In decades past, signing with a record label literally meant having a company produce and distribute a musician’s records. The nature of music production and dissemination made musical fame a club that was difficult, if not nearly impossible, to break into. According to Statista, the "Big 3" music companies, Universal, Sony, and Warner Music, “exert control over nearly every aspect of the music industry by serving as music distributors, owning record labels, and coordinating artists’ performance rights.” Today, however, shifts in music consumption and production seem to be tempering the stronghold that the “Big 3” have over the musical world.
Many artists have spoken out about the control they face under record labels. Earlier this year, Taylor Swift called her former label Big Machine Records, “shameless" and "tasteless,” for releasing an album of her songs without her consent. Even Prince, one of the most successful artists of all time, said in 2015, “I would tell any young artist … don’t sign.”
Some major artists are starting to produce music on their own terms. Chance the Rapper never signed to a major label and Frank Ocean released his acclaimed album “Blonde” without his previous label involvement. Even with breakout artists like Chance and Frank Ocean, however, the musical world is still largely tethered to the record label industry.
If the past twenty years have taught us anything, though, it's that the internet and social media can and will shake up all corners of American life. It's obvious the music industry is no different.
In recent years, YouTube has been the birthplace of many musical stars. Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Madison Beer, and Alessia Cara all got their starts through the platform. Although they were discovered through YouTube, each artist eventually signed to a major label in order to fully break into the musical scene. Point being, even if the internet could get you your big break before, you still needed institutional help to launch your career and get your music onto people's playlists.
A convergence of two big themes in 2020, however, seems to be truly spearheading a meritocratic musical world: streaming and TikTok. Today, millions of Americans use streaming services to consume their music. In 2019, streaming platforms accounted for 80% of all music revenue. Artists not signed to labels can put their music up on Spotify, so long as they have the help of a distributor. SoundCloud and YouTube have no such distribution requirement.
At the same time, TikTok has captured the world’s attention. Young people everywhere are stuck inside due to the pandemic. So, we’ve turned to TikTok. With approximately 800 million monthly active users, content creators have a broad reach. Unlike YouTube and Instagram, which lend themselves to hyper–edited content shot on expensive equipment, TikTok is quite egalitarian. Anyone with a cell phone can have 15 to 60 seconds of fame.
For the music industry, this might just mean something big. The combined accessibility of gaining notoriety through TikTok and independently streaming music through platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify may begin to break the stronghold record labels have had over music for decades. As artists seek an easier and freer way to put their music into the world, this perfect storm may just be the antidote they’re looking for.
In a clip of her song “Sweet Hibiscus Tea,” which has now been viewed over 1.8 million times on TikTok, Penelope Scott sings “And I'm not your protagonist / I'm not even my own / I don't know anything / I don't even know what I don't know.”
Scott sits in a messy room, reminiscent of a cold college dorm, referenced in her line, “There’s lukewarm herbal mango sweet hibiscus tea / On the hot garbage pile in which I fucking sleep.” In front of her iPhone camera, her hair is thrown up into two buns. In contrast to the glitzy and hyper–produced music videos many of us are used to, Scott’s 60–second video is haphazard and real, in the best way possible.
“Sweet Hibiscus Tea” gained popularity in early May and now has over 500,000 views on YouTube and 1.1 million streams on Spotify. Other songs of hers have also gone viral, such as Born to Run, in which she sings, “Are you really gonna save the world like that? / With your tits half out on Instagram? / I mean, yeah, motherfucker that was always the plan / I'm gonna wear this shit to Congress, man.” The song became an anthem for young women treading the delicate line between femininity and political power. Born to Run was removed from TikTok for violating community guidelines, but Scott put it up on Bandcamp, an online service designed to make enjoying music accessible while adequately compensating artists for their work. Bandcamp serves as yet another break from record labels and music contracts.
Yosef Argaw, known on social media as Yoza, is another notable TikTok musician. Yoza’s TikTok page initially blew up in late June when he posted his remix of Doja Cat’s “Say So.” Rapping over the song’s backtrack, he adds depth and character to an otherwise plain viral dance bop. His “Say So” video reached 9.4 million views on the app, launching him into TikTok stardom. Since then, he’s released remixes to Harry Styles’s “Watermelon Sugar,” Dixie D’Amelio’s “Be Happy,” and Arizona Zervas’s “Roxanne.” The Dallas–based artist’s lyrical skills are clear.
While he has not yet dropped these remixes on streaming services, his newfound fame has given him a platform to promote his music. His song “Issue,” a Frank Ocean–style R&B track, has almost 100,000 streams on Spotify. “Issue” blends a catchy beat and echoey synthetic melody with meticulous and creative lyrics. Yoza’s music can also be found on SoundCloud.
Another favorite TikTok star of mine is Lizzy McAlpine, gracing “for you pages” everywhere with her earnest and melodic tune, “Ruined.” Strumming an acoustic guitar on the floor of her bathroom, she sings, “You ruined The 1975 / Now I listen and cry 'cause you sang / "We share friends in Soho" / While you told me that none of your friends know.” The song alludes to “Paris” by The 1975, the band her ex forever tainted for McAlpine. Her soothing voice and guitar picking bounce off the tile walls of the room, and the bitter nostalgia of the song is evident in her lyrics.
The TikTok has over 5.9 million views, 1.6 million likes, and thousands of duets, with users harmonizing and adding their own twists to the track. “Ruined” is not yet up on streaming services like Spotify, but the TikTok drew attention to many of McAlpine’s other, equally beautiful, songs.
Scott, Argaw, and McAlpine have not yet reached Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber level fame in their musical endeavors through TikTok. Nonetheless, the video app has certainly helped jumpstart their careers and spread their music to audiences across state and country lines. With the help of streaming sites like Spotify and SoundCloud, anyone with internet access can, and should, instantly become a fan.
The days of being tethered to a record label in order to get famous may be history. With a phone and some talent, anyone can make waves in the musical world and be adored by thousands. Only time will tell whether or not TikTok really turns the music industry on its head, but signs are pointing towards some sort of revolution coming our way. Until then, we’ll just have to watch out for new songwriting talent. Penelope Scott, Yoza, or Lizzy McAlpine could become the next Chance the Rapper–esque, self–made music legend.