Guerrilla Chartbusters: the Viral Music Stars of TikTok

The war on large-scale music labels has seemingly been revitalised with the rise of music-oriented social media platforms. First came the lip-syncing phenomenon Musical.ly, an app which saw kids and adults alike singing and dancing along to their favourite chart-toppers. Now, its successor, TikTok, has taken the world by storm and has brought with it a vast array of independent viral hitmakers. While we have been blessed with the comeuppance of some brilliant independent artists in the last decade, Thundercat and Chance the Rapper among the most noteworthy, it seems that trying to sign to a label is what needs to be done to make it in the music biz – but why is this still the case?

For decades it felt like the only way to reach stardom was by selling your artistic soul and signing away your integrity for a single release – if you’re lucky enough maybe an album too. Some quick money upfront, or maybe even a share of the streaming revenue all in return for a fleeting chance at fame and glory. Unfortunately, exploitative major labels would often take advantage of upcoming artists on the brink of success by signing them to long-term multi-record deals that would take the profits away from the artists themselves. Famous YouTuber and rapper KSI commented of his pigeon-holed treatment on numerous occasions during his rise in the rap music industry, levelling accusations at his old record label Island Records. The 27-year-old internet sensation claimed that the label attempted to control him and his style before ultimately deciding to hold his Spotify streaming revenue and copyright usage hostage. What was the cost for all this headache and uncertainty? A small cheque for a couple of guaranteed EP releases, neither party seeming to realise his potential for stardom. Since that experience KSI has gone to the lengths of establishing his own independent record label.

What helped KSI to mobilise like this? A huge YouTube fanbase platform to build his new career from. It should be no surprise then that artists from all different age groups and genres are trying to take a hold of this brand-new fan engagement rocket that is taking off for the moon. You don’t even need to look at TikTok just yet to see the influence of these music-based apps. The ‘frozen’ challenge of Rae Sremmurd launched their global career through the song ‘Black Beatles’. Not to mention the likes of Lil Nas X who blew up with his country-rap song ‘Old Town Road’, a genre-bending bop featuring the old but gold Billy Ray Cyrus. These two artists built huge careers off the back of apps like Musical.ly and TikTok to great success, but the longevity is not enjoyed by all viral stars. Take some one hit wonders for example: ‘Hit the Quan’, ‘Watch Me (Whip)’, ‘Juju on That Beat’, ‘Wellerman’, ‘Buss It’ – the list goes on, and on, and on. With just one small break and the achievement of virality, artists can build a big enough fan following to save years of grinding away trying to get that elusive big breakthrough. It’s no wonder that the younger generation are grabbing on to this rollercoaster for dear life and hoping for the best, but the darker side of the music industry remains.

Breakout viral tracks are great for exposure and help get your name out there, but whilst there is more leverage for these young artists, there is still a distinct lack of experience. With the popularity that TikTok can bring so quickly, labels jump out like sharks smelling blood, knowing that they can ride the viral success of these stars for a couple tracks and dump them in the water as soon as they’re done. These independent overnight stars don’t have the same power as KSI, bolstered behind his original YouTube career – that is unless their follow-up tracks perform well enough. Plenty of these viral TikTok and Musical.ly artists lose their rights to revenue and the ability to use their own music due to label copyright destroying their career before it even begins as the proverbial rug is pulled from under their feet. It’s a dangerous game out there for independent artists in the modern era, and those using TikTok as a platform to gain popularity must proceed with caution: label executives often care about their pocket more than they care about their artists.

Labels can be great for artists when a good relationship is formed, but new artists should be wary as they can also be awful and damaging to careers. If you want to support independent music, first and foremost you should be supporting your friends and your local scene. 

[Lachlan Farquharson – he/him – @lachfarq]

[Photo credits: Chris Robley]

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