Algorithmic Tastemakers And Seven-second Wonders:
On The Tiktokification Of The Music Industry
By: Cierra Bettens | Art by: Laura Stanley
In 2019, Vancouver-based alt-pop musician FKA Rayne entered a music studio for the first time. It would also be her first professional encounter with TikTok.
“I was in a studio, pre-pandemic […] I was doing pop music at the time,” she recounts. “This producer, who was a middle-aged man, was like, ‘we need to write a song for TikTok.’”
Baffled at the time, the singer-songwriter declined the suggestion — she was a musician, not a content creator, after all. But when the pandemic hit and boredom struck, she changed her mind.
Nearly three years later, the artist has amassed 9.4k followers on the platform, where she promotes her music and rants about the state of the music industry.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” FKA Rayne says. “It takes up a lot of time for musicians when they’d like to be working on music […] but it has really made the music industry more accessible for people who might’ve previously been overlooked.”
FKA Rayne knows her experience is not unique. The push from record companies to create endless chains of TikTok content has become ubiquitous in the industry. In the past year, a slew of artists have come forward about the pressures of creating short-form videos to grow their fan bases. The line between being a musician and a content creator becomes increasingly blurred as less time is spent in the recording studio and more time is spent in front of a ring light.
Even big names in the industry are not shielded from the pressure to post incessantly. In a now-deleted TikTok, pop singer Halsey lamented about Capitol Records barring them from releasing a song unless they manufactured virality.
“I’ve been in this industry for eight years and I’ve sold over 165 million records and my record company is saying I can’t release it unless they can fake a viral moment on TikTok,” they said in the video. “Everything is marketing. And they do this to basically every artist these days. I just wanna release music, man.”
Since hopping on the TikTok bandwagon, a lot has happened for FKA Rayne. She shifted from pop to alt-rock. A handful of her songs made it onto Spotify’s top editorial playlists.
She’s also witnessed the music industry change drastically — and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In just a few years, the platform owned by ByteDance has indelibly altered not only the promotion of music but of the industry itself.
“Music is a commodity. It’s always been a commodity,” FKA Rayne says. “But it feels like with TikTok, it’s gone from the commodity of a three-minute-long song to down to seven seconds.”
“Instead of the one-hit wonders of the ’90s and early 2000s, we’re having people who are seven-second wonders.”
Gaining exposure on TikTok is a game of algorithms. In the attention economy, the tastemaker is no longer the critic, but the content creator.
The appeal of TikTok is such that stardom appears accessible to anyone. On the surface, it takes little more than an iPhone camera, an internet connection and an inkling of what makes content stand out on TikTok’s For You page.
But it isn’t really a level playing field. On a platform governed by algorithms, manufacturing virality under the guise of authenticity is a lucrative business in itself.
In its capture of the music industry, TikTok has given rise to an influx of musical ‘tastemakers’. Songfluencer, a tech startup that pairs musicians with influencers, is among a growing number of companies attempting to profit off promises of algorithmic publicity. Not unlike traditional PR, these influencers-cum-tastemakers are recruited to use their social media capital in hopes of boosting visibility — and therefore opportunities — for the musicians they represent.
Yet most musicians — unless signed to a major label — lack the financial backing to secure influencer promotions. Instead, they become entrepreneurs of the self, acting as their own personal brands.
Unlike in the U.S., where users with upwards of 10,000 followers can monetize their content through the company’s TikTok Creator Fund, Canadian TikTokers cannot access such funds. Still, the pressure to “be your own brand” incentivizes creating more and more content.
It’s a pressure FKA Rayne knows well. An entire genre of music, she says, has been created in hopes of gaming the TikTok virality machine.
“Everything is pitched to go viral now,” FKA Rayne says. “Some people are thinking of that while creating their music and other people, like myself, are trying to think of ways post-creation to be like, ‘how can I market this on TikTok?’”
Further, even artists with no intention to blow up are not immune from the malaise of virality. In 2021, a remix of Chicago-based rapper Sonny’s song “Kill Bill” went viral on TikTok. Except he didn’t make the remix himself — nor did he post it.
“You’ll see a lot of artists who are writing songs to write songs and to talk about their life experiences,” FKA Rayne says. “It’ll end up on TikTok, and then it will go from a full three-minute song that’s talking about an interesting story down to five seconds that then gets remixed and sped up and slowed down and reverbed and changed so that people can put their own experience and whatever caption they want to it.”
Despite TikTok’s tightening grip on the music industry, it doesn’t come without offering some advantages.
Montreal-based musician and comedian Eve Parker Finley feels TikTok has accelerated, rather than limited, her career.
Finley’s TikTok journey began in February 2020, while isolated in her one-bedroom apartment.
“There was a while where I just was creating stuff in my apartment and posting multiple times a day, for a long time to no one,” she says. “Eventually, it took off a bit more and became something that was fun to do, something that kept me sane in a way.”
Since then, Finley has scored a hosting gig on a new CBC show Ten Minute Topline, where she challenges guest musicians to write a song in ten minutes.
She credits TikTok for helping her get to where she is today.
“It gave a bunch of people who didn’t have that much of an audience an audience, and allowed for the growth of a certain kind of audience,” she says. “It helped me build a community. It helped me build my chops in music and comedy.”
Still, it’s a balancing act for Finley. While still a TikTok regular, she’s learned to set boundaries.
“There really is a social pressure, or society pressure, or career pressure to be creating tons of stuff for social media as any sort of independent artist, and it takes so much time, effort and energy,” Finley says. “We don’t get paid to post things on TikTok or Instagram, and so we can’t be expected to do so much work for free all the time.”
TikTok can provide a direct starting point for musicians to interact with their fans, but while virality pleases the algorithm for a short period, maintaining a dedicated listenership is far more complex.
For FKA Rayne, compromising the integrity of her artistry for a few seconds of fame is not in her cards — nor does she feel pressure from current management to do so.
“It’s pretty obvious when you listen to a song [that] it’s written for TikTok, and you see a lot of major artists doing it, but that’s never something that I’ve really wanted to do,” FKA Rayne says. “I don’t want to have one really short bit that’s really good and the rest kind of random and sporadic and incohesive, which is kind of a running theme with music that’s written for TikTok.”
So, while TikTok’s For You Page may put artists on the radar of strangers, amassing followers does not always lead to a surge in listenership. Sometimes a week as one of TikTok’s ever-changing main characters is just that.
Listeners are smarter than we think, Finley says — and it’s time they are treated as such.
“Trying to produce music for the medium is a bad idea, and will lead you to bad art,” Finley says. “Music is not content. Music is still art.”