The part of TikTok that serves as a launching pad for hit singles often seems like an endless stream of dance challenges — kinetic sequences of moves, heavy on martial arm movements, that can be packed into a 15-second clip shot on a stationary phone camera. Users like the dances — the Renegade, the “Say So” routine, the Number One Baby dance — while artists and labels like the streams that the dances earn their singles. Megan Thee Stallion benefitted from the Savage challenge; Ciara from the Get Up challenge; Blanco Brown from the Git Up challenge.
So it was surprising when, at the end of April, a top TikTok marketer declared the death of the dance challenge. “You heard it here first: There will be no more major dance trends to break on Tiktok,” wrote Max Bernstein, who runs the music marketing agency Muuser, which has been focused on TikTok since it was Musical.ly. “You are either in already or the gates are shut. It was a good run!”
“Remember when it felt like everyone but you was getting rich off $20,000 Bitcoin?” Bernstein says in an interview. “It was a good idea, but the easy money always dries up quick. That’s where we’re at right now with TikTok dance trends.”
Bernstein may be looking more aggressively to the future than many of his peers. But it’s noticeable that a growing group of songs are benefitting from dance-free TikTok trends — often unabashedly sentimental clips that aim to elicit an “awwww,” or maybe even a lonely tear. This group of tracks includes Natalie Taylor’s “Surrender” (1.8 million videos, 65 million Spotify streams), Surf Mesa’s “ILY (I Love You Baby)” (950,000, 137 million), Anson Seabra’s “Welcome to Wonderland” (517,000, 29 million), and Alexander 23’s “IDK You Yet” (125,000, 25 million).
“The emotional side of TikTok is now showing that it has the potential to be as powerful as the dance side of TikTok,” says one major-label A&R. “It’s the darkest, and it can be the most cringe-inducing. But now there’s more music attached to it than there was before.”
TikTok became available in the U.S. in 2018. The app “first started out as a dance-challenge dominated platform,” says one digital marketer who has worked on numerous TikTok campaigns but spoke on the condition of anonymity. The music industry engaged with the app accordingly, throwing money at popular TikTok users with a knack for infectious dances.
Many labels are still doing that. But the app’s user-base has ballooned — TikTok has now been downloaded more than two billion times. As a result of a wider — and, thanks to quarantine, older — pool of users, “the platform has matured quite a lot,” says Tim Collins, whose Creed Media company has executed TikTok campaigns for hits like Trevor Daniels’ “Falling” and Ashnikko’s “Stupid,” among others.
“There are a lot of new users that don’t want to see dance videos,” Collins continues. “There’s a natural development of the platform where it’s broadened out.”
That means it’s increasingly possible for labels to push their artists on TikTok without going near a dance challenge, accelerating other trends that already in progress on the app. Take Surf Mesa’s “Ily (I Love You Baby),” one of the year’s biggest electronic hits. When the producer’s label, Astralwerks, wanted to promote the downtempo dance single on TikTok, “we noticed videos with pets and daydreaming were the themes taking off [on the app at the time],” says Catherine Corkery, Astralwerks’ senior manager of marketing. “So we enlisted six influencers to make videos with those themes over a three-week period. It generated 81,000 TikTok videos and over 65 million views.”
There’s a strain of particularly heart-wrenching TikTok videos — try this popular clip, set to “Surrender,” where a man cuddles with his deaf and blind puppy — that may have the potential to even eclipse the commercial impact of dance trends. “There’s not a single person I know that hasn’t gone through something emotional,” the digital marketer explains. “But there are tons of people I know that can’t do a TikTok dance to save their lives. Emo TikTok is a real thing.”
The more emotional videos tend to support a different kind of song. Dancers like disco revival (Doja Cat’s “Say So” or Benee’s “Supalonely”), where the four-on-the-floor beat provides a guide rail for amateurs, instructional singles (“Git Up,” Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” BMW Kenny’s “Wipe It Down), where the artist tells the dancer exactly what to do, or rumbly, downtempo rap records (K Camp’s “Lottery,” Roddy Ricch’s “The Box”), which move slowly enough that there’s plenty of time to clap and windmill and pose.
Tearjerker TikTok, in contrast, makes room for weepy acoustic ballads like “IDK You Yet.” The track has been used in popular videos with wildly different plots — in one, a woman acts out an imaginary scenario in which she finds out her husband has been unfaithful; in another, a user waits 10,000 days for her “soulmate” to find her.
These clips are both from what’s known as the POV (point of view) side of TikTok, in which users act out elaborate, sometimes distressing plots for the viewer. “People make super sad shit, like POVs where you’re the daughter of a person that got killed in an accident,” says Adi Azran, head of marketing for Flighthouse Media, which has nearly 25 million followers on TikTok and runs campaigns for all the major labels. “People like to act on TikTok.”
POV TikTok also boosted Anson Seabra’s “Welcome to Wonderland,” another somber number carried by melancholy piano. When Collins was brought in to promote the track, an unusual strain of videos was already spreading of its own accord. “The storytelling was that someone had passed away, and they’re coming into heaven and meeting someone at the pearly gates,” Collins explains. “The person there is trying to comfort them.”
The scenario was morbid but versatile — users could concoct an endless number of storylines about why the viewer was on his or her way to heaven. Collins’ company enlisted influencers to bring additional attention to these tales of the afterlife. Eventually more than half a million TikTok users made videos to Seabra’s track.
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“So many new fans were discovering Anson [on TikTok] that they went and found the rest of his catalog and started streaming and purchasing that,” says Seabra’s manager, Alex Bender. “Three days later, every single song in his catalog was in the Top 20 on the singer/songwriter charts on iTunes.”
Dance trends may still have most of the labels’ attention. “There’s still a lot of money being spent on trying to start dances,” Collins notes.
But that could change. “We’re all going to be surprised by the types of records that break off TikTok in the second half of this year,” Bernstein says.