TikTok is a DSP

Three songs are currently in the top 15 on Spotify’s US Viral 50 chart solely because of TikTok. They combined for 140,000 equivalents last week. I know a 19-year-old who joined the app in October and already has over 4 million fans. She has funneled scores of them into a 400,000-follower Instagram account and is being flown around the world for modeling and acting opportunities.

Below I explain why it’s actually self-serving for TikTok, owned by the largest internet startup in the world, to be handing out entertainment careers in this fashion and how, for a limited time, your artists can leverage TikTok’s goals to achieve their own.

Despite runaway growth in 2016 and 2017, Musical.ly had an image problem: it was for young kids. Their unprecedentedly youthful community kept advertisers on the sidelines and, as a result, profitability out of reach. After Bytedance paid a billion for the company in November of 2017, it set in motion an ambitious plan to shed this legacy stigma, attract older users, and put the app in contention with the largest social media networks in the world.

The Lip Sink
Their first move was to deprioritize lip-sync videos. Although this popular content style had been the cornerstone of Musical.ly’s success, it was also responsible for attracting their too-youthful user base. Instead, Musical.ly promised to promote creative challenges, memes, and comedy videos, all considered more appealing to the coveted millennial audience.

Hide Yo’ Kids
You were originally able to filter Musical.ly videos by “popular” and “recent,” but these simple, indiscriminate features meant anyone’s face -- even those of the app’s youngest users -- would often appear at the top of high-trafficked feeds. So, in early 2018, Bytedance developers replaced those search options with a single, algorithmic ranking filter called “trending” which only displayed approved content from older users. The young faces disappeared overnight and Musical.ly gained control of its brand identity for the first time.

Make Every Second Count
In August 2018, Bytedance announced that Musical.ly would adopt the established brand name, TikTok, and versatile slogan, “Make Every Second Count,” of its popular Asian sister app. What was once a lip-syncing app for 9-year-olds became an age-inclusive, multifaceted communication tool with built-in license agreements for every song in the world. A thorough image overhaul ensued to spread this new brand message via A-list influencers, top tier publicity, and ubiquitous advertising. By fall, the transformation was feeling very real.

For You
Not unlike Instagram’s “Explore” or YouTube’s “Suggested,” TikTok’s personalized A.I. feed, “For You,” is the first thing that hundreds of millions of users see everyday when they open the app. The more you use this feed, the better it understands what you want to see and the better it understands what you want to see, the more you use this feed. This powerful feedback loop gives TikTok’s editorial staff the ability to make certain songs viral and certain users famous. The question is, why would they want to do that?

In this interview (must watch 10:10 to 13:30), Musical.ly’s original co-founder, Alex Zhu, uses a brilliant analogy to explain the function of this editorial superpower:

“Building a community is very similar to running a country...in the beginning you have to build a centralized economy [where] the majority of wealth is distributed to a small percentage of people and then these people become role models...and then [a lot] of people come to your country [in search of upward mobility].”

In other words, by weaving editorial influence into the “For You” algorithm, TikTok can make specific types of people famous in order to attract millions more just like them. Having started from scratch, Musical.ly’s only option was to centralize the “wealth” among a core group of talented early adopters in their tweens. But thanks to Bytedance’s masterful legwork over the last 18 months, TikTok has more control over the demographics.

TikTok’s long-term viability depends on its near-term success in delivering multi-million person fanbases to talented, hardworking, Western artists in their late teens and 20’s. If you’re reading this, you probably know someone who would be a good fit.

Note, however, if your artists wait until TikTok feels safe or is more pervasive in their social circles, the opportunity will be gone. By then the editorial staff won’t need any more “role models” and we will be left chasing engagement, as is currently the case on Instagram, YouTube, Spotify, et al.

One of the greatest fan engagement opportunities in history is going on right now. Millennial artists should embrace TikTok as they do any other top-tier social media tool and you, as their representative, must cultivate front office allies at the company, post-haste. It’s time to treat TikTok like a DSP.

- Max