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TikTok Continues To Launch Breakout Hits, But Can It Sustain An Artist’s Career?

In the short time since TikTok merged with Musical.ly — which Chinese media firm and parent company ByteDance acquired for $800 million in November 2017 — and subsequently launched in August 2018, the platform’s ability to provide a spark for the next mainstream hit has gone from anomaly to regularity.

The first big example came hardly six months after TikTok’s arrival, when users helped push a then-unknown Lil Nas X, and his country-trap hit “Old Town Road,” to the forefront of a burgeoning Yeehaw Agenda — and to a modest debut on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 2019. In an April 2019 Time interview, Lil Nas X refuted the idea that he should receive compensation for each usage of the song on the app, instead proposing, “I should maybe be paying TikTok.” Though other factors ultimately propelled the song to ubiquity, the track’s beginnings on the platform undoubtedly gave legitimacy to the growing app, and in the year following Lil Nas X’s monthslong reign atop the Hot 100, TikTok has boosted several more No. 1 hits.

Its tangible impact on popular music has become both clear and widespread during the same time frame, even if the new wave of buzzy artists it’s helping to create is left with a blurry road map for prolonged success. The app’s trends, dance routines and song-specific challenges have served as a springboard for emerging artists to lengthy chart visits: Previously unknown acts like Arizona Zervas and Tones and I had songs shoot into the top five (and Powfu into the top 25) of the Hot 100 after having their hooks become popular loops; SAINt JHN, Surfaces and Trevor Daniel had years-old songs revived into chart hits thanks to the app; StaySolidRocky, Ant Saunders, 24kGoldn and Surf Mesa thrived with some of the earliest singles in their respective catalogs; while Lil Mosey and BENEE rode viral dance challenges to newfound success.

Still, following a quick run up the Hot 100 and perhaps a star-studded remix or two, there hasn’t been much of a definitive blueprint for how these musicians can leverage their hits to long-term success. Re-creating the same magic has proved difficult, as none of the aforementioned names have revisited the Hot 100 since their respective blow-ups, and only Daniel’s debut album, Nicotine, has ranked within the top half of the Billboard 200, despite other project releases from Powfu, Surfaces, 24kGoldn and Saunders.

“[TikTok’s musical influence] is really built around a moment, a meme and repetition,” says Christal Cody, Warner Records associate director of fan engagement and digital marketing. “It’s less about the artist and the song and more about how it matches with what [users] are trying to accomplish. That’s why random things can blow up there, and why a person with zero followers can go viral.”

Certainly some of the growing pains are due to the platform’s relatively brief existence. But for 15 seconds of an artist’s unexpected breakthrough song to last for more than 15 minutes of fame, what is the next step they have to take?

Mary Rahmani, TikTok’s director of music content and artist partnerships for North America, suggests that artists improve their app proficiency by learning how to interact with the trend both in and outside of the platform. “When a song is having a moment in the app, the first thing we always recommend is to share TikTok content on their socials,” she says. “Just stay consistent and engaged. We really try to encourage artists to stay active between spikes to maintain their growth and connection.”

“We are here to help artists be a part of what has become an increasingly important component of their story,” adds Isabel Quinteros, TikTok U.S. senior manager of artist relations and music partnerships. “TikTok offers an opportunity for artists to connect with an audience if they engage consistently and build a foundation to reach a new fan base.”

But a TikTok breakthrough is a double-edged sword: Given their reliance on rapidly shifting viral trends, musicians’ blooming careers are in risk of stalling if they’re unable to showcase their talent outside of the app. That has led to an increasing number of artists trying to balance allowing their hits to flourish on the platform while also avoiding becoming pigeonholed as a “TikTok artist.”

“I want people to know more of my personality — I still feel like people don’t really know who I am,” says “Yellow Hearts” creator Saunders, who signed to Arista Records last fall and released his debut EP, Bubble, in April. “I don’t want to be known as that gimmick. I want to show people that I’m not just a fluke.”

Forrest Frank of the electro-pop duo Surfaces says the group already had released two albums and gone on a number of successful tours before a remix of the pair’s “Sunday Best” took off on the app, thereby precluding Surfaces from fitting the mold of a typical TikTok-driven sensation: “We’re not really bucketed into that,” he says, noting that he wasn’t initially a fan of the remixed version. “Though we do see fans saying, ‘You’re not our little secret anymore.’ TikTok put us in the mainstream.”

One way in which Surfaces is attempting to remain there is by enlisting a rock legend as a collaborator. The duo released the hopeful ballad “Learn To Fly” with Elton John on June 12 — and the act is not the only one hoping an established artist will co-sign their own marquee status outside of TikTok. Surf Mesa recently put his own spin on the Marshmello-Halsey collaboration “Be Kind,” and in April, SAINt JHN teamed up with the same masked DJ, Southside and Giggs for the grime-inspired “Been Thru This Before.”

Multiple artists contacted by Billboard declined to participate in this story, with their teams pointing to other factors for their respective artist’s success other than going viral on TikTok. The most common sentiment among those artists is voiced best by Daniel, who told Billboard during his January Chartbreaker interview that “I just mostly want it to put me in the place career-wise where when I follow-up, it’s just as big.”

In order to achieve that, says Warner’s Cody, it’s important to “make sure that you’re giving people an idea of who you are outside of that one meme. Try to use that moment to tell people more of who you are and what you’re about as an artist.” For Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” gave him the opportunity to showcase his ability to enhance genre-bending hits with his firm understanding of how to be a successful social media presence in the digital age. Lizzo utilized the delayed surge of “Truth Hurts” as a way to display her talents as an elite vocalist, flautist, dancer and showstopping performer.

Both Lizzo and Lil Nas X turned breakout years into undeniable industry-recognized legitimacy in early 2020, with the two artists taking home a combined five Grammys. In the five months since the ceremony, the app’s influence on popular music has been stronger than ever, and many of its biggest success stories have a chance at a best new artist nod in the upcoming year. 

But as TikTok’s breakout class of artists continue to search for a tried-and-true formula for prolonged success, the potential for them also ending up the decade’s first crop of one-hit wonders hangs in the balance.

“I just feel like I have a lot of musical ideas,” says Saunders. “And I feel like I have some originality as well. I want people to treat me as a true artist.”

Additional reporting by Tatiana Cirisano.

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