke. Many artists have found similar success stories on the app. Since its founding in 2016, TikTok has become a behemoth, with 689 million monthly active users. It recently became the first non-Facebook app to hit 3 billion downloads globally. So it should be no surprise that it's also captured a special hold on the music industry, as both an indispensable tool for new singers to share their music and a fertile ground for labels to find undiscovered talent. It's also served as a launching pad for stars like Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion, and revived careers of established singers like Jason Derulo.

"You're able to carve out a niche and build authentic audiences without a huge barrier to entry," says United Talent Agency's Scarlett Perlman, who works with musicians and TikTok stars Charly Jordan and Asher Angel. "We're signing folks that maybe went to bed one night, woke up, and saw that their video had millions of views."

Adds Devon Vonder Schmalz, who posts music analyses on the account @songpsych and her original songs via @dev_lemons: "TikTok's put the industry on their toes because it's so unpredictable. Anything can blow up." Case in point: Songs from the animated kids' show The Backyardigans hit the Spotify Viral 50 chart in May after TikTokers used them to soundtrack their comedy videos.

But even with new artists racking up views, not all musicians on TikTok feel as confident about the platform's future. An increasing number of users, especially Black creators, are voicing concerns about unfair treatment on the app. And as we enter a shaky post-pandemic period where we're no longer (as) glued to our phones, it remains to be seen if TikTok's impact on music is as sustainable, positive, or democratic as it claims to be.

TikTok made headlines nonstop in 2020 and early 2021 thanks to a quarantine-inspired boom of shut-in users flocking to the app, its ability to regularly launch songs onto the Billboard charts, and its high-profile licensing agreements with Universal, Warner, and Sony. Popularity aside, complaints have come from some of its most visible users. In interviews with more than a dozen artists and music curators on TikTok, gripes mostly centered on the app's mysterious algorithm — long considered its best and worst part. The algorithm's machinations are opaque, except that it manifests as highly customized feeds (or "For You" pages), prioritizing topical content as much as videos from people whom users follow.

"It's easy for someone with two followers to get hundreds of likes," says Max Motley (@mostleymusic), a user who recommends and reviews music. And thanks to the algorithm, that rise can happen fast. "I've seen artists go from 10,000 followers to a major record-label deal within the space of two or three or four months," says Ananmay Sharan, a student behind the popular music account @loveinamovie.

This inexact science forces artists such as Tai Verdes — whose song "Stuck in the Middle" blew up on TikTok and helped him sign a deal with Arista — to take a more methodical approach. Verdes boosted his profile in the beginning by offering TikTokers money to promote another one of his songs. At times he sounds more like a businessman, speaking about "data points" and "product." The key, he says, is "getting a commodity that not everyone else has, which is yourself and your art." That means his music and his persona are one and the same. "Stuck in the Middle," for instance, has a sunny, radio-friendly vibe, but its narrative about being a lover who is hurting serves his brand of vulnerability.

Of course, it's not always that cut-and-dried, which matters when the amount of time you put in to create a new post doesn't result in a substantial payoff. For Damoyee Neroes (@damoyee) — known for creative, multi-frame videos of herself singing — it can take up to six and a half hours not only to come up with an idea but then record, mix, master, and edit it, all by herself. Similarly, Sharan's channel, where he recommends and discusses indie music, has posts that can take three to four hours to edit. None of these artists get paid unless they opt for sponsored content or join TikTok's Creator Fund, which pays little. Roseboro, who's releasing his album Human Nature Sept. 17, is considering signing to an indie label so he "can actually provide for" his wife and son. 

"This is ridiculous. This is too much work for one person. And with the right people, this could be amazing," he says. Schmalz, who already has a team to help her with Song Psych, still says "it's impossible to do it all by yourself" while also pursuing a music career. 

"I don't know enough about the music industry to be able to explode and keep that hype," she continues. 

But while there is money involved in record deals, many artists are wary of handing over their creative freedom for short-term financial gain.

"It is really hard when money is your main motivation," says Sabrina Seidman, a singer-songwriter who also teaches producing on TikTok (@seids), and has been burned enough times by bad contracts that she now prioritizes her happiness over everything. "[I want] to create freely, and if I don't get that, then it's just not worth it."

As musicians on TikTok feel the financial and emotional squeeze of posting regularly, they've turned to other streams of revenue. Some engage in "pay for play," accepting money to promote different artists; some do brand deals — though are careful not to do so many that they're accused of selling out by their vigilant online fan bases.

UTA and WME are two talent agencies that have signed increasing numbers of TikTok creators, including hybrid music artists and influencers like Charly Jordan and 24kGoldn, in the hopes of turning them into multi-hyphenate powerhouses. Agents working with them tell EW that in their minds, successful artists are often those who expand far beyond music and have presences across TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and more. UTA's Perlman says her clients make a "variety of content" so they can get "opportunities that can plug into their overall music career," in addition to fashion, lifestyle, and fitness passions.

Then there are those artists who balk at the pressure to share too much of their personal lives in the name of promotion. Take Jack Rutter, better known as Ritt Momney, who gained traction in 2020 after his cover of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" went viral on TikTok. As he grows his original-music career, he is looking to distance himself from the platform that expanded his popularity. He's torn, though. "When you're trying to book a show, they look at your Spotify numbers and your Instagram followers," he says. "Part of me is like, 'Am I just being an idiot about this? Should I just shut up and promote myself?'"

While TikTok, in theory, seems like a way of democratizing music, its mainstream success has also brought attention to a perception of inequality on the platform. Brad Osborn, a professor of music theory at the University of Kansas, sees a worrying level of exploitation when white TikTok stars like Addison Rae get "famous dancing or lip-synching to music that was created by a Black or another [minority] artist" without credit.

Or, to put it more bluntly: "Without Black people, TikTok would be nothing," says John Vilanova, a Professor of Practice in Journalism & Communication, Africana Studies, at Lehigh University.

In June, Black dancers on the platform went on strike over this very issue after refusing to choreograph Megan Thee Stallion's single "Thot Shit" as fodder for white TikTokers. The situation has since opened up wider conversations about appropriation and ownership on the app. And though some Black dancers have returned to TikTok, the next big reckoning could lead to a more permanent break. (Representatives for TikTok declined to comment on the strike.)

A number of Black musicians tell EW they hope the strike eventually extends to their communities on the app. "Personally, I've seen fewer Black music creators on my 'For You' page than what I've encountered in the past," says Neroes. "TikTok should definitely find a way to boost so many talented — not just Black artists — independent artists."

People are split on why the algorithm supposedly seems to suppress Black and often queer voices. Rapper Yung Baby Tate, whose song "I Am" has been used in over 325,000 TikTok videos, says the algorithm is "inherently racist," while music and culture commentator Laura Lisbon (@cyberexboyfriend) says he believes the algorithm simply reinforces people's "inherent racial bias."

In a statement, the spokesperson for the company noted that "TikTok is a special place because of the diverse and inspiring voices of our community, and our Black creators are a critical and vibrant part of this. We care deeply about the experience of Black creators on our platform and we continue to work every day to create a supportive environment for our community while also instilling a culture where honoring and crediting creators for their creative contributions is the norm. We unequivocally do not moderate content or accounts on the basis of race, and we continually take steps to strengthen our policies."

Additionally, the spokesperson directed EW to a statement that says "racism and discrimination have no place on TikTok and we're committed to specific, concrete actions in our push toward building an inclusive platform reflective of our diverse world." Those initiatives include TikTok live events, such as a 12-week Black Creatives accelerator program where Black users participated in master classes on topics like brand building. Neroes, who was part of the inaugural event, says it was a "great experience."

TikTok: Yung Baby Tate, Tai Verdes, Ritt Momney

Their journeys on the app, how TikTok can help Black creators, their approach to creativity, and more.

Credit: Nikko Lamere; Josh Brasted/FilmMagic; Ritt Momney/YouTube

Corey Sheridan, TikTok's head of music partnerships and content operations for North America, tells EW that 2021 is all about "doubling down" on existing strategies: livestreaming; getting "legacy artists" like Cher and Barry Manilow, who've recently joined the app, to attract older users and introduce their catalogs to younger ones; and possibly throwing the company's own music festival.

Though in many parts of the world, including the United States, we're still far from a "post-COVID" reality, artists are now gradually adding festival and tour dates. Many are gearing up to perform live for the first time and testing their mettle for all parts of the music industry, not just ones behind a camera. As far as TikTok's future on music, Sheridan says "everything is on the table," from the company having a large presence at SXSW to throwing its own music festival. 

Still, despite its growing ambitions and influence, TikTok may stop short of fully disrupting the music business. Its recent global agreement with Universal Music Group, following deals with Warner and Sony Music, signal that it still relies on the traditional industry giants for powerful partnerships. And as smaller artists struggle to find ways to monetize their work, some will find themselves going against their independent ethos to sign with labels and receive industry support, some could turn into full-blown influencers for whom music becomes a small part of their overall branding, and some will be jaded by the platform entirely. Others may simply see TikTok as nothing more than a pit stop on the road to success on more traditional platforms.

Take Yung Baby Tate, who just joined Love & Hip Hop Atlanta's new season and now views TikTok as a "stepping-stone" to bigger things. Meanwhile, producer L.Dre — whose TikTok-viral remixes of music from cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender boosted his Spotify streams — is putting more of a focus on writing music for TV. And then there are music curators, such as Motley and Sharan, who've landed gigs at labels. They may become gatekeepers themselves, albeit with more awareness of elitism in a system that kept them out in the first place.

Tik Tok
Though TikTok helped her reach a new level of fame, Yung Baby Tate is critical of the platform's inequality
| Credit: Yung Baby Tate/TikTok; Tai Verdes/TikTok

"The disruptive nature of new technology is often exaggerated," says Vilanova, of Lehigh University. "What we've already seen is that the music industry has figured out a way to incorporate TikTok into its larger infrastructure, both with the major-label partnerships and the ways the platform is telling the industry who its next stars might be. Before long, TikTok will be seen as a 'traditional' path in the way that other once-new paths like YouTube were."

Verdes is one user who doesn't plan to abandon the app anytime soon. He says that if he can pivot from job to job, he can adapt to whatever TikTok — or the next platform that comes after it — throws his way. "There's 100,000 people in the world that are better than me at singing," he says, "but there's not 100,000 people in the world that are better than me at marketing. I'm gonna use that to my advantage in every single way."

As for Roseboro, he's going to stick around even though he thinks the app will continue to devolve. "Companies will start to make ads that look like they were created by a user," he says, a nod to influencer-fronted TikTok ads that have already rolled out. "Or maybe everybody gets bought by Amazon and 'this video is sponsored by Squarespace.'" Notwithstanding his dire prediction, Roseboro says he clings to the belief "If you make good stuff, it'll make it to the people."

UPDATE: This story has since been updated with a longer statement from TikTok on Black creators on the platform.

A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday or available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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