Over nine months ago, almost nobody knew of Lil Nas X. Suddenly, his song about taking his horse to the old town road shot to fame, garnering over 1.3 billion combined streams on Spotify, being remixed by Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug and BTS and even earning him six Grammy nominations. So how did “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X blow up?
The video sharing app, formerly known as Musical.ly, is an up-and-coming social media platform featuring brief lip-sync, dance and comedy clips. Currently, the app has over 1 billion downloads and over 500 million active users, making it the ninth most-used social network, above Snapchat and Twitter. In early March users began publishing clips with “Old Town Road” as the “sound,” prompting the song’s initial rise in popularity.
A “sound” on TikTok is a 60-second audio snippet added to videos as a soundtrack. Sounds utilized as background music in dance and lip-sync clips gives both the users and the musicians a platform to go “viral,” with many sounds surpassing TikTok to become household names, like “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo and “Ransom” by Lil Tecca. Many argue that TikTok is a waste of time and just another distraction like Vine and Instagram. But times have changed: social media platforms are producing some of today’s biggest hits.
Take Shawn Mendes for example. Shawn Mendes rose to fame through singing clips on the six-second video app, Vine. Now, Shawn Mendes is signed to Island Records, has over 46 million monthly listeners on Spotify and sells out shows at Madison Square Garden for $175 a ticket. It wasn’t Mendes’ beautiful voice that landed him a lucrative record deal, millions of fans and stadium tours. Although they helped, it was the platforms he sang on. Video sharing platforms like Vine, TikTok and YouTube are like the lottery: everyone has an equal chance of “going viral” and becoming the next big thing.
What sets TikTok apart from the mass of video-sharing platforms is its reliance on music. Currently, the third spot on Spotify’s United States Top 50 Chart belongs to “Roxanne” by Arizona Zervas, one of several songs that found fame on TikTok. Unless you frequented the Top 50 Chart one year ago, you wouldn’t understand how uncommon it was to find new, unsigned artists in the Top 50 list, let alone spot number two. TikTok and its sound system has allowed for the growth and exposure of emerging artists into the expansive worlds of pop, hip-hop, R&B, rap and alternative music. However, this begs the question: Do these artists have it too easy?
Yes and no. It seems like Lil Nas X and Lizzo hardly struggled to get their name out there — one day they were nobody and the next they were somebody. But every artist comes from a different place, raised under a different roof and with a different story to tell. Some artists had to beg radio DJs to play their track while others sung on YouTube for a couple thousand views. Anyone can be given a platform but it’s what they do with that platform that determines if they’re here to stay or gone tomorrow. A prime example of this is Toni Basil. Ever heard of her? Yeah, me neither. It’s probably because she only had one hit song: “Hey Mickey.” Basil was given a platform, sang her song and was never heard from again, at least on the big stage. One-hit wonders aren’t unique to the 80’s though, with modern examples like “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye and “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand.
Artists like Lil Nas X and Lizzo are here to stay because the generation that created them is the new curator of what’s considered “popular.” According to statistics, just over 25 percent of all US Spotify listeners are between the ages of 18 and 24 and over 55 percent of all listeners are either Gen Z or Millennial. Furthermore, GlobalWebIndex reports that about 41 percent of all TikTok users are between 16 and 24 years old. The average TikTok user is the same age as the average Spotify listener, so is it a coincidence that trending soundson TikTok perfectly line up with the US Top 50 Chart? I’ll let you decide.
Don’t let all the numbers get to your head though. Adele will continue to amaze us with her range of vocals and Jay-Z will still be one of the G.O.A.T.s. But the tables are turning and what once was an app for sharing dance videos and comedy skits will be the next breeding ground for America’s biggest artists.
Max Schwartz can be reached at [email protected]