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One of the producers/artists we work with has over 150 million streams on Spotify. I tell you this not to brag, but to give you insight into how they got there.
Was it the music marketing on FB/IG advertising? Nope. Not a dime. Was it the branding around a hot new release? Nope, the album was released years ago. OK, pencils down. It was TikTok (mostly). But, how?
You probably know TikTok as the short form video app filled with thirst traps, bikini bounces, beard worship, kinks, cosplay, and now, the generational wars. (Side note: GenX still doesn’t care about your jeans or hair, and Cheugy is just fine with us, we’ve been called worse).▼ Article continues below ▼
But for all of that video-centric content, the secret is – TikTok runs on audio. Spoken audio, recordings, and last but not least, song clips. Notice the difference, not songs, but “clips.” Whether it’s a viral dance to a hit, a challenge, or a remixed mashup, or that insane, “Oh no, oh no, oh no no no no no,” there is normally music involved.
This is not meant to be a user guide for TikTok. I’m going to assume you’ve wiped your eyes and looked up after blowing two hours scrolling through your feed laughing. But here are some tips for how to use it as a music maker.
Here are some facts to consider. In 2020, over 70 artists were signed to major label deals directly from their TikTok. And these aren’t all young rappers, either. Someone we work with in his late twenties got a distribution deal for back catalog and a 1+ 1 from a major.
There were 176 songs that were featured in 1 billion unique video views on the app in 2020 alone, and that number is growing.
First things first, you ain’t gonna make the money FROM TikTok. There is a royalty share when your song is used a lot, but nowhere near what the value of streams are. This means, to really do this right, you have to have released the music before you do the TikTok. There needs to be somewhere for people to go to listen to the whole thing. If they like it, they’ll search it on their favorite streamer. This means that when you do your own music with TikTok, it may blow up and get your followers, but it basically won’t make you any money. Even if you are part of the Creator’s Fund, you really need to be doing hundreds of thousands of views to see any real revenue. And as the TikTok says, “it’s a full-time job…”
Whenever you release a song now, you must check with your distributor on how you can choose the 30 sec sample that DSPs use. This is crucial. You are going to want to find the 15 seconds or less of your song that you think could really go viral. Is it a lyric that describes something everyone does or goes through? Is it a weird vocalization that someone could make funny faces to? Is it a part that could easily become a dance? Pick this part, because this is what people will actually be using when they choose the “sound” for their TikTok, and it’s nearly impossible to change after it’s ingested.
Get familiar with how “Sounds” work. Find a favorite TikTok, click on the bottom sound. That will take you to a page that shows all the videos using that sound. If you’ve never made a TikTok, click in the bottom center on the app, and you will see right at the top “Add Sound” which opens up a Search, Discovery, and Favorites. You’ll see all the sounds you are familiar with. But, in the search, look for your song, and that is how you add it. This will ensure it gets counted because it is tied to the file provided by your distributor.
TikTok is really authentic, and for the most part, surprisingly nice and friendly. It’s important to understand that. If you are just promoting your music and don’t really interact with others, or worse, don’t understand and participate in the other trends, you are going to fail. We see it time and again.
Some hints on picking parts of songs. Lyrics that match physical parts work really well. Lyrics that talk about who you are, what you like, where you’re from, or describing someone else. Lyrics that talk about getting fucked up really work well. Lots of drunks and stoners on TikTok. Weird sounding vocals- high pitched voices, bad singing – are everywhere. It’s sad, but it’s true.
The key to any virality on TikTok is not just sharing, but stealing, or interpreting. It’s when other people use your sound and do their own video of it. They have more followers than you, then their followers have more than them, and that’s how it happens. This is why “Challenges” work. Because the original video may not even have that many views, but it will be tied to the original audio when someone clicks on the “sound” to use it, and bam, another view and so on, and so on. So, if you’re going to survive and thrive on TikTok, it’s not like the other social media channels, you actually have to care and be there.
You don’t have to show your face to use your sound. Go to use a clip of your own song on something that old people do not understand. Anime is a great place to start. Take a clip, put your sad sappy song to it. Same thing with showing action on the street or something in your funky in your house.
Start a challenge with your sound. It could be a dance, but more likely it’s a trick or a drinking game or sliding into a wall. When you find a trend like the “dead sweatshirt” one that isn’t reliant on a song, always use one of your songs, even if the audio is down.
Find influencers who will use your music to do a dance or as background in one of their videos. It will cost you anywhere from $30-$1,000, or more. This is product placement, and you’d be surprised how well it works. One of our artists bumped their streams and YouTube channel by over 50,000 based on one usage. Look in the bios of the people you follow, and you will often find their info for business. Send them a 15 second clip and ask for their rate or offer them $50-$100 per 100,000 followers. You can also look on SubmitHub for these opportunities.
Try to isolate which Tok your song fits into. Is it WitchTok, CosTok, HorseTok, DadbodTok, GeriatricMillTok? When you find the niche that your 15 sec clip fits into, it becomes gold.
Look, the songs you have out right now, just might not work on TikTok. You could create a single or an EP that shoots for this. You could create another artist name on your distro and focus on these. Just be aware, your music may not work, yet. But, maybe you do have a part of a song that will? Maybe after a while on TikTok, you will be able to write one, because you’ll know what would “work perfectly here.”
The biggest takeaway I can give you is to have fun and join in on the fun. If you make this all about your music and money, it won’t work.
In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some strategies to starting your own TikTok music maker channel, which will also blow up your music, and maybe your music career.
–Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.
**main photo by photo by Solen Feyissa, used with a Creative Commons license.