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.
Make no doubt, this is an important movement that’s here to stay. In fact, think I even read a news headline that TikTok might be this generation’s MTV - with Tik Tok sounds creating the soundtrack to user generated vids, memes, moments, dance trends and challenges. It’s a new era and if you haven’t already, it’s time to jump in both feet first to the world of TikTok hits.
Also, quick side note feel free to drop by my courses at Teachable.com, including “Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting” and the “DIY Release Plan / Blueprint,” where I unpack knowledge on each subject in over 100 video modules combined. Bonus for you – use coupon code BENJAMIN20 for 20% off!
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 usually 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 vids, informational content, cooking tips, jokes, memes and so much more. I’ve even taken the leap here for some branded educational / insider music business and songwriting tutorials:
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 go viral on TikTok! Let’s do a Tik Tok #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 hits 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 popular 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.
Make no doubt, TikTok – no matter what genre your music is – should be a part of your music marketing strategy.
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 traditionally your song “gets” in TikTok and others can discover it! For quite a while the only songs that you can officially use and in Tik Tok’s library are pretty much the major label hits and biggest songs. It hasn’t been like Spotify or Apple where your song just is instantly on the app, however this space is evolving rapidly and has probably changed by the time you’re reading this post! But even so, the great thing about an influencer seeding your sound is it gives you social proof and credibility to that person’s audience.
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 – how should we say … “TikTok ready?” Hmmm.
Here are some observations and steps you can take to make the best TikTok songs:
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 themselves. 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. If you’re talking about going viral on TikTok – it’s hard to beat this one as a top example.
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 Tik Tok. 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 Tik Tok alone. Videos include the beginning skit, dancing as the beat drops, and what I can only describe as a hand emoji dance 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!
That’s right. As we’ve just updated this post, it wouldn’t be complete without another example of a classic song having a resurgence due to this app. Now, I don’t think you could plan this – and another reason why I think artists who set out to make a viral TikTok hit – sometimes fall short – namely because – you can’t make this shiz up! Who would have thought - let’s get a guy on a skateboard, chilling out, drinking Ocean Spray cran-rasberry juice – and we’ll have the biggest TikTok hit of the year?! Well – who knows – maybe (just maybe) it was a secret Ocean Spray ad campaign for cranberry juice. Stranger things have happened.
Let’s work out. Wanna make some TikTok hits? Here’s a writing exercise that I would encourage you to jump on - like, today. In fact, this could be a great technique to add to your tool kit on “how to start writing a song.”
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 intension of going viral on TikTok and incorporate one or several of the elements mentioned above, and make a TikTok skit or #dance challenge or concept to go along with it (or ask someone you know who’s on the app to do it)! Make Tik Tok 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?
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.
To wrap up the post – let’s keep in mind that, if you consider yourself a professional artist / songwriter and “in it to win it,” you should be staying on top of the current trends of TikTok hits. And ideally, it’s you – yes, you who are also creating these! On that note, there are a few easy ways you can keep on top of what songs are trending on TikTok. Here’s how to do it.
Now, if you want to really know the top songs on the Tik Tok app – one way to go about it is Chartmetric! Note that this is a more pricey option (in other words, totally not free at all) – but if you’re serious about your profession – and can afford it – it’s money well spent. Yes, Chartmetric! I’m bringing it up here as Chartmetric has started a TikTok chart. Chartmetric itself a $140 / month subscription and for that price you basically get any piece of data information (including tracking your own artist profile) you could ever want and/or need under the sun. This includes tracking all types of playlists activity – including not just where your songs have been playlisted but also artists who sound “like” you. (Translation: this is a great exercise to research and find those playlists, start relationships with those playlisters and see if they’ll do the same for you!). Not only can you research the top songs and sounds of Tik Tok – but you can also research the Top Users! Yes, those Tik Tok Influencers who might be able to help seed your track and blow your shizzle up!
This is super obvious – duh! But you can also find the biggest trends happening on the app by checking TikTok itself. Yes - obviously (or not) you can open the app right now, go to the “discover” tab and see what’s trending. The only thing I don’t love about this, is the tab really just shows trending topics more so than trending songs. However – there’s definitely a “play” and angle for you as an artist - to jump on these trends using your own music and see if you can gain exposure. Additionally, when you make a post, it will recommend the top sounds.
Lastly, let’s keep our eyes and ears open for other more traditional ways of discovering the hits of Tik Tok. First - Billboard Magazine! Billboard – where you at? Keep this space monitored as I think it makes sense that Billboard will soon start a TikTok hit chart. I also wouldn’t be surprised if SiriusXM, Pandora, and others launch their own Tik Tok radio station channel. Now, one thing that’s interesting here is that you might have a song like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” playing right after “OOWWWEEE” by Peewee Longway & Money Man, potentially making this a more genre less format possibly?
Lastly, if you’re really wondering “how do I find good songs on TikTok” (either as an artist, songwriter or a music fan), simply using the app consistently will likely help the algorithm figure out who you are and start servicing you algorithm driven goodies in the “for you” section of the app.
In summary – in this epic blog post, we’ve covered what songs do well and go viral on TikTok, be it a hip hop song with a hot beat, a skit type song, a specific type of dance challenge, a sad song or even a 50-year-old classic - these all can go viral on TikTok.
Now, lastly, there’s one other observation (and I’d like to also call it a category), which we have not mentioned. And this is the “A” category, which stands for “this is just Awesome” category. You see, no matter what, people want to be touched, moved, share their emotions, embrace other’s creativity – even if that creativity conjures a simple laugh or a smile while watching a “Flip the Switch” #challenge (and sure why not – get grandma to do it too)
At the end of the day – I think we can agree that these Tik Tok hits – are generally magical for what they are. They’re viral hits for a reason - they help us get through the day, share with friends, make our own TikToks, be creative and share that with the world.
See you on the app and let's get TikToking.
Benjamin Groff has been a music executive for over 25 years, including holding key creative positions at BMG and EMI. In 2006, Benjamin was hired to start the 1st U.S. operations of Kobalt Music and signed much of the key roster over10 years. Benjamin is a #1 Best Selling Amazon author of the book “How Do I Get A Record Deal? Sign Yourself!” and has also created 2 highly rated Teachable courses, “Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting” and “The DIY Release Blueprint.” His past signings range from: Ryan Tedder, Grimes, The Lumineers, Jake Torrey, Peaches, Kelly Clarkson, Greg Kurstin, Tiesto, Savan Kotecha, TOKiMONSTA, SOPHIE, Cut Copy, Adam Lambert, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Big Freedia to name a few. Currently, Benjamin owns and runs his own publishing company, Brill Building and record label / A&R resource, We Are: The Guard.
Article co-authored with Arielle Tindel
Unlock the Hidden Song Matrix of What Makes Hit and Perennial Songs Tick in Any Genre!
An A-Z Guide, Showing You Step by Step How to Release and Set Up Your Single, EP or Album! (You’ve made your great music - now what?! This is the exact release plan that my label, www.WeAreTheGuard.com uses for our own releases, which have generated over 100 Million Spotify streams).