How TikTok Could End Up Saving Creativity
This sounds at first like quite a hot take. I can hear the skin above your eyes crinkle as you squint at your phone in disgust, recalling the hits produced by TikTok and its trends, and how annoying they are, and how rapidly irrelevant they become. How can an algorithm that rewards short, loud, garish and simple music be positive for the deep-thinking, Dark-Side-Of-The-Moon-ers who want to re-invent sound every time they hit the studio? Well, I’m going to spend most of this article wilfully failing to answer that question. Instead, I’ll talk about how viral culture is forcing instant, short-term hits out of our artists, plasticising and degenerating popular music, before hitting you with a Sherlock-style sucker punch reveal that I knew what I was talking about all along, and that this could be a good thing, because it is in the small empty space left behind by the rush for instant fame and gratification that we find our answer to how on earth this app could end up making music better.
The first big concept that we need to unpack is algorithmic culture. Right now, through TikTok, teenage girls are running the internet. Their thumbs are dictating the content we’re fed, not just on the platform itself, but across our entire online feeding trough, in which our faces are shamelessly buried all day. What is popular today isn’t popular because everyone likes it, it’s popular because a large enough minority of predominantly female teenagers are sharing it so much that it repeats itself until it is abundantly familiar to anyone connected to the central grid, and indeed, many who aren’t.
In short, TikTok has become the principal means by which to popularise something. A song, a dance, a meme, a picture of Bernie Sanders. Even if you’re 55 and you didn’t get it from TikTok, I guarantee the person who showed it to you did, because, as per their advertising slogan, ‘it starts on TikTok’. Because of this fact, and because 41% of its 800 million users are aged 16-24, creators, including musicians, are newly focused on reaching this demographic, and doing so in a way that can be digested in 15 seconds.
At the risk of sounding like this year’s superficially informed and overly opinionated Facebook mum, let’s talk about viruses. For something to go viral, we have to consume it, and then share it. The virus relies on human hosts to briefly house and then spread its contents to others, until people far and wide are infected. To stop this analogy from bhitting too close to home, let’s take that video of a man aggressively thrusting to Nyree’s version of No Guidance, known more commonly as the ‘before I die I’m trynna F you’ meme. If you’re unfamiliar, a quick YouTube search will bring you up to speed, but don’t blame me for what you see, it’s just an example. The original video can be considered the virus. As people see it and share it, it mutates. People recaption it, turning it into their own meme, in their own context, and a seemingly one-dimensional 5-second clip is given new life every time it transfers hosts, allowing it to live on for longer than you’d imagine feasibly possible. This process is what content creators are now aiming for, and it’s what musicians are now thinking of when they write a new song.
It’s thought that soon, algorithms will write all of our music. Computers with the collective creative power of Kate Bush in a room with four Pharrells and André 3000 will be able to produce music that transcends conception. I argue that algorithms are already writing songs. But for now, like viruses, they rely on human hosts. We’re seeing algorithms sitting in the brains of artists, pulling their strings and creating material that conforms to their version of perfection. Some of this is subconscious, and can merely be attributed to algorithmic culture’s pervasiveness, but some of it is blatantly self-aware. This is clear in the distinction between two Drake songs: In My Feelings and Toosie Slide. One caught fire on TikTok by accident when fans made up a fun sequence of steps to it, and the other is literally a set of instructional lyrics for a new viral dance.
The TikTok algorithm that favours the short, the bold, the shocking and the instantly memeable has already seen the average length of a Billboard chart hit reduce by over 20 seconds in the past six years. A Spotify playlist called Viral Hits, covered by an image of someone holding their phone, has 1.5 million followers, and another titled Internet People has 800,000. If your song doesn’t appeal to teenage girls, it may not see the light of day. In their chapter in The Future of Creative Work, Natalie Collie and Caroline Wilson-Barnao argue that while TikTok has ‘democratised’ systems of cultural production and distribution, allowing anyone to create and share content rather than just the few with access to a large studio and its audience, it has also disturbed its purity. ‘Creative labour is increasingly valued for its capacity to generate engagement, go viral, and produce user data, rather than its particular cultural or aesthetic content’, they say.
So let’s say mainstream society has taken the red pill and is now beginning to experience the depth of the rabbit hole. What does the blue pill have to offer? What about the blissfully unaware salt-of-the-earth musicians for whom a TikTok hit is not an object? There is a B-side to this phenomenon and this is where it gets a bit theoretical and tasty.
Music that has and hasn’t been created through an algorithmic lens is becoming increasingly indistinct (because as I’ve already said, much of it is subconscious), and I don’t want to go too deep into the difference between the commercial mainstream and the authentic independent because it could be quite easy to argue that there really isn’t one anymore, as the ‘democratised’ system is now pretty indiscriminate in what it makes popular. However, as I alluded to with a loose Matrix analogy, the rest of this story relies on an A/B distinction, which I’ll basically create as a subjective and interpretive ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In cynical terms, and in terms that, for the sake of argument, would rather not admit that I had a few Doja Cat songs in my 2020 Top Songs playlist, I’m going to define ‘bad’ music as the cheap, lazy, algorithm-inspired ‘bops’ that go down as forgettable short-term hits, and ‘good’ music as basically everything else. This will mean different things to different people and there are lots of anomalies and overlaps, but it’s a convenient dichotomy for the argument I am about to make.
Good, authentic artistry will continue to exist as normal. Genuine steps forward in creativity will continue to be made in the face of this societal trend, and all of the artists you respect and admire most for their craft will continue to innovate, and inspire successors to do the same. But my prediction is that big labels will begin to take up more space, and sign more ‘viral’ artists, as the TikTok algorithm continues to reward their work. A study on major and non-major label performance in the Spotify and Apple Music charts forecasts this, finding that the major labels’ share of success is back on the rise. Universal, Sony and Warner are back to occupying 80% of the charts, having dropped to around 60% in mid-2018. Algorithms don’t seem to be democratising the process at all. Being so emblematic of this trend, it would be wrong not to mention Old Town Road. The song was released independently, dubiously entered the country music charts, was disqualified from the country music charts, went viral on TikTok, was re-released by Sony and was the number one song in the world for 19 weeks in a row. This is not an isolated example of big labels hoovering up viral trends and profiting from them. It has happened time and time again.
Lil Nas' 'Old Town Road' shot into fame with the help of TikTok's 'viral' power
So while big labels consume and expand, Soundcloud rappers are busy trying to invent death-metal-trap and dying their hair strange colours in the hope of being picked up. When these two things happen simultaneously, hope for independent success, that doesn’t feature something memeable, dwindles. When even undeniably talented artists like Juice WRLD are getting their start through memes, it can begin to feel like selling out is the only way in.
As the mainstream gets more algorithmic, it estranges itself further from the natural parameters of ‘good’ music. Artists with talent are left scratching their heads at how the best-performing song of a whole calendar year is a guy rapping about horses in a southern accent.
As ‘good’ music begins to sound more and more different to what makes the charts, the charts become less relevant to ‘good’ artists. TikTok marks just the latest chapter in a trend led by the collapse of the record, and then the CD, and the rise of the internet. Pre-internet, labels only really signed artists they thought would sell records and make the charts because that was the only way they could make their money. And independent artists hiring out studios had to sell records in order to afford studio time. The records had to have a broad enough appeal to be pressed and stocked in stores, and they had to be of a high enough quality that fans would spend their hard-earned money on them at the shop. If they didn’t appeal to mainstream radio, they wouldn’t be aired and nobody would hear them. In other words, a one-minute-53-second single about horses would not make the cut. ‘Good’ and mainstream were the same thing. Now, in an age where hits are flying out of the laptops of teenagers and into the headphones of other teenagers with no middleman whatsoever, and music has been pluralised by streaming sites that allow you to listen to thousands of tracks a day, there are more producers with a chance of being heard, and more consumers to reach, with less need to conform to what might make the radio. This is largely seen as a good thing for creativity, but we’ve now entered a new chapter.
Enter the algorithms. Algorithmic culture has created a new expectation, a standard to be met. While artists flock to the desires of these algorithms, desperately seeking a trend to set, the microscope is shifted far away from ‘good’ music. As ‘viral’ music fortifies itself on the internet, and Sony buys up more of its stock, a group is left behind in its shadow. It is in this shadow that creativity can be saved. Innovation blossoms where there is no expectation, no microscope, no focus, and no algorithmic dictation. If I’ve done my job at all so far, I will have made TikTok’s impact sound like a crisis, and crises are famous for igniting a creative and cultural backlash led by people set on distinguishing themselves from the ensuing disaster. An equal and opposite reaction to algorithmic music, freer and looser sounding than ever, flying in the face of what TikTok has branded chart-worthy, will occur, and it may coincide with the largest cultural boom of the last century in the aftermath of a global pandemic.
On one side of our coin, TikTok is supposedly democratising the system, but big labels are getting bigger, music is saturated and monotonous, and everything has to come with a viral dance move. The more attention this draws and the more energy it sucks from the atmosphere, the more energy is going to be blown back into the creation of rich tapestries of sound that will outlive the efforts of algorithms. As humans get wise to algorithms, and creators begin to reject their influence, we may write a new chapter in the history of music culture.
TikTok will democratise creativity by doing the exact opposite of what it is supposed to do. By putting more power into the hands of Universal, Sony and Warner, instead of independents, it will create a new, powerless class, disenfranchised with the algorithmic culture of songwriting and its major label favouritism. This class will rise and surpass the all-controlling viral landscape, and it’ll do it in the algorithms’ back yard. This culture created an online world where one artist can reach thousands with little cost and effort, and one fan can browse thousands with equally low cost and effort; an online world with infinite uploads and downloads, that is fully integrated and instantly accessible. The artists left behind by TikTok can use this system to fight back. When humans confront the algorithms, it’ll be with the very same weapons that are being used against us, and we’ll be able to take back our creativity just as quickly as it was stolen.