TikTok & Social Media Quickly Becoming the Primary Thing that Matters in Music

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.” –a quote commonly misattributed to Charles Darwin.

It nears the realm of impossibility to put enough emphasis on how monumentally important the seismic shifts occurring in the music business at the moment are, and how they’re reverberating throughout every sector of the industry—from the writing, recording and releasing of music, to the business of independent and major labels, to the promotion of music, to radio, and the coverage of music in the media.

Not only is the ground shifting in both exciting and catastrophic ways, it promises to do so for the coming weeks and months in motions that will revolutionize the music business forevermore.

Forget everything that you think you know about promoting and consuming music. Take it all, and shove it to the side, because little of it matters anymore. It all boils down now to one thing and one thing only, and for better or worse. It’s TikTok … with perhaps a secondary mention to social media in general, especially the formats specializing in the interfacing of audio and video like Instagram and YouTube.

Radio? It’s dead as a relevant medium, and it’s been that way for a few years now, including in country, which was one of the format’s last holdouts. Local and region radio stations still can hold sway over their markets and the niches they serve because certain people still love the live aspect of radio and the human touch of a DJ. But overall, radio consolidation and nationalized playlists by the major corporations have eroded the medium’s impact at the corporate level, and AI will finish the job in the coming months.

That doesn’t mean a major label still can’t push a song from some no name male country up-and-comer to #1 on radio. But when that artist goes out on tour, they can barely fill the rooms. And despite multiple #1’s in country, most people in America couldn’t pick these radio performers out of a lineup. Established artists already at the arena level are simply using radio to maintain their grip on their fan base.

Meanwhile, Tyler Childers and Billy Strings are selling out arenas, and Zach Bryan is packing out stadiums without any meaningful radio support. Noah Kahan is one of the biggest artists in all of music. If you go to the concerts of guys like Wyatt Flores, Dylan Gossett, and Sam Barber, you’ll see the same phenomenon we saw early on with Zach Bryan: legions of fans singing every single word to every single song. This is all due to the power of TikTok.

Speaking of the live aspect of music, you now have massive festivals drawing 30,000+ people entirely off the names of artists that have never seen significant mainstream radio play, while guys like Wyatt Flores and Sam Barber might be in arenas themselves sooner than later.

All of this has caused a dramatic shift in power in the music business away from major labels and mainstream artists, and towards an independent approach to music. It also puts more of the power in deciding who succeeds and fails in the music business in the hands of the fans themselves.

This has officially sparked an outright war bisecting the music business at the moment, with the massive Universal Music Group pulling its catalog from the TikTok format, and now even doing the same with the publishing arm of the business, affecting the songs of non-UMG performers, including major artists such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

UMG is saying they believe TikTok should pay out greater royalties for the clips people use on the format, with TikTok holding the line with the current arrangement. For certain, advocating for greater payouts for the use of songs on social media platforms to fairly compensate performers and songwriters is an important cause, and one worth advocating for. So is protecting creators from the encroachment of AI, which Universal also wants TikTok to work towards.

But these are really secondary concerns for Universal. What this issue really comes down to is who will have the power to choose the winners and losers in the music business moving forward.

TikTok and social media in general are taking that star making power, and putting it back in the hands of the people. This has been the trend for going on 20 years now, but with TikTok and other social media networks like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube mimicking TikTok’s algorithm and format, it has sent this trend into hyper drive.

Social media may be a more democratic way forward for music. But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with some very concerning caveats, including ones that have beset the radio format for years, and perhaps deserve their own regime of regulations to make sure transparency and fairness are part of this phenomenon.

One of the great powers of TikTok and other social media platforms is that they allow performers to go direct to consumers, cutting out middlemen, gatekeepers, corporations, and others who get in the way of the music sharing process while taking their financial tithe along the way. A performer can simply record a song on their phone, and upload it to social media.

This is how Zach Bryan got started via Twitter and YouTube. This is how Oliver Anthony shot to #1 in all of music without any prior career, and no music infrastructure behind him. This is how others have leveraged the TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube platforms to create massive fan bases, putting the power in their own hands, even if they ultimately sign to a major label. And since these performers can approach labels from a position of strength with an established fan base, they can negotiate their own terms like creative control and ownership of their own masters.

But sharing music directly with fans is just one way artists are leveraging TikTok and Instagram. No different than paying a publicist to get press or a radio promoter to get radio play, artists and their representatives are now paying to have songs trend on TikTok. There are two ways to do this. The first is to outright pay important influencers to shout out your song or to use your song in a TikTok or Instagram reel. The second is to pay people to attempt to start a TikTok trend with your song. This could be some sort of dance-based trend, some sort of situational scenario, or a physical challenge.

The problem with this is the lack of transparency in this activity. In radio, promoters can’t just pay radio stations to play songs. That’s called “payola,” and is regulated by the FCC. Because of the previous power of the radio format, if labels or artists paid for songs to be played on radio, it could make them popular enough where the public would ultimately request them, buy the album, buy tickets to the artist’s shows, etc., recouping the payola cost. Payola was eventually banned, and the industry was regulated. Right now, no such laws or regulations govern what’s happening on TikTok.

That said, not all songs that trend on TikTok are paid for. Often the trend activity is organic, meaning songs find a life of their own on the format, including sometimes older songs that have nobody actively promoting them whatsoever. Also, as numerous representatives from the music industry have told Saving Country Music, you can’t just get any song or artist to trend on TikTok. There has to be some underlying organic appeal in the song first.

Often, people looking to leverage social media to promote a single will first see what songs are bubbling up on TikTok and Instagram by monitoring tracks getting added to videos naturally. Then once a song proves itself to have appeal, they put money behind it to make it explode. Any investment in the track is then recouped when consumers get off the app, and pull up Spotify to stream the song, or buy tickets to see the artist perform.

How did Sam Barber get his song “Straight and Narrow” to 131.5 million streams on Spotify alone? It’s because it became popular on TikTok. How did Noah Kahan become one of the biggest artists in all of music without anybody seeming to really know who he was or where he came from? You guessed it, TikTok.

For some performers, TikTok has been vital to creating a fan base. But much of this activity is happening outside of the purview of major record labels, and is taking their power as kingmakers, regulators, and gatekeepers away, though some of the smart labels are engaging with this phenomenon directly and leveraging it for their benefit as well.

Ultimately though, the fear of where all of this is headed is why the Universal Music Group is pulling its power move on TikTok. For the record, Universal says it’s not looking to get in the way of this social media trend. It understands this is where everything is headed. They just want a bigger piece of the pie each time a song is used for their artists and songwriters, but for themselves as well.

Make no mistake about it, music is flush with cash at the moment, with major label groups posting record profits, and performers getting rich off their music like never before. But amid these record profits, major labels are actually laying off employees, cutting costs, and retooling their workforces to meet the new realities. We’re seeing this across the industry in the recent earnings calls from labels.

Despite the Warner Music Group announcing revenue up 17% to $1.75 billion in the last quarter, the label also announced in early February they would be cutting 10% of their workforce, or about 600 employees. The chairman/CEO of Warner Music Group’s subsidiary Atlantic Records label spelled it out even further on February 26th when announcing the release of about two dozen employees from the label.

The changes we’re making today are primarily happening in our radio and video teams. We’ll preserve our industry-leading position in those areas, while bringing on new and additional skill sets in social media, content creation, community building and audience insights. This will allow us to dial up our fan focus and help artists tell their stories in ways that resonate,” Julie Greenwald of Atlantic Records said.

Amid it’s fight with TikTok and record profits itself, Universal Music Group is also laying off employees and retooling its workforce. Though the label is not saying how many people its laying off or in what positions, they said in a statement the layoffs are, “designed to achieve efficiencies in targeted cost areas while strengthening labels’ capabilities to deepen artist and fan connections.”

Phrases like “deepen artist and fan connections” are code for shifting attention to social media. But Universal is also showing no signs of backing down in their TikTok fight. By broadening their ban to artists signed to the Universal Music Publishing Group instead of just Universal labels, it now means a majority of the most popular songs in music at the moment can no longer be used on the TikTok format.

Specifically, this could directly affect Beyoncé’s move into country music. Early on, TikTok was instrumental in driving her new track “Texas Hold ‘Em” to #1. But now Beyoncé’s catalog is being taken off the format entirely because her publishing is tied to Universal.

Where does all of this TikTok trending leave radio? In short, it leaves it in a lurch. The format’s approach of cutting costs, nationalizing playlists, and syndicating programming has made radio virtually obsolete to consumers who would rather pull up their favorite streaming playlist as opposed to sit through commercials to hear a personality attempting to appeal to an audience whose reach is coast to coast.

Last week’s annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville came with a massive re-evaluation of the format’s approach compared with the trends over the last twenty years. As Billboard reports,

Radio personalities’ importance has been on the decline for decades. They used to pick the music on their shows. That privilege was taken away. Then many were encouraged to cut down their segues and get to the music. Then syndicated morning and overnight shows moved in to replace local talent.

But once the streaming era hit and started stealing some of radio’s time spent listening, terrestrial programmers began reevaluating their product to discover what differentiates it from streaming. Thus, this year’s CRS focus is talk.

Though for many major corporate radio stations, it may be too little, too late, especially as AI options are coming online that can play the role of DJ. However, independent and regionally-owned radio stations catering to local markets that still feature actual DJs from their local community are in a better position moving forward to weather these shifting trends.

In the country space, Americana radio stations and Texas/Red Dirt radio stations are not just more insulated from the coming changes, they may actually have an advantage moving forward as consumers seek out those more human and personal connections as AI is rolled out on radio.

It’s that human connection that younger consumers feel with TikTok and Instagram influencers that they didn’t feel, or never felt with corporate radio. Niches are now becoming big enough to rival the mainstream in popularity as the actual appeal of music is represented more accurately as opposed to appeal being imposed upon the public by the powers that be in the music business. It turns out that when consumers are made aware of all the choices they have in music consumption, they make better ones.

What about music websites and blogs? Sure, they still hold some small sway, but that influence is primarily over the dedicated music listeners who actually take the time to read about the music they love, as well as music industry folks whose job it is to stay connected. Music discovery is now significantly more direct through social media.

The idea that there are publicists out there that still think placing a feature in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, or Billboard (or even Saving Country Music for that matter) is the road to success for a performer is archaic thinking. These things can play a role for sure. But you’re way better off getting a direct mention from a major social media influencer. This is multipliers more effective at moving the needle compared to print or online media, or even late night talk shows.

Along with Warner Music Group cutting 600 employees from its workforce, it’s also selling its online media properties like Uproxx and HipHopDX, which is likely to result in further cost and employee reductions at these properties, if not the shuttering of them entirely. Vice used to be the juggernaut in online media, with its music platform Noisey being a big player in the music space. Now it’s been shut down entirely. Pitchfork has been gutted, as have pretty much every other major music publication in existence.

90% of the music outlets that were around 10 years ago are now gone, and what is left is running on a skeleton crew, and diversifying content to politics, lifestyle coverage, and sports to make up for clicks lost in the music realm.

Though this media trend has been catastrophic for music journalism and objective music coverage, it has also eliminated some of the unnecessary gatekeepers, as well as the high burden of entry for an artist to receive attention for their music. It has instituted a democratization of music unlike we’ve ever seen before, even in the days of radio’s open request lines. You no longer need a major label. You no longer need a publicist. Just take to a social media format and start creating. This has given incredible power and leeway to artists.

But the ease of accessing the format is also one of the issues with it. The marketplace has never been more crowded, and the competition has never been more fierce. The idea that streaming and its fractional penny payouts is what has sapped artists’ ability to make a living is to misunderstand the problem. Music has never made more money. It’s the competition that has made the economics difficult for some individual creators.

No different than in any other era, music is still an elective occupation, and works off of economies of scale. An artist still has to stream lots of songs, or sell lots of records to justify a full-time occupation, let alone to become a star. But music has never been more flush with money as a percentage of the expendable economy, and post pandemic, live music is booming like never before.

Due to social media and direct-to-consumer models, it’s never been easier for an artist to break out, if the music resonates, and if the artist or their team is skilled at leveraging the technological tools available. Even performers appealing to very niche markets can create enough interest in their music through leveraging social media to find enough fans around the world to make it work. But due to the excessive competition in the marketplace, an artist can also go overlooked or forgotten very quickly.

Also with all the TikTok talk, there is a great ignoring of millions of older music consumers who are not on the format at all, yet are not necessarily technologically illiterate. They stream music. They go to shows. They have disposable income unlike younger audiences. As opposed to just streaming the hot song they heard from someone on TikTok, these older consumers purchase the entire album on vinyl, as well as a hoodie at a show. They often become the fan of a band for life, and materially support them in ways the fly-by-night TikTok fans don’t.

Sure, it’s always the 18 to 34-years-olds that the market and advertisers most covet. But the majority of the American population is over this age. The average American is 38.9. Acting like these music consumers aren’t an important demographic is to overlook a huge opportunity. In fact, these older listeners are part of the reason music’s back catalogs are so robust with activity at the moment.

And finally, despite the social media dominance, this war between TikTok and Universal Music should be a wake up call to everyone to just how flighty and finite these trends can be. Remember when MySpace was the dominant force in social media and music networking? That’s how Taylor Swift forged her fan base. Now it’s no longer around. Congress has already been floating the idea of banning TikTok entirely since it’s Chinese owned and utilizes unprecedented data collection. It also might be gutted, age restricted, or regulated in some other way that will usurp its current power.

Now that Universal is limiting so many tracks on TikTok, more people are exploring Instagram, which is domestically-owned (Meta, which owns Facebook), feels more stable, and compensates artists more fairly. TikTok may be the thing today, but tomorrow it could be a resurgence in X/Twitter, or it could be something different entirely that hasn’t even been invented yet. This means artists need to be industrious, fleet of foot, and need to diversify their social media strategies. Putting all your eggs in the TikTok basket could be perilous.

Some artists also complain that they’re not good at oversharing on social media, and it’s intrusive to be asked by labels and managers to be more engaging with fans. Shouldn’t making good music be the top priority? Shouldn’t that be good enough?

None of this means that getting out on the road and making meaningful human connections with local fans all across the country still isn’t important. It doesn’t mean that radio, or print and online media still don’t play some role. But nostalgia for the way things once were is dangerous. Love it or hate it, TikTok, Instagram, and social media are now driving the music business. And anyone who wants to be a part of music’s future must adapt.

© 2023 Saving Country Music