TikTok and the Debate on Music Marketing

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by Dan Runcie

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TikTok and the Debate on Music Marketing

“TikTok is the new MTV” is now an obvious statement. It’s the music discovery platform where fans pay attention, artists engage, and record labels have shifted their marketing budgets toward. With that comes plenty of opportunities, but also frustration.

Here’s music attorney Michael Guido in a 2004 PBS interview:

“It made the record industry a one-trick pony. It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over… Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.”

He’s talking about MTV, but it captures the sentiment that many now feel about TikTok.

In the early 90s, artists like Mariah Carey and R.E.M. once had concerns about the MTV effect, but eventually leaned in. MTV went from an edgy new platform to a dominant staple of music marketing. What can its journey in music tell us about TikTok’s recent debates and where it’s heading?

What Comes with the Territory

The latest debate kicked off after a viral tweet noted that Halsey, Charli XCX, Florence Welch, and FKA twigs shared frustrations about their record labels forcing them to create TikToks to promote their music.

In the court of public opinion, artists are undefeated. Never lost. Only a ruthless capitalist would side with The Man in a debate about artistic freedom, right? But even the most artist-friendly advocate can see the nuance on both sides. Let’s start with the artist.

Artists sign with major record labels because they want improved odds. They want the industry machine to help them reach as many people as possible. That requires marketing. But when consumer attention has shifted to a platform with 1 billion monthly active users that grew largely because of music, it’s hard for the machine to work without it.

Plus, an artist’s best chance of success is when the artist posts TikToks from their own account—not from the record labels or an influencer’s account. It’s understandable that labels want the artist to promote their content often on the platform. Avoiding the platform altogether may soon become a kiss of death.

Embrace the Creative Freedom of the Platform

But how the label goes about its TikTok strategy with artists makes a difference. Telling artists to post nonstop on TikTok isn’t it. That may work for Gary Vee, but it probably won’t work for a record label’s VP of marketing who works with all the artists on the roster. Creator burnout is real, and the social media algorithms are relentless. The platform is maturing, and one-size-fits-all approaches won’t work.

If TikTok is truly the new MTV, then the same level of creativity and uniqueness needs to be put into each piece of content, especially during the platform’s next phase.

In the 90s, MTV went through its own transition where many artists still found success when they stopped trying to follow the common modality. When Alanis Morissette let go of trying to be the next Paula Abdul, she embraced alternative rock and her career took off. When Jay Z gave up on the shiny suit music videos, he made “Hard Knock Life” and never looked back. The TikTok era is moving faster than MTV ever did. The shift is already happening.

No one expects Florence Welch to start dancing on TikTok like she’s Addison Rae. But that doesn’t mean she can’t find success on the platform. A 60-second video can be anything! The sooner both artists and labels can embrace the creative freedom of vertical video, and not be tied down to past indicators of success, the better off they will be.

Adapting the Platform to Your Needs

In YouTube’s early days, many people disregarded it. They didn’t want to do ringtone raps and viral dances like Soulja Boy. They didn’t have a “Charlie bit my finger” moment to share with the world. But as the platform grew, the niches and sub-niches grew, which paved the way for what’s now the second-largest search engine.

As TikTok continues to grow and niche down, the same will be true. It may seem like Megan The Stallion has the only approach for what works on TikTok, but it wasn’t that long ago that people thought Madonna had the only approach to what worked on MTV.

Platforms evolve, which means more opportunities. As long as artists and labels are on the same page, then they should be able to make it work in their favor.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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