Viral trends: is TikTok the secret to success for the music industry?

It’s no secret that entertainment has been dramatically affected by COVID-19; previously safe businesses have been forced to innovate or risk falling by the wayside. This is no more true of the music industry. Even though music streaming does not necessitate being close to other people the same way going to the cinema or the theatre does, predicting which music gets popular has been made almost impossible by the virus. 

A particularly strange trend in 2020 is the failure of otherwise popular artists to leave a significant impact on the charts. Lady Gaga’s highly anticipated single Rain on Me is a prime example of this. Gaga is an industry veteran, who has been producing hits since the early 2000s. She has an enthusiastic fanbase combined with intense mainstream appeal, especially as Rain on Me was a collaboration with Ariana Grande, another enormously popular singer. Accordingly, the hype around Chromatica, the album which contains Rain on Me and her long-awaited return to synth-pop, was palpable. 

But Rain on Me wasn’t the smash hit it was destined to be. Sure, it debuted at number 1, but after only 4 weeks the song fell off Billboard’s top 10. Looking with hindsight at this single, what’s clear is the impact that Lady Gaga’s huge fanbase had at debuting it at number 1. However, for some reason, mainstream listeners failed to keep listening to it. Similarly, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s lockdown-inspired collaboration on Stuck with U gave a very weak chart performance, quickly reaching number 1 before falling to number 11 after only one week. 

“songs like Blinding Lights have stayed ingrained in the public consciousness…”

While some singles failed to make an impact on the charts, others refused to leave. For example, Dababy’s rap single Rockstar has spent more than 30 weeks on the Billboard top 100, peaking at number 1. Similarly, Watermelon Sugar by Harry Styles remains at number 18 after a staggering 34 weeks. Neither of these compare to The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, having spent more than 50 weeks on the charts and remaining in the top 10.

In other forms of media, the lockdown has led to fads dominating our culture. Netflix’s Tiger King experienced a moment of intense cultural mania, as did the video game Among Us. With more time being spent indoors with nothing to do, consumers typically engage with a property for long uninterrupted periods of time, quickly becoming bored with it. With some pop music, however, the opposite appears to be true. Rather than appearing and disappearing, songs like Blinding Lights have stayed ingrained in the public consciousness, refusing to gracefully leave the charts when their moment has passed. 

What might be the cause of this stagnation? Certainly, in the first few months of lockdown, many projects from stars such as Adele, Kendrick Lamar, and Ariana Grande were put on hold until restrictions were eased. This lower saturation of new music could explain the longevity of songs like Blinding Lights. However, while some projects were delayed, many huge artists released singles. As mentioned earlier, songs like Rain on Me and Stuck with U were both released but failed to gain traction. 

It has been suggested that the closing of venues where music is typically heard might have led to a change in which songs get popular. With bars and clubs suspended, surely dance hits are inevitably going to be played less? However, this is simply not true. Blinding Lights, unquestionably a dance track, retained its popularity. Similarly, singles such as Dua Lipa’s Don’t Start Now and Doja Cat’s Say So were both being played deep into lockdown while clearly being club tunes.  

Dreams by Fleetwood Mac was another unexpected hit on TikTok”

What, then, is the factor determining which songs get played and which songs are forgotten? I would argue that venue is still an important factor to consider, because the virus of 2020 coincides with the viral popularity of TikTok. The social media app might as well have been built for lockdown, allowing songs like Blinding Lights to be danced to in people’s bedrooms, kitchens, and lounges. More than any other factor, a song’s popularity in the 2020 lockdown depends on how successfully it performs on TikTok. 

This certainly explains some of the more odd-ball hits of lockdown. A remix of Jason Derulo’s Savage Love by a practically unknown high school student reached number 1 on the charts due to its accompaniment with a viral TikTok dance. Notoriously, Dreams by Fleetwood Mac was another unexpected hit on TikTok, after a man posted a video of himself guzzling cranberry juice while riding on a skateboard and listening to the song.

“if there’s one lesson to be learnt from 2020 it is to be prepared for the unexpected…”

What songs like this show is that TikTok essentially generates hits at random, depending more on the videos that are used to promote them than the popularity of the artist. While plenty of Lady Gaga’s fans might have listened to Rain on Me when it first dropped, it never struck gold on TikTok the same way that Blinding Lights and even Dreams did. This unpredictable virality heightens the stakes for any artist willing to release new music. If the single isn’t viral on TikTok, it spends a week at number 1 before suddenly dropping down the charts. On the other hand, if it turns out to be popular on the app, the song is destined to be played all summer. 

Things don’t look to be changing any time soon. Recently, Ariana Grande’s Positions, her sixth studio album, has performed well on its opening week with multiple charting singles. The title track, the album’s most popular song by far, has since been dethroned from the number 1 spot by another TikTok song, 24kGoldn’s Mood, and unless suddenly picked up by TikTok, seems doomed to repeat the same pattern as Rain on Me of immediate but brief success.

Is this the ‘new normal’ for the music industry, or will things revert to a pre-pandemic state? TikTok’s influence has been felt long before the pandemic, with songs like Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road propelled to insane popularity because of it. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that things will change much even after COVID ends, although if there’s one lesson to be learnt from 2020 it is to be prepared for the unexpected, since the music industry is incredibly fickle when it comes to making accurate predictions about popular trends. For now, it might be best just to wait and see.