Sony Music, TikTok, and a Case Study in Modern Music Discovery

On Monday, TikTok announced a new official partnership with Sony Music Entertainment to distribute songs and promote artists from the music company across its platform. Dennis Kooker, President of Global Digital Business and U.S. Sales at Sony Music, explained the company’s decision to work with the social networking service in the news release:

Short form video clips have developed into an exciting new part of the music ecosystem that contribute to the overall growth of music and the way fans experience it. TikTok is a leader in this space and we are pleased to be partnering with them to drive music discovery, expand opportunities for creativity and support artist careers.

Distributing music through social media platforms as a way to gain traction before campaigning for mainstream success has become a primary marketing playbook in the past few years, and that is certainly still the case this year. Not only is Kooker correct in his perspective of TikTok’s place in the music ecosystem, I would even say that as a major industry player, Sony Music is a bit slow to the game. On TikTok, songs are most often incorporated as 15-30 second clips called sounds, and these sounds can be quickly reused across the platform. A quick search for “Music” on my TikTok Discovery page showed many sounds that have since been used in millions of videos:

To understand the ways in which songs have gone viral on the platform this past year, I delved a bit deeper into the top three most popular songs from my Discovery search results: “Laxed - Siren Beat” by Jawsh 685, “Lottery” by K Camp, and “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion.

Viral Challenges and Dancing Influencers

For the past year, dance challenges have proliferated as a unique product of the TikTok community, and for most TikTok sounds, a popular dance challenge is where the music discovery is made. My Top 3 were certainly no exception. “Laxed - Siren Beat” is an example of a very compelling discovery story - Jawsh 685, a teenage music producer from New Zealand, posted a video to “Laxed” in mid-2019 on YouTube, where his previous videos averaged under 100,000 views. Just as the pandemic began this year, however, “Laxed” caught on as the anthem to the choreographed #culturalchallenge, a TikTok dance trend where participants would sway through simple dance moves while wearing cultural attire. By April of this year, the track had racked up more than 2.8 million views on YouTube, and Jawsh 685, who had initially created “Laxed” as another jam for his YouTube collection, was looking to distribute the track officially on streaming platforms:

Unlike Jawsh 685, K Camp was an experienced rapper signed to Interscope Records and was on tour when “Lottery” was recorded. K Camp’s team enlisted the help of a variety of partners, including Music Ally’s digital marketing team (Music Ally then wrote a post detailing “Lottery”’s rise to viral fame) and Mixtape Monopoly, which helped set off viral marketing campaigns. A “Lottery” dance challenge that started on Instagram found success, but influencers such as Charli D’Amelio and James Charles, who danced to the song at the end of 2019, helped to ensure the dance challenge’s popularity on TikTok.

That - an TikTok influencer-propelled dance which exposes a large swath of followers to a song - seems to be the rule, not the exception. Also common is the frequency with which influencers themselves are choreographing these routines. TikTok user Keara Wilson created a dance to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” in early March, and the Savage Challenge became one of the most popular viral dance trends earlier this year, with celebrities like Keke Palmer and Tinashe jumping in to participate.

Mainstream Collaboration

While TikTok’s community is ever-growing, viral sounds on the platform can hit a ceiling when trying to mimic the same success on streaming platforms or mainstream avenues like radio. For “Laxed,” mainstream discovery came in the form of controversy, when Jason Derulo remixed the track without crediting Jawsh 685 in early May of this year. While the two musicians quickly came to an agreement, both the controversy that was caused and the release of Derulo’s remix, titled “Savage Love (Laxed - Siren Beat)” lifted the song from TikTok’s trending charts into the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in August, where it remains as of this writing. What catapulted “Savage Love” to No. 1 on the Billboard chart in October, however, was yet another remix - this time, from none other than BTS, the band with a fanbase that has arguably the most enviable mobilization power in the industry.

This year must have been good for the viral-song-with-famous-collaborator-remix formula, since another one of my top 3 Discover sounds also hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a remix - Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” Megan Thee Stallion’s remix with fellow Houston native Beyoncé not only propelled the song further up the charts, it also prompted a new version of the Savage Challenge with Beyoncé’s parts.

Leaning Into a Trend

One of virality’s defining traits is that it’s difficult to predict the direction or velocity with which a trend becomes popular. In the aforementioned Music Ally post, Isabel Quinteros Annous, Music Partnerships & Artist Relations at TikTok, gives advice to artists who find themselves trending:

Lean in, create a video using the track, and join the trend...The most common mistake we’ve seen labels and artists make is ignoring what’s happening in-app. We have an incredible community that rallies around an artist and really helps propel a single. It’s important to be timely and engage with the community.

Annous’s advice is well-accepted, as is evident in the way many artists have reacted to their trending work. Megan Thee Stallion took no part in creating the Savage Challenge dance, yet she uploaded her own video of the challenge on March 16th, less than a week after the original was posted. In addition to participating and responding to viral posts, artists are now referencing dance trends in more traditional marketing mediums, like music videos. Dancing’s importance in creating buzz around “Lottery” motivated K Camp to include dancers in his music video. Elsewhere, the references are more direct, with viral stars now choosing to insert TikTok clips directly into an official video.

“Lottery,” in particular, is demonstrative of the “lean in” principle. The promoters on K Camp’s team had originally envisioned a dance challenge that would use “Lottery”’s hook as the primary sound, but TikTokers began using the first 15 seconds of song instead. Since Reazy Renegade, the producer of the song, is mentioned in those first few seconds, the dance challenge also became known as the Renegade Challenge, which prompted K Camp’s team to add “Renegade” to the official song title in order to optimize for search and capture views. This is an important aspect of an artist’s “leaning in” - that by doing so, there is implicit acceptance that the identity of a song is no longer solely shaped by its musical creator or their marketing team.

The Internet Pop Star

Another aspect of virality on TikTok is, as Annous aptly put to Music Ally, “Once you have a song go viral, the chances of having another sound hit increases.” This is especially true of Doja Cat, who has to date seen at least 8 songs of hers considered viral on the platform, with 6 sound clips from her songs seeing more than a million views each:

Doja Cat has always been a product of the Internet generation (her 2018 hit “Mooo!” was a viral sensation on YouTube), but it’s her crossover into mainstream that defines her success. Since becoming viral on TikTok, she has performed on a late night show (Jimmy Fallon) and participated in a Hollywood movie soundtrack (“Boss Bitch” was included in the Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey). According to a conversation music executive and producer Kevin Weaver had with Rolling Stone:

Brandon Davis and Joe Khoury, who produced the album with me, we were all kicking ideas around and we threw the name Doja Cat out, and we all kind of looked at each other like, “She would be fucking sick for this.” And so at that point, we reached out, we sent her the record…

The way I sequenced this thing was, I got all the songs, and I spent a lot of time with Joe and Brandon, and we basically tried to come up with the sequence that ties all the music together into a listening experience.... you get hit by a record that just grabs you. I try to do that as unique to each project, you know, and on this project, it really felt like “Boss Bitch” was that record. I just kept going back to it as that record…

It should be noted that Megan Thee Stallion was also enlisted to participate on the Birds of Prey soundtrack (she featured with Normani on “Diamonds”), for a reason not too different from Doja Cat’s above. To me, that speaks to the ultimate icing on the virality cake - virality gives an artist and their song a temporal stickiness that makes it difficult for a given cultural context to omit them. The ultimate paradigm is Lil Nas X’s Grammy-winning “Old Town Road,” which found mainstream acceptance after marketing its then-novel TikTok success as new and different.

This all comes back full circle to Kooker’s point on the music’s gradual embrace of TikTok. TikTok is no longer just a social platform through which musicians can experience 15 seconds of viral fame; it is a mainstay of the industry through which little-known musicians can be danced into traditional success. As we look towards a future in which almost anything could become viral and almost anyone can begin a TikTok challenge, competition will be fierce, and campaigns will need to do more than devise a dance routine for a new challenge. I wait to see how traditional record labels revise their marketing and distribution strategies to account for these modern times.