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How TikTok Has Changed The Music Industry


A federal judge is holding a hearing this morning to decide whether the Trump administration's ban on new downloads of the video-sharing app TikTok will take effect after midnight. The administration says the Chinese-owned platform is a risk to national security, though it hasn't offered direct evidence of that. TikTok says it has about a hundred million users in the United States. It's a huge audience. And for many artists and creators, the app has been a career-changer, especially during the pandemic. Record labels are noticing how much emerging talent is on the platform and signing up musicians based on the popularity of a single song.


LIL NAS X: (Singing) I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to...


BLANCO BROWN: (Singing) Going to do the two-step then cowboy boogie. Grab your sweetheart and spin out with them.


SALEM ILESE: (Singing) 'Cause I felt sad love. I felt bad love.


JVKE: (Singing) Up, down, right, down, looking for your love right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does this development mean for the music industry at large? And if the Trump administration ultimately allows TikTok to continue operating in the U.S., how will the app change who we listen to? Pop music critic Mikael Wood of the LA Times joins me now to answer those very questions.


MIKAEL WOOD: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First, explain how TikTok has become a go-to place for record labels to scout new talent. I mean, in that montage we heard there - some big hits.

WOOD: Yeah, I think it's all about COVID. Sort of normal places that labels and our folks are used to finding new talent were out of their hands. So they looked to TikTok, which had the added bonus that it had tens of millions of users just sort of locked in their houses, staring at their phones, making huge hits of these songs. So the labels jump in, and there's like - whoa, look at this song that is resonating in such a huge way. We need to start grabbing these songs and sort of giving them the boost that major labels kind of traditionally give songs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We heard "Old Town Road" there, which, of course, predates the coronavirus pandemic. But I mean, it was one of the first big songs and stars - Lil Nas X - to come out of TikTok.

WOOD: Yeah. "Old Town Road" showed that this was an app that could make hits out of songs. You know, the way that TikTok works is it shows you videos just sort of in an endless scroll. And once a song starts happening in a big way, then people are making videos with the song. And then more people make videos with the song, and then more people make videos with the song. So TikTok people even in the company told me that you could hear the same song in five different videos in five minutes, which is a kind of exposure that you would never get on Top 40 radio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. So this works in terms of getting exposure, but what are some of the problems that could come up with this new model of going to TikTok for new artists to sign?

WOOD: I think the big one is that you are potentially creating a generation of one-hit wonders. You've got folks who made a really cool song that resonated with people, and then you sign them up. And you're sort of putting them into the chute of, like, major-label pop stardom, but they haven't developed the kind of grassroots following that will actually see them through when their next song isn't maybe a viral smash.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, there's this political controversy surrounding TikTok. What if TikTok's deal doesn't go through and there's a ban on the app?

WOOD: Yeah. I think you've got a lot of big TikTok creators who are preparing themselves for that. The D'Amelio sisters, who are some of the most followed people on TikTok - they dance, and some of the songs they've danced to have become big hits - they recently also joined up with the app Triller, which is a kind of a TikTok competitor. So I think you've got people readying themselves for the idea that TikTok could go away.

That said, pretty much everybody I talked to in the record business said this kind of format - this sort of short-form video set to music - this is not going anywhere. For a millennial and Gen Z audience, this is just, like, way too entrenched of, like, a way of interacting with content that if it's not TikTok, if it's not Triller, it's going to be some app. Like, this is here to stay.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - you're a pop music critic. Is there something that one could say about the kind of music that comes out of TikTok? I mean, is it very uniform, or does it have the variety that makes it an interesting platform to sort of bring new music out to the public?

WOOD: I think it's a good thing for pop in that it allows just weird songs to get into the system that maybe would not have gotten a serious look at Top 40 - sort of more regimented environs of Top 40 radio. I think, though, that there is something of, like, a sort of a closed loop or, like, repeating effect where inevitably, a song happens, and then other people try to, you know, emulate that song. So for a while, there were tons of TikTok songs that have a sort of a transitional moment because people were using that to build a video around, and then you just saw tons of those kinds of videos with those kinds of songs. And now you've even got people making sort of mash-up songs using the bones of previous TikTok songs.

So it's interesting. I mean, it's still pretty early days. I think the true test will be months or years from now to see how much variety will it really sort of allow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mikael Wood is the pop music critic at the LA Times.

How long do you spend on TikTok doing your investigations?

WOOD: Oh, I have to tightly control that time. Otherwise, your brain just turns to mush. So it's, like, an hour a day, tops. Then you've got to tap out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mikael Wood, thank you very much.

WOOD: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAT VAN DYKE'S "LOTUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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