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TikTok's in-house music team explains the levers it pulls to help artists and songs blow up on the app

  • TikTok has transformed the music industry in recent months as tracks that go viral on the app have taken over the Billboard 100 and Spotify Viral 50 charts.
  • Business Insider spoke with Corey Sheridan, TikTok's head of music content operations for North America, and Isabel Quinteros, its senior manager of music partnerships and artist relations, to learn more about how the company works with artists, record labels, and users to shape the music experience on the app.
  • "Music is part of the DNA of the product itself," Sheridan told Business Insider. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

TikTok has captured the full attention of the music industry.

Record labels, artists, and music marketers are well aware of the app's ability to drive song streams and album purchases (a marketer recently told Rolling Stone that a TikTok ban would be a "s—show" for the industry).

And as TikTok has become an essential promotional tool for labels and artists alike, the company's music operations and artist and label relations employees have become industry tastemakers. The team has a series of levers it can pull to promote tracks on TikTok that end up topping the Billboard 100 and Spotify Viral 50 charts.

These "promo levers" include adding songs to playlists in the "Sounds" section of the app (where all users go to create videos), promoting artists or tracks in a banner carousel unit that lives at the top of that page, and applying keywords on the back end to optimize song discoverability in the app's search interface. TikTok also works with digital service providers (DSPs) like Apple Music to curate playlists off-platform. 

The company takes into consideration the priorities of record labels and artists — many of whom are doing influencer marketing or ad campaigns on TikTok — when deciding which songs to promote.

"We have dedicated points of contact for all of the labels, and we work very closely with them to understand what their priorities are," Corey Sheridan, TikTok's head of music content operations for North America, told Business Insider. "If they have an influencer campaign working on a specific single, or on the artist side, if we understand that the artist has their own content strategy roll-out, that's definitely a very strong signal." 

The company also closely watches patterns in its users' videos to identify new songs that are gaining popularity and could benefit from more in-app exposure. 

"One of the things that's so unique about TikTok, and this is no secret, is that hits that are born and driven from TikTok often aren't focus tracks," Sheridan said. "It's what's resonating with the community that ultimately drives virality."

Such was the case for Megan Thee Stallion's 2020 single "Savage," which took off on TikTok despite its label 300 Entertainment's initial plans to promote another track on her album, "Captain Hook."

"The focus track that they really wanted to push was 'Captain Hook,' and they had all of these creative ideas of how they wanted to roll it out," said Isabel Quinteros, TikTok's senior manager of music partnerships and artist relations.

"My advice to them was, 'Hey let's just give it a minute. Let's take a beat. Let's see what our community is really gravitating towards, and then let's pull our levers against that particular track,' which in fact came to be 'Savage.'"

Onboarding new artists onto TikTok when their songs begin to 'bubble'

Similar to third-party influencer marketers, TikTok's music team looks at video engagement metrics like comments, shares, likes, and views to understand what songs are becoming popular among its users. The company will often identify that an artist is surging on TikTok before the artist is aware.

"When we see something that is bubbling up, part of my team's scope of work is making sure that we're reaching out to these artists, giving them support in the app, and ensuring that they're onboarded properly," Quinteros said. "Some of them don't even really know that they're trending in the app until after we reach out to them, which is an interesting dynamic."

While Quinteros said she's worked with stars like Jason Derulo who have fully embraced TikTok as a promotional tool, her team also encounters artists who are hesitant to join the app because of preconceived notions about what it means to be a TikToker.

"There's always that question of like, 'Hey, TikTok is cool but I don't really want to dance. It's just not my thing.' And so there's a lot of educational best practices that come into play," Quinteros said. "Ultimately the goal is for them to have fun with the app and be able to connect with fans and be creative and that's kind of what guides the work that we do."

For a full breakdown of how the TikTok music team and other industry players are using the app to transform popular music in 2020, read this story:

The 24 power players using TikTok to transform the music industry, from marketers and record execs to artists

And for more stories on how record labels, artists, and marketers are taking advantage of music trends on TikTok, check out these other Business Insider posts:

  • TikTok influencers are getting paid thousands of dollars to promote songs, as the app becomes a major force in the music industry: TikTok creators, talent managers, and music marketers shared how much influencers earn by promoting songs in videos on the app.
  • A Sony Music exec explains the label's TikTok strategy and how it responds when a song like 'Break My Stride' catches fire: Business Insider spoke with the marketing team at Sony Music's Legacy Recordings to learn about its strategy for promoting trending songs on TikTok.
  • The agency behind one of TikTok's top ad campaigns says brands can build a massive audience through original music and dance trends but the 'window is closing quickly': Business Insider spoke with the cofounders of Movers and Shakers to learn more about their TikTok strategy and how brands fit into the app's future.
  • Music artist Tiagz explains how he mastered TikTok's algorithm to score a major record deal, with help from Charli D'Amelio and a 1950s jazz classic: The Canadian rapper Tiagz (Tiago Garcia-Arenas) has built a career as a producer by strategically uploading songs to the short-form-video app TikTok.

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