Harper examines how Tik Tok, digital platforms are changing the music industry

Fine and Performing Arts

Kateri Hartman, April 19, 2022

Harper examines how Tik Tok, digital platforms are changing the music industry

Three-time Grammy award winner Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout single “Driver’s License” took Tik Tok by storm before debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

Rodrigo’s experience exemplifies how Tik Tok’s nature gives artists and the music industry the power to reach millions of people within hours. This hyper-algorithmic nature is what sets Tik Tok apart from other platforms, according to Paula Harper, assistant professor of musicology in the Glenn Korff School of Music at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Even before the days of YouTube and Facebook, artists have been harnessing the power of the internet to promote their songs. Tik Tok, then, is the latest in a series of social platforms that musicians, singers and songwriters are utilizing to promote their brands and music.

Harper talks about all of these concepts in her upcoming book, “Viral Musicking and the Rise of Noisy Platforms,” which is set to be released in 2023-24. The book begins in the early internet before current digital platforms existed, and studies shifts through the beginning of YouTube, Facebook, etc. Tik Tok serves as the final chapter and culmination of many longer trends that Harper identified, especially relating to how platforms are facilitating the circulation of music and audio-visual content.

“Artists have been incorporating the internet and digital technologies into their promotion and distribution strategies since the internet existed,” Harper said. “There is often discourse that frames new technologies as disruptions in the music industry, but I think it’s more historically accurate to see Tik Tok as part of a much longer series, in which musicians and the music industry actually incorporate these technologies into their strategies.”

Harper, who earned a doctorate in historical musicology from Columbia University, studies music, sound and the internet, with focuses on issues of circulation, sharing, sociality and social media, fandom, gender and representation.

“I tend to look at how people use the internet in ways that are less explicitly designed for musical circulation and consumption,” she said. “I look outside of where music is supposed to be, such as platforms like Spotify or Apple Music. I instead look at what it means when people are doing musical things on platforms like Snapchat or Tik Tok or Instagram or Twitter.”

To her, what sets Tik Tok apart from other platforms is its hyper algorithmic nature, compared to sites like YouTube, where a user seeks out a certain kind of content and then leaves the platform.

“It’s the way that what content is up next is so out of the hands of the user,” Harper said. “Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have some of this functionality, but Tik Tok supercharges how algorithmic curation is so central to the default experience of the platform. It feels more random and is much more amplified than other platforms.”

The rise and the cultural integration of Tik Tok “means that artists have to be thinking about Tik Tok and about the ways that people are going to be engaging with their music from the very beginning,” Harper said.

The success of artists on the platforms, both veterans and up-and-comers, depicts how music industry players swiftly incorporated Tik Tok into their marketing strategies.

“These are not unknown songs that made their way to the Grammys via Tik Tok,” Harper said. “Lil Nas X or Megan Thee Stallion having Tik Tok dances associated with their music that is currently successful is more indicative of how music industry personnel are already thinking about, and kind of seeding hit songs into Tik Tok — in the same way that, in the past, they might have been trying to get them radio airplay or get their artists on SNL.”

Artists have to think of ways in which their songs could be cut into shorter durations, or make decisions such as sharpening a line of lyrics in order to suit Tik Tok’s platform, a symptom of contemporary virality.

“The length of time over which something goes viral has shrunk. Something that could have happened over months at the turn of the 2000s, now happens over hours, maybe days,” Harper said.

Could Tik Tok lead to the evolution of song lengths? Maybe, but it’s unlikely, Harper said.

“We can certainly track a trend towards shorter songs,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily a full single direction move that we’re making towards shorter and shorter songs.”

While Tik Tok may force some artists to adapt their strategies, it’s also allowed artists and labels to capitalize on creative fan labor in which fans do the legwork for promoting songs or albums for an artist. Tik Tok’s platform inherently promotes trending sounds, leading to fans participating in trends that ultimately promote an artist’s song.

Before Tik Tok, Taylor Swift, Beyonce and K-pop artists were prime examples of utilizing fan labor.

For example, in 2013 Beyonce released her self-titled visual album without any promotion. However, once the album was released it sold millions of copies as fans and social media served as promotional efforts.

“That instance for me was a large-scale proof of concept of what could be done via the Internet and via the mechanics of virality — and so, to me, Tik Tok is the final chapter. Tik Tok has really normalized this,” Harper said. “The person who benefited from Tik Tok videos made with the song “Old Town Road” was Lil Nas X, rather than any of the individuals who made videos.”

While Tik Tok and the internet have impacted the industry, many aspects of the traditional industry remain intact, such as fans following or subscribing to an artist’s content and listening to full songs on physical albums or music platforms.

Looking forward, Harper is eagerly awaiting the next Tik Tok.

“I feel like we’re on the cusp of something new. It feels like Tik Tok is so normalized now that it feels like the next avant-garde come up has to be on the horizon,” she said. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I feel kind of antsy about it—as both a person living in the world and as a researcher.”

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