They’re seeking a better deal after they missed the rise of the social video platform and sold music rights for a flat fee.
Fitz and the Tantrums were wrapping up the tour for their third album last year when their label, Atlantic Records, told them that their song HandClapwas climbing the charts in South Korea. “We were shocked,” says Lisa Nupoff, one of the group’s managers. The Los Angeles-based pop band had never been there, or anywhere in Asia for that matter. But by April of 2018, HandClap had topped the international charts in the world’s sixth-largest music market, outperforming Camilla Cabello’s Havana, the most popular song in the world last year. A couple months later, the song surpassed 1 billion streams in China—even more than it had received in the U.S.
Nupoff credits much of the song’s success in Asia to TikTok, a social video app that allows users to record and share short clips of pranks, dance routines, and skits set to music. The song took off in South Korea after the 1Million Dance Studio troupe recorded a video set to the song, which other users replicated in their own videos. It went viral in China after a player of the video game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegroundsuploaded a film combining gunshots of a weapon from the game with HandClap to Douyin, TikTok’s China-only equivalent. “It was just fans listening to the song, posting videos, and doing dances in their homes,” Nupoff says.
TikTok and Douyin, both owned by the Chinese startup Bytedance Ltd., are propelling songs from obscurity to ubiquity overnight, rewriting the path to stardom for some acts. While Fitz and the Tantrums had already experienced success at home, the burst of fame on TikTok persuaded the band to focus on Asia as it rolls out its new album.
The list of acts that owe sudden success to TikTok grows by the day. Lil Nas X just scored a No. 1 song on the Billboard charts—and a record deal—after his song Old Town Road went viral on TikTok. And Supa Dupa Humble, a producer from Brooklyn, doubled his daily streams. “If you can get a song on Douyin, you suddenly get a viral impact,” says Simon Robson, the head of Warner Music’s Asian operations.
Musicians first met TikTok as musical.ly, a lip-syncing app founded in California and Shanghai in 2014 that had amassed more than 10 million daily users—mostly teens—by the middle of 2016. Music writers labeled it the new Vine, the now defunct short-form video app owned by Twitter Inc. Bytedance, which also operates one of China’s most popular news apps, saw enough potential in short music-enhanced video that it created its own service, Douyin, later that year. Douyin attracted 100 million users in less than 12 months; a separate app, TikTok, was created for outside the mainland.
Bytedance swooped in to acquire Musical.ly in November 2017 and folded it into TikTok, centralizing the pranks—and the music licensing—under one company. The app’s popularity has since surged. TikTok has been downloaded more than 1 billion times worldwide, and is available in more than 150 markets. It was the most downloaded free app in the world for a time last year.
The app’s sudden rise caught record labels off-guard and revived an old debate in the music industry: Is this new internet service giving artists free promotion, or simply getting rich off their work? Record labels have resisted hundreds of companies, including MTV and YouTube, that wanted to offer music for free and pay little in return. As paid streaming services Spotify and Apple Music have revived record sales in recent years, labels have tried to squelch any app that offers music for free.
TikTok, however, presented a new way to promote songs. Unlike YouTube, which features full songs, TikTok lets its users include only snippets of music in their 15-second clips. So record labels licensed TikTok the rights to music for a flat fee of only tens of millions of dollars, comparable to what record labels get from Spotify each week, to test what would happen. The growth of TikTok and the news app Toutiao has boosted the valuation of Bytedance to about $75 billion, making it one of the world’s most-valuable startups. That rankles the music labels, which are still being paid under the original low-priced deal. “When I left [last year], the industry said these deals are not going to work anymore,” says John Bolton, a music executive who helped Bytedance strike its previous deals with music companies. “It sounds like that still has not been figured out.”
Labels are now asking Bytedance for hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed licensing payments, and they’ve threatened to pull their music from the app’s library if they aren’t rewarded.
TikTok would be rather boring without music, says Yang Lu, the general manger of music for Bytedance, which is now planning its own paid music service. But he’s quick to add that the app has been beneficial to the music industry, by creating programs to support independent artists in China, Japan, and South Korea, and has teamed up with labels around the world to help promote releases. And there’s little question that Bytedance’s apps motivate music lovers: On any given day, as many as half the songs in the top 10 on Chinese music services have been made popular by TikTok or Douyin. “We are not a music promotion app,” Lu says. “But we did happen to have a huge impact on music promotion. We are a very positive force.”
Many artists agree. Supa Dupa Humble promoted his song Steppin on Instagram when he first released it in 2017. The track garnered more than 3 million streams, enough to earn Supa, whose real name is Tarique St. Juste, a deal with Roc Nation, an entertainment company founded by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. Supa had never heard of TikTok when he first learned his song was going viral, but daily streams of Steppin on music services more than doubled as soon as people started including it on videos on the app. The song has since been streamed more than 19 million times. “It’s a meme world,” he says. “TikTok exposed us to a whole new set of fans.”
The challenge for artists like Supa is figuring out how to capitalize on that growth. HandClap was a hit before it got to China, reaching the top five on the alternative and rock charts in the U.S. in July 2016; it’s Fitz and the Tantrums’ first song to go double platinum. But it didn’t start to gather fans in South Korea until almost two years after its U.S. release. Listeners in South Korea and China know HandClapfrom watching app clips, but many have never heard of Fitz and the Tantrums.
The band will now travel to Asia in conjunction with the release of its fourth album. Nupoff has been working closely with Warner’s labels in South Korea and China to build relationships with streaming services in the region. “2018 was the year China and Korea exploded,” she says, “and 2019 is when we hope to harness it.”