How to build a viral TikTok star
Unsigned and unheard of musicians are signing record deals off the back of perplexing 15-second clips gone viral. TikTok Europe’s head of music partnerships lifts the lid.
TikTok: the Gen Z app du jour. A social media platform through which “creators” share 15 second long videos of themselves lip-syncing for their lives, completing dance challenges and generally fucking about. It’s Instagram’s lo-fi, soon-to-be more popular younger sibling, having been downloaded over one billion times, 663 million of which were in 2018 alone (that same year, Instagram had 444 million new downloads).
While Instagram has birthed a whole generation of influencers who have intuitively learned to monetise their “personal brand”, TikTok is cultivating viral music stars at a staggering rate. You’ve heard of their most high profile case, Lil Nas X, whose song Old Town Road went viral on TikTok, catapulting him to the top of the US Billboard charts for 17 weeks. But bubbling beneath the spearhead is a cohort of young kids who are fast building music careers by leveraging the viral fame they are able to procure via the app.
Sub Urban, a 19-year-old lad from New Jersey, bagged a deal with Warner Records after millions of TikTokers did the Fortnite dance to his song Cradles. A 21-year-old rapper from Sacramento named Stunna Girl nabbed a record with Capitol after her song (and her #RunwayChallenge) exploded on TikTok. While the #RideIt hashtag challenge got DJ Regard to number one in The Official Big Top 40 in the UK, landing him a deal with Ministry of Sound Records in the process.
The power of TikTok hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially to the makers of the app. In fact, they have a whole department that works on finding and nurturing these stars. Farhad Lashanizand, head of music partnerships at TikTok Europe, heads up this area of the business. Spending a large portion of his working week trolling explore pages with his team in search of creators and music that’s generating a buzz, their job is split into two parts: talent outreach and development.
“If a song starts going viral and users use it a lot, we contact the artist and try to collaborate with them closely – by doing a campaign or a hashtag challenge,” explains Farhad. “Ten years ago people would have to push to major outlets to be noticed. On this platform, for some wonderful reason, everybody has a chance to succeed. You can be unsigned and unknown and self-releasing everything. It can be established artists and also people who pick fragments of music and have it on in the background.”
But how exactly does it work? What are the trappings required of a bedroom-produced tune to turn a TikToker into a label-backed musician?
“It’s about recreation,” says Farhad. “That means how many videos were created based on that song. So how many users liked it and created videos based off it. Those people share with each other’s followers, and those followers will create their own version of a video based on that song. The more videos, the more attention.”
Hence the viral challenges – 257,000 have been started in the UK alone. These dance or hashtag challenges prompt a mass of users to imitate the act, like a Mexican wave of content. These challenges can take many forms, whether that be a dance routine or the bizarre Haribo challenge, which saw people make a number of Haribo gummy bears perform a rendition of an Adele stadium concert.
There’s no set criteria for viral fame. “It’s not about a certain type of music or beats. It’s a combination,” says Farhad, “because it’s only 15 seconds long there has to be a lot of information packed in for people to notice. It could be the melody, it could be the beat, it could be the words. It could be anything that triggers people to connect.”
However, quantity is important. “The more videos you create the more chance you have of being noticed. And you can be noticed anywhere in the world – that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to be in the UK. You could be a star in Japan tomorrow without you knowing. Create as many videos as possible, try to share them on socials, engage your friends to join you and share your videos. Eventually, it’ll pickup by itself. You just have to do the groundwork to get it going.”
To demonstrate his point, Farhard highlights a young Italian musician called Vago. At the age of 20, he scored a number one hit in the Italian charts with a song he made for YouTube “like four years ago, all because some users found it, shared it and people noticed it”.
It’s just not unsigned artists who are finding viral fame via TikTok, a number of emerging signed artists are using the vehicle to build their existing profiles too. Case in point: London-based rapper Ashnikko who found creators going crazy for her anti-fuck boy anthem Stupid featuring Atlanta’s Young Baby Tate.
Ashnikko released Stupid back in July as part of her Hi, It’s Me EP. She liked the song, but she admits that she “didn’t think anything of it”. Ashnikko was using TikTok intermittently (she had an account but was hardly “active”) when a friend messaged her a screenshot out of the blue to tell her that 600 people were using Stupid as audio in their TikToks. “I was like ‘oh that’s cool’ and then a week later it was 30,000 people. I checked yesterday and it’s now like 400,000 people,” says Ashnikko. Almost half a million teens lip synced, danced and created comedy sketches that riffed off a 15 second clip of Stupid’s opening verse. As a result, a track that only had 100,000 streams has now racked up over 1.6 million having climbed to No. 1 on both Spotify’s Viral 50 and Genius’ Top Songs charts.
When asked for her hot take on why Stupid went so viral, the rapper reasons it out. “The song is a bit silly, the lyrics are stupid. The one that people are using now is ‘I know you think about me in the shower, Pornhub on your browser’ – so I think it’s because the lyrics are quite visual. It’s easy for people to create dances around them that tie in with the lyrics.”
With Mabel, Little Mix, Lewis Capaldi and even Ed Sheeran now using the platform (Sheeran’s recent debut hashtag challenge #BeautifulPeople has clocked around 700,000,000 views) it’s clear that the major labels are rapidly trying to capitalise on TikTok’s bewildering influence. With the power of the internet at its feet, it seems anyone with an earworm and a bit of spare time can make it big through TikTok. Or at least enjoy their 15 seconds of fame.