How TikTok became 2020's most important music platform — from 'Old Town Road' to 'Toosie Slide'

There’s something familiar about the most popular song of 2020.

Roddy Ricch’s breakout single, “The Box,” spent 11 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s also the most listened-to song of the year, racking up more than 1 billion streams from January through March — twice as much as any other track.

Exactly one year ago, things were in a pretty similar place. “Old Town Road” was about to begin its 19-week run atop the Billboard charts — a record-breaking accomplishment that vaulted its creator, Lil Nas X, into superstardom.

That’s not the only thing the two tracks have in common. “Old Town Road” and “The Box” both got their start on TikTok, where they rose from meme-able, viral video fodder to some of the biggest hits of the past decade.

And they aren’t the only ones. In the past year, TikTok has become a monstrous force in the music industry — one that’s launched new stars, resurfaced old hits and influenced mainstream music in a way that few platforms ever have.

“I think it can always get bigger,” Kevin Rutherford, Billboard’s chart manager for social, streaming and rock told In The Know. “And it’s already pretty huge right now.”

Rutherford is at the front lines. Week after week, he sees songs go viral on TikTok and immediately climb their way to the top of the charts. Now, he and the rest of the industry is trying to figure out what’s next.

‘This is something we need to keep our eye on’

Music has always been a key part of how TikTok operates. The platform, launched by the Chinese company ByteDance in 2017, became available in the U.S. in August 2018 after merging with the lip-syncing video app

And with that merger came a horde of musically inclined users, who brought their viral dances and karaoke videos over to TikTok. Today, the app remains focused on music — a fact that’s been essential to its taste-making power, according to freelance music marketer Cody Patrick.

“What makes [TikTok] cool for music promotion is that it’s kind of a music-based platform,” Patrick, who’s worked with artists like Future, Young Thug and T-Pain, told In The Know. “Every post that somebody makes has to have a sound associated with it — whether it’s a sound they created or a sound that’s already in the TikTok platform.”

Those features helped “Old Town Road” spread like wildfire when it hit the app in late 2018. Lil Nas X, who posted the song to TikTok himself, told Time that he did so with hopes that it would go viral.

“I was pretty familiar with TikTok,” the singer told Time in 2019. “I always thought its videos would be ironically hilarious. When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me. A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger.”

That decision was crucial for Lil Nas X — but it was also huge for TikTok. Both Rutherford and Patrick said “Old Town Road” was a turning point in the app’s history. After that, they couldn’t afford to ignore it.

“That’s when we first had to say, ‘OK [TikTok] is something we need to keep our eye on,'” Rutherford said of Billboard’s reaction to the song. “And obviously it has not slowed down since.”

The best ‘bang for your buck’

The musicians were paying attention, too. TikTok reached 1.5 billion downloads by the end of 2019, and by then, pop stars were already trying to capitalize.

Patrick says there’s no standard definition as to what a “TikTok song” sounds like, but he knows one when he hears it. The music promoter uses words like “danceable,” “bouncy” and “simple” when describing the style that typically succeeds on the platform — a style he believes many musicians are now trying to replicate.

He’s not alone in that belief. Music critics accused Justin Bieber’s song “Yummy” of being “designed purely” to go viral on TikTok, an accusation the singer fueled by creating his own compilation of users dancing to the track.

Meanwhile, Drake faced similar suspicions when he released his latest single, “Toosie Slide,” with its own instructional dance video. And the strategy worked: Within a week, even LeBron James was sharing TikToks of him and his family trying out the steps.

“Sometimes you look at these new songs that are coming out and you go, ‘Ah, they’re definitely going for the TikTok crowd there,'” Rutherford told In The Know. “And sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”

It’s not just A-listers though. Patrick has used the platform to help plenty of lesser-known artists promote their music.

“When it comes to spending — especially in terms of music discovery — I don’t see a better bang for your buck than TikTok,” Patrick told In The Know.

That could mean creating a dance challenge, paying influencers to feature a song on their pages or some combination of the two. Patrick said his clients can spend just a few thousand dollars and have their track reach as many as 20 million users.

“There’s not much else in the industry where you can do something like that,” he says.

TikTok’s algorithm, which is highly influential but technically a mystery, plays a big role in this. A user’s “For You” page recommends videos that they might find interesting — regardless of whether they follow the creator’s page or not. For musicians, that means a shot at millions of untapped eyes and ears.

‘It’s gonna remain pretty important’

That concentrated effort — by musicians, influencers and promoters — has never been more evident than it is right now. TikTok, or at least its influence, has dominated the Billboard charts over the past month.

It’s not just Drake, Bieber and Roddy Ricch either. Megastars like Dua Lipa and The Weeknd, who both released their latest albums in late March, have already scored top 10 hits with songs that went viral on TikTok.

Then there are up-and-comers like Doja Cat, who went from general obscurity to mainstream success after trending on the app. “Say So,” which the rapper released in early 2020, has been featured in nearly 20 million TikTok videos. Now, it’s a bonafide hit, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

“I feel like we’re seeing songs break on TikTok more and more,” Rutherford added.

There’s plenty of support for Rutherford’s hypothesis. As of the latest Billboard Hot 100 data (April 18), at least five of the country’s top 10 songs have also been hits on TikTok.

In fact, each of the top four tracks — “Toosie Slide,” “Blinding Lights,” “The Box” and “Don’t Start Now” — went viral on the app before or during their ascent.

Rutherford said the platform has gotten so influential that Billboard has even considered ways to include a song’s TikTok plays in its chart position. However, he cautioned that the idea is nothing more than a discussion at the moment.

From a promoter’s perspective, Patrick agrees that the app is only becoming more important. He even predicts that some artists will eventually receive “TikTok deals” — single-song agreements focused on viral tracks — instead of more traditional, album-based record contracts.

Patrick added that he doesn’t even think artists are fully leveraging the app, which houses more than 1 billion video views per day and is now available in more than 155 countries.

It’s unclear if that means TikTok can get even bigger, but with the New York Times reporting that the app saw a major boost in downloads this March, it’s certainly possible. Regardless, Rutherford is sure that the platform has carved out a substantial role in the music industry.

“As long as it’s continuing to break new songs, it’s gonna remain pretty important,” he said.

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s article on the crocheter who makes sweaters featuring iconic hip-hop albums.

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