When 2019 began, Lil Nas X was a relatively unknown internet personality with very little music experience and only a few song releases to his name. Fast forward about 11 months, and the Georgia native has inked a deal with Columbia Records, performed at the BET Awards, crafted tracks that have been streamed over two billion times and broke the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, thanks to his smash hit “Old Town Road.” How can this astronomical rise to celebrity status happen in the blink of an eye? The answer lies with the widespread consumption of meme culture and an emerging social media platform that has taken artist virality to a whole new level — completely reinventing the term “overnight sensation.”
TikTok isn’t just a video application designed for a generation of teenagers to freely share quirky lip-sync compilations to their followers. It’s a social media phenomenon overrun by aspiring comedians, trend-hunting influencers and underground musicians hungry for a taste of the limelight and an opportunity to exponentially accelerate their personal careers. Since TikTok’s parent company ByteDance purchased the surging music-based social media service Musical.ly in late 2017 for about $800 million, the app has exploded in popularity worldwide, acquiring over a billion downloads while being available in 75 languages in over 150 markets. This expansive audience has made TikTok the breeding ground for engaging hashtags and interactive challenges that can turn unknown artists into household names.
TikTok operates in the same video sharing realm Vine used to dominate in before its demise, featuring easily-digestible clips on a personalized platform that a user can sift through at their convenience. A key difference, however, is the length. While Vine embraced brevity, with videos clocking in at only six seconds, TikTok allows its content room to breathe, housing clips that range from 15 seconds to a minute long. The time extension gives TikTok users the flexibility to craft more polished videos while allowing the music the opportunity to shine and be remembered. These clips are then viewed, engaged with, shared amongst friends and in turn, spread through a spiderweb of viewers until it morphs into a trending topic showcased to the masses. This entire process can miraculously take place in the span of a few hours, making the separation between irrelevance and a viral moment paper-thin and an attainable goal for anybody with a smartphone and a creative idea.
Musicians have already capitalized on this growing fad by acting as the match while treating the audience as a wildfire meant to rapidly spread their songs to the far corners of TikTok. While other social media platforms rely on constant self-promotion as a means of growth and visibility, TikTok users do most of the promoting for you, with the help of a catchy theme, challenge or hashtag. When the attention on “Old Town Road” appeared to stagnate in February, Lil Nas X uploaded the track to TikTok accompanied by an abundance of cowboy memes, line-dance challenges, and the hashtag #yeehaw. The trend revitalized the massive hit as TikTok users worldwide recorded their own iterations of the addicting meme with the song playing in the background, making Lil Nas X and his catchy tune shoot up in popularity.
Following in Lil Nas X’s footsteps may seem simple, but operating TikTok successfully requires a well-thought-out brand strategy before you begin posting. Here are a few steps you can take to increase the likelihood of your song catching on:
1. Understand how the app works
TikTok has a home section divided into two main feeds in which you can view content, each playing a vital role in the user experience. The “For You” portion is all based on Tik Tok’s algorithm, delivering you a bevy of videos that are currently popular amongst the app’s audience base. The “Following” section has the same interface, but only contains videos from the accounts you follow. Both feeds give you the option to engage with the videos, with several icons along the right side letting you like, comment or share the post. The rotating record on the bottom right shows you the track title, artist name and all of the TikToks that use that same song.
The Discover section is how users find trending hashtags within TikTok. Each section of popular hashtags can be added to your “favorites” where videos that contain that hashtag will appear on your main feed. TikTok will also highlight different challenges that are receiving a healthy amount of buzz, giving the user an incentive to join in and craft their very own videos.
Your inbox will send you notifications whenever a clip of yours receives any likes, comments, mentions or followers. This will be the direct hub where you can watch your audience multiply. This section also contains direct messages, where friends can share TikToks amongst each other in a private environment. The “Me” tab contains your profile, listing the number of videos you’ve posted, followers you have, people you are following and the videos you have liked in the past.
Ready to post your first TikTok? Tapping the plus sign on the bottom toolbar opens the camera of your smartphone and an assortment of editing options at your disposal. Click the “Sounds” button to add a song to make sure the video aligns with the lyrics and beat. You have the opportunity to speed up or slow down the video, add a filter or include a timer so you can get into position before the recording begins, using the icons on the right-hand side. The bottom of the screen contains an “Effects” button where users can select from different special augmented reality effects that coincide with the actions in your video. You may also upload different photo templates to further affect your content.
2. “Make Every Second Count”
Contrary to other social media platforms that pump content onto your feed based on timeliness or the popularity of the user posting the material, Tik Tok’s algorithm gives smaller accounts the chance to flourish as well. The algorithm searches for videos that have the most watch time, regardless of the owner’s follower or view count. If users end up rewatching a video, that data also affects whether or not TikTok will strive to boost the post. If your clip exceeds in these areas, TikTok will work to elevate these videos onto other people’s “For You” feed, broadcasting your content to a broader audience and further spreading the music paired with it.
Knowing this information, it is up to you to select a song that can hold a viewer’s attention for as long as possible. You have 15 seconds to prove to your TikTok audience that your music is worth checking out and downloading on streaming platforms. Attempt to streamline your track specifically for TikTok, developing catchy lyrics with a memorable beat to capture the attention of the most ears possible. Your song and accompanying video should have a call-to-action as well, inspiring other users to post their very own clips with your music attached. This will start a chain reaction that will hopefully result in a buzz surrounding your content.
The magic of going viral on TikTok relies on the utilization of challenges and hashtags. If your audience doesn’t feel as if they are personally involved with your post, your song will simply fail to attract much attention. TikTok thrives on connectivity and a sense of community, so workshop some potential hashtags and call-to-action methods that inspire users to make various iterations of your post using your music. Pair certain lyrics with different hand motions and dance moves. Be creative and have fun with it. You never know which video/music combination will be the one that changes your life.
Sacramento rapper Stunna Girl unknowingly achieved her viral moment earlier this year when her song “Runway” found its way onto TikTok and sparked the #RunwayChallenge, where users would sync up a dramatic transformation of themselves with the beat drop in her song. As a result, Stunna Girl’s stock ended up skyrocketing, with millions of views on her YouTube page, a cult-like following and a million-dollar record deal with Capitol Music Group. The effects of virality on TikTok have the potential to be enormous.
4. Consider working with an influencer marketing agency
An additional option for aspiring artists without much experience promoting themselves on a social media platform is working with an influencer marketing agency, such as Viral Nation, FanBytes or Muuser. Muuser specializes in constructing campaigns that are designed to market music on social media, including TikTok. These companies can act as a “middleman” between your art and the broad expanses of the Internet, helping you craft strategies that are tailor-made to your wants and needs and giving your music the best possible chance to succeed.
Whether your goal as an artist is to begin a timeless music career or achieve a short-lived taste of viral fame, TikTok has the tools and the audience to make those dreams actually obtainable. Not everybody’s journey to success in the music industry is as expeditious as Lil Nas X or Stunna Girl, but knowing the ins and outs of a breakout app like TikTok can place you on the right track to getting your music noticed by audiences around the globe.