Concerns about Chinese surveillance and inappropriate content have led to a crescendo of voices backing a ban on TikTok in the United States — which would follow a ban on using the app on government-issued devices in the US and several other countries , as well as a total ban in India. While it’s far from clear how the US government could implement such a ban, the possibility is prompting many industries to consider the implications for their businesses. At the top of that list is the music industry.
After six years of super-fast growth, at least one source shows that TikTok currently has the third largest user base of any social network, behind Facebook and Instagram (both owned by Meta) and ahead of Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat. While entertainment is by far the largest content category of TikTok videos, it’s not known how much of it is specifically related to music. That’s partly because the categories within “entertainment” are blurry on TikTok: Many TikTok stars become famous for their lip syncs, dance routines, or other videos to someone else’s music, while a much smaller number of people are artists who distribute or even promote their own music on the app.
To understand the impact on the music industry if TikTok were to disappear from the US market, it helps to understand the effect it has had on the company so far. To do that, it’s helpful to look at TikTok in light of its natural predecessor: YouTube. YouTube has taken the music industry on a journey that TikTok extends today.
YouTube is currently the largest distributor of music of any kind in the world. Its use, specifically for music, is much greater than Spotify, for example, even though the greatest hits are played on Spotify more often than their official videos are watched on YouTube. The biggest reason for this is probably that YouTube’s main service is free, while Spotify’s main service charges a subscription fee and is constantly pushing free users to the paid service.
But another big reason for YouTube’s popularity is the relative independence of the music industry. While Spotify only accepts music feeds from record labels (or digital distributors like Distro Kid and CD Baby), anyone can upload music videos to YouTube. And while Spotify only launched in the US after it signed deals with the major record labels, for the first few years of its existence YouTube didn’t deal with copyright or royalty issues related to the massive amounts of music users were uploading.
The same was true of TikTok, except TikTok had music specifically in mind early on when it acquired Musical.ly, another Chinese app that allowed users to lip sync videos. Otherwise, TikTok’s early disdain for music copyright issues helped it build a huge user base as it negotiated with record labels and music publishers. And just as YouTube signed licensing deals with the major labels around 2011, six years after its launch, TikTok had licenses from the major labels in early 2021.
Still, TikTok is further from music industry scrutiny than YouTube. For example, while there are many “official” artist channels and label releases on YouTube, TikTok does not give special status to major music stars and even less to labels. TikTok users can give themselves whatever username they want, and the app does not verify actual identity. For example, there are TikTok users with names like Lady Gaga, ladygaga, Ladygaga, LADY GAGA, Lady Gaga Daily, etc.; and it’s not clear which of these is the real Lady Gaga account. This makes it more difficult for the real artists to establish their identity on the service; the focus is on users, not musical artists. TikTok also treats audio clips a bit like hashtags on other social networks: it groups videos that use the same music clips, and it allows users to easily create new videos using the music in the clips they watch. Such features help raise awareness of music clips, but draw attention away from the artists who create them.
Another sign of TikTok’s continued autonomy is its ability to create its own music stars independent of the record label system. YouTube has spawned several breakthrough megastars such as Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY, and Luis Fonsi. Still, most of these had support from major labels or management in the first place; YouTube especially helped them gain exposure in markets outside their home country, including the US. In contrast, the biggest music stars on TikTok (at least by revenue), such as Bella Poarch, Dixie D’Amelio, and Loren Gray, were more likely to have been discovered on TikTok before they were signed to record labels.
TikTok has also had an arguably greater effect on the creative output of music artists than YouTube. YouTube’s most pervasive effect on creative output is the explosion of artist collaborations, such as drop-in pop songs by rappers. Music discovery on YouTube is based more on search than on playlists or other forms of navigation, and collaborations increase the likelihood of an artist being listed in search results. Consequently, at least a quarter of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 today tend to be collabs. Otherwise, YouTube’s effect on creative output hasn’t been much different than that of Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services.
Artists, on the other hand, are doing more to create TikTok-friendly music content. The main driver for this is TikTok’s emphasis on short clips, while YouTube allowed the length of most songs from the start. Some artists post clips of their full-length songs on TikTok to promote them and drive fans to Spotify and other streaming services, as well as vinyl purchases. Sometimes these clips take on a life of their own: R&B star Steve Lacy, for example, found that audiences at his live shows knew the words of his No. 1 hit “Bad Habit” no more than those in the short clip used on half a million TikTok Videos. There is also evidence that TikTok influences songwriters to start songs with choruses or other hooks so that they can grab attention within those 15-20 seconds, that is, to change the structure of songs rather than just putting them in. shortening, which has been the trend for decades.
But above all, there is growing evidence that a constant presence on TikTok is becoming a necessity for artists looking to build their fan base. This just wasn’t that crucial on YouTube. And some artists hate having to feed that beast every day (in addition to all other social networks), so this trend will increase the proportion of social media savvy artists reaching the top of the charts – and the amount of nagging increase that labels and artist managers have to do to keep them there.
Conversely, the explosion of new music on all of these services makes it increasingly difficult to discover new music; and the unparalleled ease of placing original videos with clips of famous songs on TikTok has resulted in more prominence of old ‘catalogue’ music – like the amazing revival of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit ‘Dreams’ in a TikTok video in 2020 which resulted in the song re-entering the charts and the Rumors album will reach No. 2 in sales in 2022. That’s a trend the big music companies and the private equity firms that buy up catalogs of early music artists would love to encourage.
So what would happen to the music industry if TikTok disappeared? The big powers in the industry could be happy about it, given how TikTok has continued YouTube’s trend of taking control away from them. But not much else. First, a ban in the US does not mean a global ban, and – as the YouTube experience has shown – popular services can help artists worldwide with much less effort than before.
More generally, the forces that TikTok has set in motion will simply continue elsewhere. Google