If you have been following the state of popular music lately, you may have heard of Steve Lacy, who is an alt-R&B singer, songwriter, and producer. Prior to his breakthrough last year, he had been a very prolific musician. He’s been a part of the R&B band, The Internet, since 2015, and has helped produce songs for many other artists, such as Kendrick Lamar, Solange, and Kali Uchis. As for his solo discography, he has released an EP, a demo compilation, and two full-length albums. However, it wasn’t until 2022 that he rose to mainstream fame, when “Bad Habit”, a song from his second album, Gemini Rights, became a smash hit. It went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on October 8th, 2022, and stayed there for three weeks. In a short matter of time, Lacy seemed to go from indie darling to an actual pop star, and this probably would not have happened if it wasn’t for the social media platform, TikTok.
The main way that music gets popular on TikTok is one catchy verse that sticks in the minds of the people who watch videos on the platform. Many TikToks tend to be very short, even with a maximum length of 10 minutes. This means that even if the rest of the song isn’t worth writing home about, if enough people make and see videos with the one catchy verse, the song becomes a hit. Songs have also become shorter in the past couple of years, presumably to keep the listener’s attention. For example, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X is barely over 2 minutes long, and more recently, “Unholy” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras is also very short, clocking in at just over two and a half minutes. Since short songs mean that more people will want to hear them again, this means that they are more likely to end up on TikTok and become hits.
TikTok has also led to songs that are several years old gaining a second wave of popularity. Some examples include “Die for You” by The Weeknd, which came out in 2016, and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, which came out in 1977. There are also less mainstream songs that still experienced a wave of popularity, even if they didn’t enter the charts or break streaming records. Some examples of these are “Unlock It” by Charli XCX and “Them Changes” by Thundercat, both of which came out in 2017. This has led to artists trying to capitalize on their TikTok success, whether by retitling the song to make it easier to find, like Charli, or releasing a sped up version of the song, like Thundercat. With the unpredictability of TikTok hits, it has become easier than ever to get a viral song, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to long-term success. This is because of the way the listeners treat the music that they are supporting.
On paper, a musician who finally managed to get a hit after years of releasing music might be thrilled at the idea of the rest of their catalog becoming known to the world and being able to share their art with more people. In practice, this doesn’t seem to be the case. This has been happening for a while, which is why we hear about “one-hit wonders,” where artists have one song that becomes massive and then disappears. Sometimes, the artist fades into obscurity, but sometimes, they’ll manage to maintain a smaller, but more loyal fanbase. Lil Nas X managed to get famous thanks to TikTok and kept people interested in his music after “Old Town Road”. However, he kept people talking thanks to controversy and social media stunts. Music artists on TikTok aren’t just musicians, they are content creators. They have to stay active on the platform if they want people to stay interested in them. There are a lot of people on TikTok trying to get noticed, which means that they have to post very frequently. This has led to concerns that music doesn’t mean anything on its own, and that it has to come with a trend, meme, or some other gimmick to justify its existence. Typically, the way to prove if an artist is here to stay is if people go to their live shows. Live shows are what pay artists the most nowadays because streaming barely pays them. However, there are also concerns surrounding TikTok’s impact on live music.
On October 24, 2022, there was an incident at a Steve Lacy concert where he took a fan’s disposable camera and smashed it into pieces. Around the same time, there was a TikTok going around the internet where a crowd at another Steve Lacy concert sang the first verse of “Bad Habit,” and then fell silent for the rest of the song. After this, I started hearing about how people have forgotten how to behave at concerts due to a combination of being stuck at home during the pandemic and wanting attention from an artist. On YouTube, I got at least four recommendations titled “How TikTok Ruined Steve Lacy.” The general idea was that the people at those shows weren’t actually invested in Lacy as an artist, and only cared about “Bad Habit.” When people complain about TikTok turning music into simply “content to consume,” this is probably where it is coming from. It highlights artists and songs for a certain period of time, but it rarely boosts artists for a long time. That being said, it has also leveled the playing field for who can be successful and who can’t. When songs become popular purely because of the people listening to them and not because of radio play or labels pushing songs onto playlists, that sends a message that the artists who made them don’t need a label to help them succeed, which gives them more freedom in their careers.
TikTok has not just changed the way music becomes popular, but it also has changed who becomes popular. It has made it so that smaller artists have more of a chance to succeed even if they don’t have the same resources as bigger ones. In addition, it has allowed newfound success for artists even if their songs are a couple of years old. However, more often than not, the success tends to be temporary and doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on an artist’s future. In addition, the songs being tied to videos means that they tend to be seen as part of a gimmick, as opposed to a piece of art to enjoy on its own. As more artists start seeing success on TikTok, it would be wise to figure out how to get people invested in them, rather than just a song of theirs.
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