Concerns over Chinese surveillance and inappropriate content have led to a crescendo of voices supporting a ban on TikTok in the United States—which would then follow bans on the app’s use on government-issued devices in the U.S. and several other countries as well as a total ban in India. Although it’s far from clear how the U.S. government could implement such a ban, the possibility is leading many industries to contemplate how it would affect their businesses. Near the top of that list is the music industry.
After six years of hyper-rapid growth, at least one source shows that TikTok currently has the third-largest user numbers of any social network, behind Facebook and Instagram (both owned by Meta) and ahead of Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Although Entertainment is the largest content category of TikTok videos by a wide margin, it’s not known how much of that is specifically related to music. That’s in part because the categories within “entertainment” are blurry on TikTok: many TikTok stars get famous through their lip-syncs, dance routines, or other videos set to someone else’s music, while a much smaller number of people are artists who distribute or even promote their own music on the app.
To understand the impact on the music industry if TikTok were to disappear from the U.S. market, it helps to understand the effect it’s had on the business thus far. To do that, it’s useful to look at TikTok in light of its natural predecessor: YouTube. YouTube has taken the music industry on a journey that TikTok is extending today.
YouTube is currently the largest distributor of music—of any kind—in the world. Its usage specifically for music is much larger than Spotify, for example, even though the biggest hits tend to get more plays on Spotify than their official videos are viewed on YouTube. The biggest reason for this is likely that YouTube’s main service is free, whereas while Spotify’s main service charges subscription fees and it’s constantly working to steer free-tier users toward its paid service.
But another big reason for YouTube’s popularity has been its relative independence from the music industry. While Spotify only accepts music feeds from record labels (or digital distributors such as Distro Kid and CD Baby), anyone can upload videos with music to YouTube. And while Spotify did not launch in the U.S. until it had signed deals with the major record labels, YouTube, for the first couple of years of its existence, did not engage with copyright or royalty issues related to the massive amounts of music that users were uploading.
The same has been true of TikTok, except that TikTok did specifically have music in mind early on when it acquired Musical.ly, another Chinese app that enabled users to create lip-sync videos. Otherwise, TikTok’s early disregard of music copyright issues helped it to build up a huge user base while it negotiated with record labels and music publishers. And just as YouTube achieved license agreements with the major labels around 2011, six years after its launch, TikTok had licenses from the majors by early 2021.
Even so, TikTok has moved further away from music industry control than YouTube. For example, while there are many “official” artist channels and label releases on YouTube, TikTok gives no special status to big music stars and even less to labels. TikTok users can give themselves whatever user names they want, and the app doesn’t verify actual identities. So, for example, there are TikTok users with names like Lady Gaga, ladygaga, Ladygaga, LADY GAGA, Lady Gaga Daily, etc.; and it’s not clear which of these is the real Lady Gaga’s account. This makes it more difficult for the real artists to establish their identities on the service; the focus is on users, not musical artists. TikTok also treats audio clips somewhat like hashtags on other social networks: it lumps together videos that use the same music clips, and it enables users to easily create new videos using the music in the clips they’re watching. Such features help increase exposure for music clips, but they draw attention away from the artists who make them.
Another sign of TikTok’s further autonomy is its ability to create its own music stars independently of the record label system. YouTube has produced several breakout megastars, such as Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, PSY, and Luis Fonsi. Yet most of these had backing from major labels or management in the first place; YouTube mainly helped them get exposure in markets beyond their native countries, including in the U.S. In contrast, the biggest music stars on TikTok (based on earnings, at least), such as Bella Poarch, Dixie D’Amelio, and Loren Gray, are more likely to have been discovered on TikTok before being signed to record labels.
TikTok has also had an arguably bigger effect on the creative output of musical artists than YouTube has. YouTube’s most pervasive effect on creative output has probably been the explosion in artist collaborations, such as pop songs with drop-ins by rappers. Music discovery on YouTube is based more on search than on playlists or other forms of navigation, and collabs increase the odds that an artist will be listed in search results. Accordingly, at least a quarter of the songs in the Billboard Hot 100 nowadays tend to be collabs. Otherwise, YouTube’s effect on creative output hasn’t been much different from that of Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services.
In contrast, artists are doing more to create TikTok-friendly music content. The main impetus for this is TikTok’s emphasis on short clips, whereas YouTube allowed up to the length of most songs from its earliest days. Some artists post clips from their full-length songs on TikTok to promote them and drive traffic to Spotify and other streaming services. Sometimes these clips take on lives of their own: for example, R&B star Steve Lacy found that audiences at his live shows didn’t know the words to his No. 1 hit “Bad Habit” beyond those in the brief clip that was used on half a million TikTok videos. There’s also some evidence that TikTok is influencing songwriters to start songs with choruses or other hooks so that they can grab attention within those 15-20 seconds—that is, to change the structures of songs instead of merely shortening them, which has been the trend for decades.
But above all, there’s mounting evidence that maintaining a constant presence on TikTok is becoming a necessity for artists who want to build their fan bases. This just hasn’t been as crucial on YouTube. And some artists resent having to feed that beast every day (in addition to all the other social networks), so this trend will increase the proportion of social-media-savvy artists who hit the top of the charts—and increase the amount of nagging that labels and artist managers have to do to keep them there.
Conversely, the explosion of new music on all these services is making it more and more difficult for new music to be discovered; and the unparalleled ease of posting original videos to clips from well-known songs on TikTok has resulted in more exposure of old “catalog” music—such as the amazing revival of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Dreams” in a TikTok video in 2020 that resulted in the song re-entering the charts and the Rumours album hitting No. 2 in sales in 2022. That’s one trend that the major music companies, and the private equity firms that are buying up catalogs of legacy musical artists, would love to encourage.
So what would happen to the music industry if TikTok were to go away? The major industry powers might be happy about it, given how TikTok has been extending YouTube’s trend of taking control away from them. But otherwise, not much. First of all, a U.S. ban doesn’t mean a worldwide ban, and—as the YouTube experience has shown—popular services can help take artists global with much less effort than before.
More generally, the forces that TikTok has set in motion will simply continue elsewhere. Google
and Meta have both launched TikTok competitor services, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels respectively. Last month, Google claimed that YouTube Shorts had surpassed 50 billion daily views, and Meta is making Reels available to the enormous Facebook audience. And other apps like Triller and Likee are out there too. All this has already taken a toll on TikTok usership: the latest Infinite Dial consumer survey from Edison Research, published two weeks ago, shows that TikTok usage peaked in 2022 and is now trending downwards. It’s hard to imagine that this is because users have gotten tired of addictive apps that push engaging short-form music videos onto their phones. Users can and will go elsewhere for the same kinds of experiences, and the effects on the music industry will continue.