Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” felt like it came out of nowhere. In April, the country-trap song stampeded to the top of Billboard’s charts, holding the No1 slot for months. In a single week it was streamed 143 million times in the US alone, breaking the previous record (move over, Drake). But fans of social media app TikTok saw it first, sending the song viral by recording and sharing 15-second clips of themselves dancing to it like a cowboy.
TikTok might seem hidden in plain sight. Although it has been installed by more than a billion people globally, according to market intelligence company Sensor Tower, the vast majority of those users are reportedly under the age of 30. In other words, this is an app that makes even millennials feel out of touch. Still, even if you haven’t downloaded it you won’t be able to escape TikTok’s impact.
So, what is TikTok?
Fire up the app and a clip starts playing, unprompted. It’s no one you’ve met, doing a dance you don’t know, to a song you’ve never heard. And 15 seconds later another plays, and then another, until suddenly an hour of your life has disappeared. Want to create your own? There are myriad short bursts of songs and memes ready for users to lip-synch along to, which underlines TikTok’s origins as sing-along app Musical.ly, bought by TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, in 2017 for £790m.
“Old Town Road” rode onto the charts on the back of hundreds of thousands of short TikTok clips using the song. Today, it has been used as the soundtrack to more than ten million snippets. But while Lil Nas X is surely a TikTok fan, not every musician whose tracks are looping on the site is getting paid – and they range from Drake and Ariana Grande to unheard-of independent musicians.
Reports earlier this year suggested that existing licensing agreements with three major labels had expired, sending it to the negotiating table. It marks an inflection point both for TikTok and for the wider culture. If both sides find common ground, the ability to make a mainstream hit via a 15-second clip could change how music is written, remixed and created, transforming what all of us hear on the radio. No deal, however, could spell the end of the first major Chinese-owned social app to make a dent in the West.
A person familiar with the negotiations at a major label revealed that a simplified licensing deal designed for start-ups was signed when Musical.ly was still small. After the acquisition, TikTok decided it could continue to operate under the licence, despite complaints from the industry. That deal has since expired and talks are ongoing. A TikTok spokesperson told GQ, “We work closely with rights holders to build and protect a library of sound on the platform.”
Part of the reason that doing a deal will be difficult, says Jeff Price, CEO of rights collection agency Audiam, is the US’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This 1998 law gives tech platforms so-called “safe harbour” on copyright material uploaded by their users, meaning Google, Facebook and the rest face no legal repercussions unless specifically asked to take such content down. While no company wants to receive countless takedown notices, those laws nonetheless give social giants, such as TikTok, more power than rights holders, says Price, as they hurt less from walking away from the negotiating table. The licensing agreement that was signed with Musical.ly was cheap, as the app was small; today TikTok owner ByteDance is valued at £59 billion, so music labels want a piece of that pie. Price knows how tough these kinds of talks can be. His company attempted negotiations with Musical.ly before the acquisition – it didn’t go well and both sides walked away.
Whatever happens, TikTok is already changing music. “Lil Nas X wrote the song specifically with this platform and others in mind,” says Joe Conyers, cofounder of music publishing royalties collection firm Songtrust. Just as Spotify’s remuneration structure, which pays only after 30 seconds of streaming, has altered songwriting, pushing hooks toward the beginning, TikTok is rewarding songs with catchy clusters of lines that fit into short meme videos – think of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”, which remains popular on the app.
It could also shift where the power lies in the industry. Royalties are paid to recording artists via labels and paid to songwriters via publishers. The remix culture that’s thriving on TikTok could be good news for the latter, as songwriters get paid no matter who sings the song, even if it’s remixed or covered. “These new platforms are ushering in a whole new form of remix culture and the labels are a bit on the back foot,” says Conyers. “This is one of the first times in history in which the publishers have a bit of an upper hand.”
TikTok’s growing influence should, however, be treated with caution. Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, says, “The elephant in the room is this is a Chinese platform,” which raises concerns about where the data is stored and how it may be used by a country infamous for its surveillance and human rights abuses. Many users may not be aware who is processing their data; it’s worth noting TikTok has already been fined $5.7m (£4.5m) by the US Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting personal data on children and faces a similar investigation in the UK. Such missteps are common among social media giants wherever they’re headquartered, but with TikTok’s younger audience it’s particularly problematic. That can be hard to remember when dancing the yeehaw challenge to “Old Town Road”.
Story sourced from – GQ Magazine