TikTok is fast becoming something a lot more valuable than just funny videos to link to your group chat – in its short and aggressive lifespan, a whole new breed of influencers have emerged, challenges and trends are appearing and gaining traction at lightning speed, and music is hitting viral status faster than ever. For Australian musicians looking for their big break in the local and global industries, it seems like TikTok is a new disruptor, shaking up the game in a very serious way.
For heavy-hitting music communities outside of Australia – namely Europe and the United States – the market is saturated enough with labels and niche music communities. It means that going viral on TikTok or other social media platforms doesn’t quite have the same weight as it would for a community as insular and isolated (physically and metaphorically) as Australia.
Stories of bands trying to emulate and reciprocate the whispered ‘Triple J Sound’ have been bouncing around comment sections and opinion pieces online for years, as the common feeling about being able to break through to the airwaves relies heavily on fitting in with what the hot flavour of the month is at the time.
But with the emergence of TikTok as a creative platform, and space where artists can drop their music to a global audience with true independence, we’re now seeing artists circumnavigating the expected route and gaining serious traction in ways where they have more autonomy and control. And record labels are taking notice of that.
So far in 2021, we’ve seen this happen with Olivia Rodrigo‘s Drivers License. Though she may already have a foot in the door with her career in the Disney world, there’s very little doubt that TikTok had a big hand in getting her debut track in front of a hell of a lot more people than just the High School Musical stans.
In the first month of its existence, the song’s audio has been used for over 1 million videos, Olivia’s TikTok about creating the track has hit well over 7 million likes and the single hit rotation on the national youth broadcaster.
In Australia specifically, known artists like Tones And I, Sia, and The Kid LAROI have tapped into the TikTok market, pushing their tracks into new territories and hitting the Gen Z-heavy community with solid success. By creating trends on the app, and engaging TikTok influencers like Addison Rae, artists have been able to boost their music in a new avenue that is far more inter-connected and organic than getting national or global radio plays.
But for emerging artists who are trying to get the attention of the industry, TikTok has become a vital platform where they can present their work relatively autonomously, and not feel like they need to pigeonhole their sound into what’s already on the airwaves.
For instance, Jaycee – a staunchly independent Perth-based rapper and producer – gained serious traction on TikTok in 2020, which resulted in him getting airplay on Nova. And after Sydney-born singer-songwriter Sam Fischer went viral with ‘This City‘ in 2018 – notching up more than one billion views and copping shares from Lewis Capaldi and Meghan Trainor – he was snatched up by RCA Records
Adelaide-born alt-pop artist Sarah Saint James saw the power of TikTok at the start of this year, when her track ‘Mad At God‘ popped off on the app in under a week. After uploading a snippet of the song on January 5, she saw it notch up over 100,000 views within 24 hours, her follower count spike by 15,000, and hundreds of people taking the audio to explore their own experiences of growing up queer in conservative households.
The track, which Sarah officially released on January 22, explores the conflicting feelings and emotions of realising her pansexual identity while growing up in a Christian home and going to a religious school, and the mental health struggles that she had to grapple with.
As a self-confessed analytics nerd, Sarah noticed that her overnight success on TikTok reached people she would never have been able to without some serious money.
“I think it allows people from their bedrooms to be seen by major labels, which really hasn’t been done before,” she told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“Independent artists – and especially younger artists from Australia and New Zealand – we are often in our own world. So now there are people who are seeing my video who never would have seen it if it wasn’t for TikTok.
“It allows people to be invested in you as an artist, who you would never have been able to reach otherwise, or you would have needed thousands of dollars in advances to be able to get in front of them.
“It’s changed the game as well as the ability to do it, and it just creates a bit more personal relationship with your fans as well.”
Young queer people from the deeply-conservative Bible Belt states in the US started interacting with ‘Mad At God‘, with some using the audio to actually come out to their friends and peers. It’s these pockets of the global LGBTQIA+ community that Sarah believes she never would have reached without TikTok.
“I’ve been really blown away by the number of people who have come from every avenue to try and tell me their story,” she said.
“I think there’s like 200-and-something videos of people dueting the sound or using the sound in their own videos, and making like montages of themselves.
“And there’s been a couple of people who have come out on the video like using the sound, which is like…I have cried more in the last two weeks and I’ve ever cried in my life.”
Sarah took all the TikTok videos created by other users to create the video clip for her track.
Off the back of her viral TikTok success – which has flowed over to her other self-published music, boosting their numbers and reach too – she’s been in conversations with record labels and publishers keen to pick her up.
Though she’s had slight success with getting airplay on Triple J (her previous singles ‘DBE (dumb bitch energy)‘ and ‘BIG BOY‘ have been played a couple of times), she knows that without TikTok she wouldn’t have seen the same level of interaction from fans, or interest from the industry.
“If this is the peak of my career, that’s fine,” Sarah said.
“Honestly, the number of people that it’s reached – that’s all I’ve ever wanted. I don’t want to be some arena-selling famous crazy person. All I want to do is to be for kids what I had in other artists when I was at that age.”