I have one simple question...
As songwriters and artists, how much should we be thinking about making our songs “TikTok ready?” I mean - maybe you just wrote a great club / dance or a big indie rock record … that’s great.
Question? (as said ala Beyonce).
How is a “club record” going to break, if there is (in a COVID world) no club? If you’re in a band - how are you going to gain popularity, if there aren’t stages to play on?
My friends, there is one simple answer: TikTok. I know what you might likely be asking... “Really? Do I have to?” Simple answer: Yes.
Now - some quick background before we dive in.
TikTok used to be an app called Musical.ly, and the Musical.ly app was geared more towards a tween demographic. The new brand of TikTok - is something completely different.
Basically, (like I said, duh…) people create videos using the robust app features on the TikTok app, featuring around 15 or more seconds of a sound or song. You can use the audio of another user’s video as well - and this is important as we’ll explain later - as it’s important to “seed” the audio with the right influencers.
TikTok today is not just about challenges, dance videos and skits. There’s a whole slew of educational videos, informational content, cooking tips, jokes, and so much more. I’ve even taken the leap here for some branded educational / insider music business and songwriting videos:
Now, for music especially, TikTok is a lot different than passive listening on a playlist, as people are actually creating content to and interacting with your songs.
So, in this article we’re going to look at the most popular songs on TikTok along with taking a look at why they might have blown up - HINT as a songwriter (super important) this is the time in my opinion to: identify trends, commonalities on a macro level and start incorporating them into your songs (if / when appropriate). And ideally - you can and should also be the one setting the trends.
First - one thing - whenever I set up a plan or talk about artists on how we’re going to “catch fire” with a new release - the topic always comes up. “Hey - I have a great idea. We could do a TikTok challenge.” What? I had no idea? Yes! And we could also make a viral video! (That was sarcasm there fyi). Meaning - anyone who ever set out to make a viral video - probably never ever made a viral video.
In my opinion - TikTok challenges don’t work like this.
If you’re a fairly new artist with a small to medium following - yes, for sure, you can do your TikTok challenge - but it’s like that tree that falls in a forest - with no one to hear it. Does it make a sound?
You can be a new artist and run a TikTok challenge and seek virality - but your songs and ideas NEED TO BE SEEDED with the right TikTok influencers.
This is what major labels are spending crazy tons of money on. A campaign can easily cost $5,000 (maybe even $3,000 for an indie) and I heard a major label just spent $30,000 on a recent campaign for a new artist.
Here’s how it works - influencers are managed by companies who work specifically in this world. These agents will pay the influencers to start your #challenge or perhaps, use the song some other way in one of their TikToks. Even as importantly, they will also seed the song for you - meaning your audio clip will now be there on their profile for others to use!
This is how your song “gets” in TikTok and others can discover it! Because right now, if not mistaken, the songs that you can officially use and in TikTok’s library are pretty much the major label hits and biggest songs. It’s not like Spotify or Apple where your song just is instantly on the app.
So - making a TikTok challenge - YES!
But trying to launch that that #challenge on your Instagram that has under 5,000 followers? Maybe? Unless the challenge is crazy original and incredible - I would not expect the #TikTokChallenge to really work unless you pay up and hire a firm to represent and seed the song with influencers. Then - you have a shot.
Now - back to TikTok observations, especially when it comes to songwriting.
If you’re a professional songwriter or artist -- start thinking about TikTok and how your new hit could break on the app! Or could you start writing songs that are “TikTok ready?” Hmmm.
Here are some observations and steps you can take:
Try to use one or more of the following key elements:
Here are some examples of songs that use the above elements:
Videos using this song: 2.9M
If you’re on Twitter, you’ve probably seen the Wipe It Down challenge. This track by BMW KENNY led to millions of users cleaning their mirrors and uncovering a hotter version of themself. This one takes some TikTok editing skills to get right. The simple instruction to “wipe it down” made this one an easy hit on the app.
Videos using this song: Hard to say, but A LOT
“I just flipped a switch,” prompts users to flip the lights off and turn them back on having switched clothes. It’s hard to count how many videos this song appears in, as there are a few unofficial versions of the track that millions have used. All of the hashtags around the song and challenge have billions of views, though.
I might be challenged to believe that this song was created for no other intention than to be a TikTok dance trend and dang did Drake hit the nail on the head. With a line dance that the lyrics instruct, TikTok dancers have put their own spin on it almost 5 million times.
“Did I really just forget that melody?” resounds roughly 3 million times on TikTok. If you’re not on the app, there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of bbno$ and Y2K. Racking up over 608 million streams on Spotify, the popularity of “Lalala” has transcended TikTok alone. Videos include the beginning skit, dancing as the beat drops, and what I can only describe as a hand emoji dancing challenge (????) that also appeared as a popular story filter on Instagram.
“Just did a Bad Thing” by Bill Wurtz has been the soundtrack to 1.5 million people’s bad decisions. Whether you’re cutting bangs, getting a bad tattoo, or getting horribly sunburnt, join the party in laughing at your mistakes. If you’ve done a good thing, there’s a version for that too! Sung by user Lucas Elvis, “just did a good thing” can be used for shaving off a bad mustache, bathing your cat, getting a puppy, and other positive things. Both versions allow users to reveal the thing that they did dramatically at the end of the song section used.
There are a few outliers, however, where an old song or something kind of random will do really well on the app. A great song is a great song, and people will create content on TikTok using those as well.
Every so often, a song from a few years ago will resurface and become a TikTok hit. “Obsessed” by Mariah Carey is one of those songs. With a pretty easy dance interpreting the lyrics, the song has been used in 3.5 million videos. One video in particular plays with irony and features the social media famous crying girl.
This one stands out as a little different. It’s not upbeat, doesn’t have an instruction, and isn’t used in the same specific trend. “death bed” is usually used in the background of wholesome videos.
Videos: 2.6 M
“Surrender” by Natalie Taylor is often used in sad videos, sometimes in wholesome content as well. Hinging on the line “whenever you’re ready,” people often use this song in videos about the death of a loved one, telling a crush how you feel, or taking a big step in life.
SO! As you can see, TikTok songs can take a few very different forms. Just like anything these days - you’ll never know exactly what will pop off on the app, but using the above elements certainly couldn’t hurt, and in the case of “Obsessed,” “death bed,” and “Surrender,” you might just get lucky!
Let’s work out. Here’s a TikTok writing exercise that I would encourage you to jump on - like, today.
As writers, we can get inspired in all kinds of ways: watching a sunset (aww, isn’t that nice), going to a museum (aww, aren’t you smart?!), going to a club (ooh, aren’t you sexy), or even just setting up some writing challenges for yourself. For instance: today I’m going to write a song in the style of Prince, or today, I’m going to try to write a song in Lydian mode.
So, how about this. The next time you sit down to write - can you try to write a song from the perspective of TikTok and incorporate one or several of the elements mentioned above, and make a TikTok skit or #challenge or concept to go along with it (or ask someone you know who’s on the app to do it)! Make TikTok your starting point.
Or here’s another idea.
You finished your latest song. It’s a hit! Well, how about going the extra 1% and making a TikTok skit as the intro. That intro might actually be the launching point for the song!
Personally, I would include “thinking about TikTok” in your arsenal and tool kit when it comes to making hits.
This process is also thinking like a great producer. For instance, the producer might be asking: “What’s the angle or hook on this production?” “What a crazy sound that I can put on this beat?” Or ... “What if I did something like The Police meets a trap beat?”
Those are all “angles.”
Today, as songwriters, we can also ask ourselves - what’s the angle from a TikTok perspective?
One last note!
The algorithm isn’t like most other apps, and really anything has a shot at getting on the “For You” page and being seen by other users. So get out there, see what’s working, and be sure to have fun with it.
See you on the app and get TikToking,
Article co-authored with Arielle Tindel