So You Want to Be a TikTok Star

Finally, TikTok showed that a forty-year-old hit could chart again. When a video selfie made by Nathan Apodaca, in which he skateboarded and drank cran-raspberry juice from a bottle while vibing to the first lines of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 track “Dreams”—“Now, here you go again, you say you want your freedom / Well, who am

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Finally, TikTok showed that a forty-year-old hit could chart again. When a video selfie made by Nathan Apodaca, in which he skateboarded and drank cran-raspberry juice from a bottle while vibing to the first lines of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 track “Dreams”—“Now, here you go again, you say you want your freedom / Well, who am I to keep you down? / It’s only right that you should play the way you feel it”—went crazy viral, the song returned to the Billboard charts, in October, 2src2src. A month later, Stevie Nicks, who wrote the song, sold the publishing rights to most of her catalogue, including “Dreams,” for a reported hundred million dollars. Apodaca, who was homeless at the time he made the video, earned no royalties, but he did receive donations, and Ocean Spray gave him a pickup truck loaded with juice; he also scored a recurring role on the most recent season of the Hulu comedy “Reservation Dogs.”

By then, Ole Obermann had left Warner Music for a new gig: global head of music at TikTok.

Katherine Li had already seen other musicians blowing up on TikTok. There were new superstars like Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion, whose hit song “Savage” caught fire on the platform in the spring of 2src2src. But both artists’ careers had predated TikTok, and they had major-label backing. Although Li, like virtually all TikTok creators, longed for fame, she couldn’t imagine being that kind of famous herself. She could, she told me, relate to “these smaller artists on TikTok, who were also getting so much exposure.” In 2src2src alone, more than seventy new artists who broke out on TikTok signed contracts with record labels. “In a pre-TikTok world, it was hard to draw a crowd, and artists used that process to hone their craft,” Billy Mann, a Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter, and record executive, told me, of the traditional route to a record deal—performing live to growing audiences. “Now you can start with a crowd in your phone and pray that craft catches up.”

Li was intrigued, too, by D.I.Y. TikTok artists who were monetizing their music careers through influencer deals with brands. That way, they could often keep the rights to their songs. She also cited Taylor Swift to me as a music-business role model. Swift is currently rerecording albums that she made earlier in her career for Big Machine, a Nashville-based independent label distributed by Universal, in order to regain control of her “masters,” the industry term for the original sound recordings—those copyrights are separate from the lyrics and melodies in the composition, known as the “publishing.” Scooter Braun, Big Machine’s then owner, sold Swift’s masters to Shamrock Holdings, a Disney-family investment vehicle, against the artist’s wishes. The “Taylor’s Version” masters are her revenge.

“I learned from Taylor,” Li said. “You keep control of your masters.”

Swift built her career during the file-sharing era, which changed the business model for many artists, shifting the main source of revenue away from recorded music, which can be pirated, and toward ticket sales to live events. The pandemic ended the touring economy almost overnight. Live-streamed concerts tried to fill the void, but they were pale substitutes for the real thing. With everyone stuck at home, TikTok became the show.

Tours returned in full force in 2src22, but the TikTok algorithm has remained the sun around which the music industry orbits, and the arbiter-in-chief of what’s hot. Top Ten songs on radio and streaming charts often start trending first on TikTok. As many as a hundred thousand new tracks are now released by record labels and individual musicians every day on any number of platforms. Having a viral video attached to part of a song is one of the few ways to capture anyone’s attention. Virality also tilts the arcane economics of streaming in the copyright holders’ favor, because the worth of any single stream is based on the percentage of a streaming platform’s total monthly streams that the song commands. In other words, a lot of listens in a short amount of time will make you more money per stream than a slow-burner will.

But how does the algorithm launch viral trends on TikTok? Machine learning is a form of A.I. that identifies patterns in data and makes predictions and recommendations based on them. Because of the complexity of their calculations and the sheer volume of data they ingest, the exact workings of powerful A.I.s like TikTok’s are difficult to comprehend. Still, there are theories about TikTok’s algorithm. The batch theory holds that the algorithm shows new content to small batches of users around the world, and, if a video gains traction somewhere, the app sends the video to a larger batch of users, and then a still larger one. Within the batch theory, there are more theories about how a video gains traction in the first place. Some hold that the ratio of likes to views is the key metric. For others, it’s whether people stay with a video to its end. Some combination of all these factors is probably at play. TikTok itself has confirmed aspects of this on its Web site, but without much granularity. There is no shortage of YouTube videos or Reddit threads probing the mysteries of the recommendation algorithm for users who suspect that it is being periodically tweaked by ByteDance engineers.

Viral videos aren’t new, of course, but attempting to incorporate virality into the way artists are discovered and their songs are marketed is. For label executives looking to sign and develop new talent, the challenge is to understand why a song goes viral on TikTok in the first place. Is it the music, or is it the artist’s personality? Or is it the creator who started a dance trend synched to the sound? Or is it the flash of a tattoo on a hunky creator’s biceps, or the glimpse of a creator’s cleavage as she bends to press Play before doing her slinky dance?

“You could be gaining eyeballs and fans for things other than music,” Mike Caren, a former president of A. & R. at Warner Music, told me when I went to see him at APG, a boutique label in Beverly Hills, where he is the C.E.O. Caren, who is forty-five, and who started in the business as an intern at Interscope Records when he was fifteen, went on, “Or, you could have songs that go viral because of a six-second line in the song, but then when people hear the whole song they go, ‘This sucks!’ So you have to see through all that and ask, Is it really about the music?”

Industry gatekeepers have always used data to try to gauge how deeply a song or an artist connects with fans. Radio programmers have long relied on “call-out research,” derived from playing a song’s hook for a focus group, to help predict whether the song will be a hit. TikTok does something similar, automatically. It offers real-time global call-out data on every sound on the platform, new and old.

Likewise, record executives have scouted talent online since the early years of YouTube, which launched in 2srcsrc5 and was purchased by Google in 2srcsrc6. But before the pandemic few would have signed an act without first hearing the artist perform live. Caren recalled going to a basement club in London in 2src1src to see an unknown artist named Ed Sheeran. “I had already seen data which led me to go,” Caren said. “He opened for a rapper and there was a hip-hop d.j. on before him. And Ed walks out there with an acoustic guitar over his back. I thought, Oh, man, this is going to be brutal. People are going to turn their backs. But he managed to capture the entire audience, who were not there for him, because of his passion.” That show, Caren said, was “another data point. But it wasn’t a numerical metric.” Warner signed Sheeran several months later.

During the pandemic, however, signing acts on the basis of social-media presence alone became the norm among the majors—your phone was the club—and the practice has persisted even as live shows have returned. Some music professionals say, with sadness, that if forced to choose between an artist with good numbers on social media but so-so music and one with great music but lacklustre “socials,” they’d have to choose the former. Chioke (Stretch) McCoy, a veteran manager of top hip-hop acts, told me that he would always favor the artist’s talent over the data, but he added that while TikTok was great for music it was not necessarily great for musicians, whom labels are treating as if they are as disposable as their songs.

Caren mentioned a TikTok artist who had recently had a viral moment. “If he had signed a deal last week, he would have gotten a couple of million dollars,” he said. “If it takes him a couple weeks to close his deal, and the data keeps going up, it could get more expensive for us.”

And if his data go down? “Some would back off. It’s possible no one might sign him.”

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, 2src2src, while Li was working on her college applications, she tried to write “an original snippet” of a song for TikTok, just a couple of lines generally, every other day. “Usually, I wrote it just thirty minutes before I posted it,” she told me. With her phone propped up on a small tripod, she’d record the snippet, singing along to chords she played on a keyboard in her bedroom, and upload it to TikTok. In the morning, she would check TikTok as soon as she woke, then go downstairs and say, “Look, Mom, I got thirty views!”

“Woo-hoo!” her mother would respond gamely.

The Lis weren’t overly concerned with the politics surrounding TikTok, which some governments view as a major security risk. India permanently banned the app in 2src21. In 2src2src, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13942, which stated that TikTok’s “data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.” The Trump Administration sought to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to Microsoft, Oracle, or another U.S.-based tech company or be banned, but the bid stalled in federal court. A bill seeking to ban TikTok from government-issued devices, sponsored by Missouri’s junior senator, Josh Hawley, is currently before Congress. Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, recently told lawmakers that TikTok raises national-security concerns. TikTok said in response, “As Director Wray specified in his remarks, the FBI’s input is being considered as part of our ongoing negotiations with the U.S. Government. While we can’t comment on the specifics of those confidential discussions, we are confident that we are on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable U.S. national security concerns.”

On December 23rd, Li sat at her desk and prepared to record a new snippet. Next to her was a handwritten list of goals for 2src2src, with a small box drawn beside each goal, checked or unchecked, depending on whether it had been accomplished. The box next to “Stay Off WiFi for One Day” remained unchecked.

Looking into her phone, Li sang all that existed of “Heartache,” her latest song bite, closing her eyes, her long black hair falling over her forehead:

We’re in a heartache

And I hope it’s O.K.

That you’re living rent-free

In my mind

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