When George Strait aspired to become a country artist in the late 1970s, he needed to build his skills on the Texas club circuit over several years and meet the right manager to facilitate interest in Nashville.
When Strait-inspired singer-songwriter Jaden Hamilton considered making music barely a year ago, he put up a series of homemade videos on TikTok and generated enough traffic that Sony Music Nashville signed him to a development deal within months. Now, Hamilton has the same manager as Strait — Erv Woolsey, who signed him in tandem with Regulator Management — plus a formal deal with Sony that was announced Oct. 16 as the company released his EP Ain’t That Something.
Hamilton is just the latest entry in the emergence of TikTok as an artist development and A&R tool for the mainstream country music business. Warner Music Nashville (WMN) announced the signing of Robyn Ottolini on Oct. 8 as her breakup song “F-150″ helped her reach the top three on Rolling Stone’s all-genre Trending 25 chart. And three artists — SarahBeth Taite, Andrew Jannakos and Priscilla Block — have debuted in the top five on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart since August after their tracks broke out on TikTok. Block has subsequently signed with Universal Music Group Nashville, while her debut single, “Just About Over You,” charted on Country Airplay. Taite and Jannakos have both appeared on Hot Country Songs and engaged in conversations with potential label partners, based on the mix of DIY audience building and artistic merit.
“We can’t just sit back and think that everybody’s going to show up, like historically, on a bus to Music Row, get off the bus and start playing writers’ nights,” says Jannakos’ manager, Cohencidence Projects owner Andrew Cohen. “Especially for [artists], that has become very, very in vogue the last few years, finding an audience before you get to a label scenario.”
TikTok is just the latest platform for young artists to assemble a fan base. Taylor Swift famously used Myspace in 2005 to establish a marketing story that helped her make inroads at radio. Subsequently, Florida Georgia Line became the first SiriusXM country success in 2012, Maren Morris broke through on Spotify, Kane Brown posted cover videos on Facebook and YouTube, and Luke Combs magnetized fans through Vine.
TikTok’s first country star was Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” won the 2019 Country Music Association award for musical event of the year after Billy Ray Cyrus joined him in an alternate remix. Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” spent a dozen weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 2019, in part because of TikTok marketing.
Both of those songs had significant hip-hop roots, but the current wave of TikTok successes leans more toward traditional country and pop-flavored versions, suggesting that the platform is broadening its reach among both its fan base and the hopeful artists who use it. Some of that can be attributed to the pandemic.
“I was bored as hell,” says Block, who posted her first TikTok video on Dec. 23, 2019, but became a regular user in April. “Quarantine started and we’re all on our phones and everyone’s talking about the TikTok app. And to be honest, I thought it was a dancing app. But I would just find myself on there for hours; you start scrolling and then you can’t stop. And I would see other people singing songs or whatever. I started to think, ‘This might really be a platform that I could put my own music up.’”
Part of the attraction of TikTok is its ability to connect artists with a young demographic that has more time to devote to entertainment than older consumers. The app is easy to use, and its fan base — particularly Generation Z users, born between 1996 and 2015 — is vocal about its tastes.
“This generation is comprised of really good kids that inherently want to make an impact,” says WMN senior director of interactive marketing Brooke Hardesty. “Whether TikTok kids are dismantling Trump rallies or supporting a new artist, they’re actually actively looking for opportunities to help people catch their break. They’re the most connected generation by far. It seems that there’s an expectation that this generation has access to their favorite artists and they are personally invested in furthering their careers.”
They also expect a genuine relationship with artists. Thus, when Jannakos sings while cooking at the stove, or Ottolini trashes her ex, or Hamilton and his girlfriend cut up onscreen with a telltale hickey on his neck, those casual interactions cement their relationship with their followers.
“You can kind of get a sense of who someone is pretty quickly,” says Sony Music Nashville executive vp A&R Jim Catino. “It’s just an easy medium for people to learn about an artist.”
It’s also easy for fans to show their support. In addition to liking and following artists, they can make their own duets, creating videos that allow them to lip-sync with the original recording, essentially tying themselves to songs that move them. In one of country’s most obvious success stories to date, over 2.4 million duet videos have been made with Brown’s “The Git Up.”
“They could do that with any song,” says Taite’s manager, 287 Entertainment GM Greg McCarn. “There has to be something about that artist, the video, the song itself, that drives them enough that they’re going to stop what they’re doing and go make a video.”
TikTok’s current rise in country is a confluence of trends — it’s an easy-to-use platform that was getting the most traction as a new outlet when COVID-19 took hold.
“More people are home,” says WMN executive vp A&R Cris Lacy. “They’re making more content at home, they’re sharing more content, because we all are looking for that connection.”
In that sense, TikTok provides a bridge between artist and fan, but it also works as a bridge for an artist’s career. The videos are capped at 60 seconds, so they serve more as a teaser to something else: song sales, streams or traffic on artist websites and social media.
“I don’t want to be a TikTok star, I want to be a country music singer,” says Hamilton. “It’s a bridge to country music.”
And it’s not a bridge that’s likely to burn. Because it works differently than Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Spotify, TikTok provides a different fan experience than other virtual platforms. The coronavirus may have given it a boost within country, but it’s expected to resonate even when people are no longer asked to isolate.
“It’s going to be an important piece of the puzzle for a while,” says Catino. “I don’t think any of them have really gone away besides maybe Myspace. There’s still a lot of things we can do on all the platforms that make sense. The demographics may be a little bit different on each platform, but we can find different fans in different places and try to keep involved with all of them.”
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.