Inside TikTok's Hidden Hit Machine


Illustration by Nazario Graziano for Rolling Stone. Photographs in illustration by John Parra/Getty Images; Pier Marcho Tacca/Redferns; John Sciulli/Getty Images

Hit Records such as Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” 24kGoldn's "Valentino," and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” are among TikTok's biggest successes.

This spring, Curtis Waters was bored out of his mind in quarantine in North Carolina. So he did what millions of other teens and young adults in America were doing: He went on TikTok. The 20-year-old indie-pop singer and his brother made a goofy dance video to Waters’ vibey tune “Stunnin’ ” using a green screen in their basement, unsure if it would go anywhere. “It was either I start making TikToks or buy Animal Crossing,” Waters recalls.

When Danny Gillick, TikTok’s senior manager of music content and label relations, came across “Stunnin’ ” in a fan-made fashion video, he knew he’d heard the next song of the summer. “We’re just gonna pour gas on it,” he told Waters’ manager, Chris Anokute, in a text. “I’m telling you, this is going to explode.”

Within days, the song was starring in thousands of TikToks, thanks to a promotion on the app’s Sounds page. Over the next three weeks, it garnered million of streams between Apple Music and Spotify, plus roughly 1.5 million YouTube views. Soon after, Waters debuted near the top of Rolling Stone’s Breakthrough 25 chart. By late July, his song had been featured in nearly 1 million TikToks, with 70 percent of its listeners under the age of 27, according to Anokute.

Since last year, when TikTok exploded onto the scene in earnest as the driving platform behind Lil Nas X’s record-breaking “Old Town Road” and Lizzo’s two-year-old sleeper hit “Truth Hurts,” it has become one of the industry’s go-to marketing tools — and a hunting ground for new talent like Waters, who signed a distribution deal with BMG after a bidding war involving several major labels. “I fuckin’ love Tik-motherfuckin’-Tok,” Lizzo said in a video in April. “Some of the most talented people have not been discovered yet . . . and they are on this app.”

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, now breaks new hits at a faster clip than Spotify playlists, live shows, or social media. Chart smashes such as Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” are among the platform’s hugest successes. Recognizing the app’s place in breaking new artists, distribution platform UnitedMasters and TikTok began a partnership on August 17th that would make it easier for music artists on TikTok to bring their work to other streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify. And TikTok’s ambitions are sky-high, as shown by its move in May to swipe Disney executive Kevin Mayer as its CEO.

Those ambitions haven’t come without scrutiny. The Trump administration, citing concerns over the company’s Chinese ties, demanded in early August that ByteDance either sell its U.S. TikTok operations or leave the country; Microsoft emerged as a frontrunner to buy the app’s U.S. holdings, but that deal remains unfinished as the White House continues to issue executive orders against TikTok. (In the most recent, from August 14th, Trump gave ByteDance a November 12th deadline to divest its U.S. TikTok operations.) TikTok sued the U.S. government over the executive orders on August 24th. Businesses like Wells Fargo have restricted use of the app on company devices, and Facebook-owned Instagram will reportedly pay creators to sign on with Reels, its rival short-form video service. (Update, August 27th: Mayer announced his abrupt resignation from the company on Wednesday night, citing the Trump dispute.)

In its lawsuit, TikTok revealed its U.S. user numbers, growing from 11.2 million in 2018 to over 100 million in 2020, ninefold growth. Globally, TikTok is up to 689 million users this year from 54 million in 2018.

While the future of TikTok’s U.S. ownership remains unclear, one thing remains true: The app has become indispensable to the music industry’s global hit machine. “The common denominator on all these records that have been breaking lately — from Benee to Trevor Daniel to Megan Thee Stallion to Doja Cat — is TikTok,” Anokute says.

The members of TikTok’s music team often downplay the company’s role as a new center of power in the hits business — even though many A&R reps at labels check the platform to kick-start their mornings. “Our place in the industry is creating that community and giving the tools over to the artists,” says Corey Sheridan, TikTok’s head of music partnerships and content operations.


Data: TikTok, Sensor Tower

All modesty aside, the music team actively promotes trending songs, scours the app for undiscovered talent to champion, and orchestrates collaborations among musicians and Tik-Tokers. “All these small, bite-size videos create this earworm effect,” Sheridan says. “If you keep hearing BMW Kenny’s ‘Wipe It Down,’ you’re going to start consuming that music.” (That particular TikTok hit flew up into the Spotify Viral 50, earning BMW Kenny a flurry of record-deal offers.)

Lately, labels have become hungrier than ever for TikTok’s help, particularly in a world where they can’t rely on tours to drive sales or streams. “We’re still full-throttle,” Gillick says. “The industry has had to pivot.”

Tarek Al-Hamdouni, senior vice president of digital marketing at RCA, says that shift has been reflected in major-label budgets. “So many dollars that would have been spent on moving an artist around for promo visits, for production costs around a TV performance, for an award-show performance — those are not expenses that we’re currently taking on,” he says.

The major labels’ interest in TikTok began spiking after it powered the rise of “Old Town Road.” “I spent a lot of time evangelizing about how TikTok works — sometimes to mixed reviews,” says Isabel Quinteros Annous, TikTok’s senior manager of music partnerships and artist relationships. “Over the past 12 months, that attitude has really shifted.”

Such was the case for Megan Thee Stallion’s hit “Savage.” Megan’s team originally reached out to TikTok to start a campaign around her single “Captain Hook,” Annous says. Though that song performed well, it was “Savage” that surged early on, thanks to a viral dance challenge in the beginning of March. TikTok helped it go further by promoting it on its Sounds page through a banner campaign and sending out a push notification. The song has now appeared in more than 31 million clips on the app; in March alone, according to data supplied by TikTok, it garnered in excess of 4 billion views. Beyoncé jumped onto the track in April, name-dropping TikTok in the first line of her verse, and the song hit Number One soon after.

But, while TikTok is inarguably a breeding ground for hit songs, it hasn’t yet proven the ability to turn its emerging music artists into household names. Other than Lil Nas X, few performers discovered through TikTok have managed to leverage their 15 minutes of fame into a certifiable career, so far, and some music execs have their doubts about the platform’s capacity to create lasting stars.

Take Chioke “Stretch” McCoy, who manages several acts who have had viral TikTok hits. The app’s music team has tipped him onto older, previously dormant songs by his artists that are doing well on TikTok, like Sage the Gemini’s 2013 track “Red Nose.” In his role as an executive at the indie label Blac Noize!, though, McCoy has been wary; he says the label has yet to sign any artists found on the platform.

When it comes to making hits on TikTok, a big marketing budget never hurts. Chris Sawtelle, an agent at ICM whose roster includes the popular and polarizing TikTok collective Sway House, says he can charge labels $20,000 to $50,000 to get song snippets in front of his clients. Digital marketers say that’s money well-spent on someone like TikTok’s most popular creator, Charli D’Amelio, who has more than 74 million followers. But another popular TikToker’s agent points out that the most famous musicians can often work out deals to promote their songs on TikTok without having to pay cash at all — instead using their own strong brand presence to boost the posting TikToker. And some of Sway House’s most popular creators have said they’d leave TikTok entirely to join rival app Triller, although none have left TikTok so far.

Ultimately, the platform’s appeal remains tied to the fact that fans drive the engagement. Regardless of how many clips feature a song, fans still need to enjoy the music enough to listen to it on another platform for a hit to have any real meaning.

“We don’t look at it as a place to start something,” McCoy says. If a song connects there, he adds, “that’s great. . . . It doesn’t necessarily mean it will track outside of [TikTok].”

One day in late June, Saweetie needed some help. The 27-year-old rapper, readying the release of her album Pretty Bitch Music on Warner Records, was pushing a new lead single, “Tap In.” She had the song, the major-label support, and a devoted following. But she didn’t understand TikTok. So TikTok’s music team helped Saweetie corral six influential Gen Z-age TikTokers over Zoom to teach her which filters to use in her videos, how to follow the latest video trends, and how she could boost “Tap In” among teens.

Talking to the young creators as if they were her own marketing team, Saweetie told them she wanted to design something around the “Tap, tap, tap in” in the song’s chorus. “I need ideas, and I need help,” she told the chat room. “I was a MySpacer. My layout was fly. Now I feel old because I’m on TikTok — what the fuck am I doing?”

Beauty blogger Lena Maiah, better known as Pullingravity, advised Saweetie to try the app’s bling filter — but not all the time, lest viewers think she’s too fake. “It’s way more chill than any other platform,” she said. “Just have fun with it.”

The TikTokers gamely worked with Saweetie to come up with content for their pages that would sync to the song’s chorus, ranging from snappy outfit changes to makeup tips. Victoria Garrick, a former Division I volleyball player at USC who’s amassed more than 345,000 TikTok followers for her wellness and body-positivity videos, suggested setting a volleyball to the tune. Saweetie, a former volleyball player herself, liked the idea enough to make a similar post on her own page.

A week after the call, Saweetie and the TikTokers put out their content — only to see the song rise as part of a new dance trend they had no part in. Boosted by videos from D’Amelio and fellow TikTok star Addison Rae, “Tap In” appeared in 1 million videos within about a month.

Creator meetups like Saweetie’s are increasingly common for TikTok’s music team, which has orchestrated similar meetings for artists like Swae Lee and Mariah Carey. This year, Sheridan says, he’d like to get Drake and Beyoncé making original videos on TikTok. Yet he acknowledges that there’s still a ways to go, with many current stars only signing on to the app when they want to push new music.

Catalog music is another promising frontier on TikTok. While the app has built a reputation around knowing what’s next, it’s also a valuable platform for older music — especially since a wider swath of users have joined the app in Covid-19 quarantine. Before this year, Simple Plan’s “I’m Just a Kid” was a minor hit known from films like The New Guy and Cheaper by the Dozen. Then, in April, a viral challenge slingshotted the Canadian pop-punk band to a platinum certification 18 years after the song’s release. TikTok has also helped give L’Trimm’s 1988 Miami bass classic “Cars With the Boom” a new audience this year, leading Warner Music Group to release a new compilation album centered on the song.

The next wave of TikTok success stories may look more like that of Jason Derulo, an established star who has reinvented his career on the app in 2020. Before the global shutdown began, Annous went to Derulo’s L.A. home and spent two hours walking him through the app and how to best use it. Now, with more than 30 million followers, his TikToks are as ubiquitous as his music. Annous calls Derulo “the king of TikTok.”

Derulo’s videos are goofy, fun, and extremely TikTok. On one occasion, he showed the world the outline of his genitals while participating in the popular “Wipe It Down” challenge in a tightfitting Spider-Man suit. “Believe me, I had no fucking clue,” Derulo says, laughing. “I was wearing the same $50 [costume] as everybody else.”

Since embracing the platform, Derulo has turned TikTok into a full-time job. It’s been reported that he pulls in $75,000 per clip by partnering with sponsors like Walmart; he says the real number is much higher. “I don’t think people realize how big it is,” he says. “My page gets tens of millions of views. . . . What other platform is going to give you those kinds of numbers?”

He’s also begun turning TikTok beats into genuine hits. There is perhaps no song that sums up the TikTok effect on pop better than Jawsh 685 and Derulo’s “Savage Love,” based on an instrumental that was already soaring up the platform in dance videos before Derulo added his vocals. Though the use of Jawsh’s music was initially uncleared, “Savage Love” ended up giving both artists a Number 11 hit on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Songs chart.

Derulo has since co-opted another popular TikTok song, Puri, Jhorrmountain, and Adje’s “Coño,” and in July, he released a song called “Take You Dancing” along with a new TikTok dance video, practically begging for the song to go viral on the app.

“It started off as me just doing this fun TikTok thing, not me making money off of it,” Derulo says. “It took on a life of its own.”