Christa Jarrold TikTok
Image: Christa Jarrold

How TikTok Turned Into a Viral Popstar Factory

In a matter of months, breakout stars can go from posting acoustic covers to securing record contracts, brand deals and national tours.
Nana Baah
London, GB
March 4, 2021, 1:48pm

In just two months, TikTok managed to turn Nathan Evans, an unknown singer-songwriter, into a viral star with a record deal and a list of UK tour dates. 

“It happened quickly. It’s surreal – I’m still waiting to wake up,” says 26-year-old Evans, who started the TikTok sea shanty trend of early 2021. “Someone left a comment under one of my TikToks back in July, of a different sea shanty, asking me to do ‘Wellerman’. It was about four days after I posted it that it passed 1 million views. I never expected it to take off.”

Evolving from virtual unknown to signed artist usually takes years of rejection and uncertainty, but over the past 12 months TikTok has provided the perfect platform to fast track your music career. As much as it’s mostly known for its viral trends – think dance challenges, or discourse around the growing millennial/Gen Z divide – with an algorithm that can predict what you’re going to like before you’ve even thought of it, the app has also had a staggering effect on the music industry. 

For starters, TikTok has brought otherwise forgotten songs back into the limelight. After going viral on the platform, Lily Allen’s 2006 “Smile”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Blackpool grime artist Millie B’s “M to the B” entered the UK’s Top 40 and charted in countries all over the world.

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Challenging YouTube and Instagram’s livestream dominance, throughout the pandemic TikTok has also recruited artists for live performances. Most recently, Justin Bieber’s livestream of songs from his never-performed-before album Journals received over 4 million views in one weekend.

Record labels have taken notice of the platform too. Sony and Warner have both worked alongside TikTok over the past year, but the app’s biggest partnership to date is with Universal Music Group (UMG) – a label that’s home to a number of artists with huge “TikTok songs”, like Megan Thee Stallion and Jason Derulo.

In early February, UMG announced they had entered a new global partnership with TikTok after pulling their roster of music from Triller, a rival video-sharing app. The label will work on A&R with TikTok, as well as formulating a licensing deal that will see artists and songwriters compensated whenever their music is used as a sound on the platform. Although compensation depends on an artist’s contract, it does mean that every time a song is used – even on a 15-second TikTok – artists will receive revenue.

Still, the unbelievably short “unknown-singer-to-signed-artist-securing-brand-deals” pipeline is the most radical part of TikTok’s impact on the music industry. Last summer, TikTok launched an artist partnerships team in the UK, dedicated to working with and nurturing budding talent – from singers, to producers and DJs – headed up by David Mogendorff, the former European Head of Artist Relationships at YouTube. 

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“We’ve been working within the music industry and with different labels since the beginning,” Mogendorff explains over Zoom. “But we know that the music industry is a big and complicated place, so we want to make sure we’re talking to everyone that supports artists, from the artists themselves to management teams, to the label.” 

According to Mogendorff, the TikTok team hears about trends – like Evans’ sea shanties – and new artists organically, like any other TikTok user would. When they notice a creator is doing numbers, the team reaches out, often with advice on how to best grow their accounts – like posting at specific times, how to caption their posts, making sure their other socials are linked up with TikTok – as well as helping them to form management teams. 

“The team gets on a call with an artist, just to learn a bit more about them and answer any questions they have,” Mogendorff says. “We help build teams around them with managers, and recommend opportunities for them. It’s really about building a relationship with them. We’ve had them come to perform for staff, so there's loads of different ways that we can do that with artists. Our goal is to support them throughout their careers, whichever direction they go in.” 

That said, it’s hard to visualise what long-terms plans for some viral creators would look like. Take Nathan Evans: an EDM sea shanty remix is what pushed him into the limelight, and the promotion of his upcoming UK and Ireland tour relies heavily on the track. Since his original success with “Wellerman” he has posted more and more sea shanties, which have in some cases received double the number of likes as his originals. However, Evans’ original songs and covers are the polar opposite of an EDM sea shanty banger. Instead, think piano and acoustic guitar-heavy ballads.

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When Evans speaks about his upcoming projects, he’s aware that a lot of new fans came for the shanties, and he plans to keep them up while mixing in some originals here and there. “I’m going to keep it a mixture of stuff, and try to keep as many people as possible happy,” he says. “Just tick all the boxes for everybody.”

For singers not attached to any viral trends – like Cat Burns, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from south London who spent her time busking before downloading TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic, or Sam Ryder, a 31-year-old singer-songwriter who gained popularity on TikTok after being noticed by Sia and Alicia Keys – the rise has been slower, though still meteoric compared to the traditional route to stardom. 

After seven months on the app, Burns secured a deal with RCA Records – the same label that represents Zayn Malik and Little Mix – and after a year of posting covers on TikTok, Ryder’s debut single took the number one spot on the Worldwide iTunes song chart a day after its release. Both believe that the basic foundations of TikTok – the algorithm, the ability to duet videos, or to save and repost them on other social platforms – helped hugely with their respective success.

“TikTok has totally shifted the landscape,” says Ryder. “Back in the day, it was all about burning CDs and sending them into radio shows or to labels. If you go back even further than that, I spent a lot of time in Nashville, and all the wooden street lamps have still got rusty staples in them from decades ago, from where bands would put their posters up. TikTok’s just the new signpost.” 

Unlike artists who find fame outside of a solitary app, TikTok stars are now also doubling up as influencers. “The US TikTok team contacted me in May because my following at the time was majority American, but they put me in touch with the UK team,” says Burns. “They got me on the phone, and that was how I was able to get brand partnerships and deals and stuff.”

Among TikToks of Burns singing are sponsored posts, most recently one for Tinder, encouraging people to get verified on the dating app. Evans has also created sponsored content, including a sea shanty for the cosmetic brand Old Spice. 

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When it comes to established artists, Mogendorff says TikTok’s approach is just as hands on. While he says the company is not directly involved in making dance challenges – or, in fact, any trend – go viral, they do make sure that artists are aware that it’s happening, and work to ensure the momentum keeps up. 

“Sometimes an artist and a creator are working together to get the dance, but it’s usually just creators doing it because they like a song, or because it’s trending already,” says Mogendorff. “Our job is just to spot it and help it reach a bigger audience. We’ll let the artist’s team know that there’s a lot of growth and creations with their song, if they don't know already. But trends start growing organically – the users really decide what happens.” 

Despite being released two years ago, Yungblud’s “Parents” has been used over 60,000 times on TikTok in the past month alone. For established artists like Yungblud – real name Dominic Harrison – the app has provided an unexpected way to interact with fans, especially during a pandemic. In a TikTok video, Harrison announced a competition to fans, who could submit their own freestyle over a specially-released instrumental version of the song, for a chance to be the new Spotify canvas, the image or video that loops when you play a song on the app. 

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“It’s going mental – I think because people are frustrated and angry. They need outlets for it, so I dropped the instrumental on there so they can freestyle over it and get out what they need to,” Harrison says. “At my shows, I have a meet-and-greet for everyone outside, no matter how big it is. It feels like I’m doing that when I’m doing my duets with people and hearing their perspective firsthand.” 

At first, Harrison says, he didn’t believe he would have an audience on a platform that was full of dance videos. But he soon “realised that TikTok can be punk as fuck. It’s kids expressing themselves, doing mad creative stuff, so it allows artists who aren’t following a formula, or aren’t an industry darling, to get discovered, because things can just blow up, and I love interacting with the fan base.” 

Ultimately, whether or not there’s longevity to this approach remains to be seen; will TikTok’s viral creators be able to make the same kind of jump as Justin Bieber, from YouTube hit to bonafide superstar, or suffer the same fate as so many X Factor winners, pumped up for stardom before petering out into obscurity?

Either way, it’s clear that TikTok has already made its mark on the music industry – and both its breakout stars and Mogendorff are hopeful that the app will prove a sustainable breeding ground for the musicians of the future.

“It’s evolved so much in the last six months, so where are we going to be in a year, when people just keep pushing the medium and the format?” says Mogendorff. “We don’t know where we're going to be, but there will definitely be more Nathan Evans, Cat Burns and Sam Ryders. There’s a whole new generation to come.”

@nanasbaah

Tagged:Music