How to become a star overnight? As of late, the answer is simple: TikTok.
The app is unique in its ability to make otherwise unknown artists go viral in a matter of a day. With short clips catered to a fast-scrolling audience, artists can tease samples of their music to test a song’s popularity or promote previously released work. There is a direct relationship between the number of views on a TikTok video and streams on other platforms such as Spotify or Apple music. The more views TikTok audios have, the more likely users are to seek out those songs on external platforms. Because of this correlation, artists can skillfully plan their TikTok videos around upcoming releases to drive up traffic toward a new single or album.
For many up-and-coming artists in the Columbia community, TikTok has been vital in growing their following, and many have achieved rapid success through the use of the platform, which blends music, video, and dance, all of which last a mere 15 to 60 seconds. Political science student and singer-songwriter Grace D’Haiti, BC ’21, who goes by the artist name Grace Victoria, is one such artist.
Victoria has been releasing music for a little over a year now, but she did not begin to grow her following significantly until this summer when she joined TikTok. Victoria now has over 60,000 TikTok followers and has received over 1.2 million likes across all of her videos. Her most recent release, “Down In Virginia’' has already amassed over 175,000 streams on Spotify. She attributes a lot of the attention to her promotion of the song on TikTok after it was already released. The app allowed listeners to click directly from her TikTok profile to her Spotify page after watching her video, making the transition to Spotify streams rather seamless.
“I was really reluctant to join TikTok at first,” Victoria said. “There’s a lot of stuff on TikTok that I don’t want to be associated with, but one of my Barnard friends was just like, ‘Girl you gotta get on TikTok. Artists are getting so much traction on this app. It’s all based on audio; so if you make the right audio, you can really grow your audience.’”
Victoria ultimately ended up following her friend’s advice, despite the fact that she did not find the app compelling from a creative standpoint. Victoria was quick to mention, however, that through the app’s algorithm and engagement tools, she appreciates the value of utilizing it as a means of reaching new listeners and growing her audience.
Victoria’s TikTok ventures weren’t always successful. She posted her first video at the end of summer 2020 and received barely any views. However, one fateful day in November, everything changed.
“I remember so distinctly. It was the day before the 2020 election, so in November, and it was for ‘Black Looks Better On Me.’ And I remember just seeing the views and the comments and the likes coming in, and I was like ‘Whoa, this is so bizarre how one video can just start a chain reaction,’” Victoria said. “So after the song went viral, I kind rush-produced it and [mastered it and mixed it] and everything, and I put it out [within that month].”
Despite the success she has gotten from TikTok, Victoria’s initial feelings about the app have remained relatively unchanged.
“I don’t want to roast an app that has helped me so much, but I look at TikTok as a means to an end. I don’t want to be a pro-TikToker; I don’t even want people to think of me as a TikToker. I want to be a musician first and foremost,” Victoria said. “Hopefully, after a little while, music will be the focal point rather than these little videos I’m making. Eventually after a few of my albums come out, I want those to be what draw people in, but we’ll see, maybe in a month or two I’ll change my tune.”
For other artists, TikTok became a crucial platform even prior to its peak in early quarantine last March. Singer-songwriter Maude Latour, CC ’22, commented on the rate at which her following grew after becoming active on TikTok in late 2019.
“[T]his is the digital age, so I started posting because of isolation. I’ve been posting things on TikTok, and that has grown my following in three weeks more than it has in two years. So I am shocked at that,” Latour said.
Since joining the app, Latour has gained over 77 thousand TikTok followers and over 2.7 million likes. She often previews unreleased songs on TikTok to gauge how a song will fare among fans, and using that data, she plans her releases accordingly.
Singer-songwriter Eva Westphal, CC ’23, utilizes a similar strategy. As someone who is constantly pumping out original music, she uses TikTok to test out her new material and see what gains traction.
“I’m always writing originals, probably every other day or every day, and they’re not all good. I really appreciate TikTok having short-form videos,” Westphal said. “If I have a verse and a chorus, I can just post it … [even if] it’s probably not something I would release. And then sometimes it sticks and people like it, and that helps narrow down my process of what songs I’m gonna put out.”
When asked what advice she would give to a hopeful musician trying to make it on TikTok, Westphal emphasized the importance of finding one’s niche. Westphal identified her niches as music, body-positive content, and LGBTQ content.
Westphal’s three specialties seem to be working out pretty well for her. Currently, her most streamed song on Spotify is “I’ve Never Written a Song About a Boy,” which garnered over 95,000 streams since sharing her work on TikTok.
Westphal wasn’t even planning on releasing the song until it blew up on TikTok, but after seeing the overwhelmingly positive response to a short clip of the song, Westphal moved forward with it and saw a direct translation of its popularity on TikTok over to her Spotify stream count.
Rapper Mamadou Yattassaye, CC ’21, who goes by the artist name Mamadou., also emphasized the close relationship between going viral on TikTok and Spotify streaming.
“You see a lot of people compose something and instantly gain a million views on TikTok, and so I think that component is giving a lot of power to independent artists to really shape where they want to take their career because that translates into Spotify and Instagram and organic ways in which to connect with new audiences,” Mamadou. said. “So I think TikTok is that possibility for independent artists.”
When asked how he stays true to his art and purpose on an app that seems to be focused primarily on dance challenges, Mamadou. stated that it really all depends on one’s audience and niche. “I found some really intentional artists, but I’ve also seen an oversaturation of these dance challenges where every lyric is danceable.”
Ultimately, Mamadou. believes that the benefits of the app outweigh the negatives.
“I think that TikTok allows artists the platform to have really expansive organic reach without having to feel like we have to spend a lot of money,” Mamadou. said.
In addition to TikTok’s ability to return power to the artist, it also seems to be impacting the music that artists create. Musician and hip-hop producer Payton Johnson, CC ’21 spoke about how TikTok has created a new genre of music entirely.
“I would even say that there’s specific zones of hip-hop that come out of TikTok. … I feel like TikTok music is very quotable; It has moments in it that are meant to be repeated in a 15-second-loop or 10-second-loop,” Johnson said.
Johnson also spoke to the way that TikTok is influencing musicians’ writing and production process.
“Rather than focusing on the whole song and putting a lot of energy into the whole song, these artists know that only a part of their songs is going to be used if it becomes famous, so they put effort into specific sections of the song,” Johnson said.
Though singer-songwriter Max Patel, CC ’23, who goes by the artist name Jayani, has not yet broken into the world of TikTok himself, he spoke to the “do it yourself” mindset that TikTok fosters in independent artists and musicians, especially college musicians, who can now take their creative processes and their marketing campaigns into their own hands.
“[It’s democratizing] music production and music marketing. I think in general it’s gonna have a positive impact on independent voices out there...helping unknown people,” Patel said. “You can just totally take control of your career and go viral … When things go viral, people tend to check out the next thing by that person, and if that person is believing what they’re saying and there’s a meaning behind it, then the viral system will lead to people who have more pure hearts.”