Early in 2019, a manager for an aspiring rapper named Flo Milli tracked down the TikTok user @nicemichael and offered him $200 to bring more attention to a dance for “Beef Flomix.” The resulting video clip amassed more than 100,000 likes, helping jumpstart “Beef Flomix;” after the song became popular on the app, Flo Milli signed to RCA.
The days of such straightforward campaigns on TikTok — which has provided rocket-fuel for breakout singles ranging from Sub Urban’s “Cradles” to Doja Cat’s “Say So” to Tokyo’s Revenge’s “GOODMORNINGTOKYO!” to StaySolidRocky’s “Party Girl” — are mostly gone. Using the app as a promotional tool for music has become increasingly intricate — and increasingly expensive. It’s a natural consequence of TikTok’s success, but still amounts to a fundamental change for an initially anarchic app.
Part of TikTok’s charm is that “it gives little artists a chance,” explains Eric Parker, who manages Tiagz (two million followers on the app). “People who don’t have the budget of a major label have a chance to market themselves.” And for the app to continue to hold the music industry — and much of the world — in its sway, it has to remain an engine of overnight fame, a platform capable of turning unknown teens into celebrities with half a million followers by week’s end. That’s what causes new users to sign up and keep making videos.
Which they are still doing in droves: In the first three months of 2020, TikTok was downloaded more than 300 million times — “the most downloads for any app ever in a quarter,” according to the analytics firm Sensor Tower. The age profile of TikTok users has also broadened during quarantine: The share of 25 to 34-year-olds on the app in the U.S. rose from 22.4% to 27.4% between January and April, according to AdWeek. The 35 to 44 demographic’s share grew from 13.9% to 17.1% over the same time period.
But it’s not just older people who are jumping on TikTok — it’s famous people, big names like Justin Bieber, Bella Hadid, and Alex Rodriguez. In the platform’s early days, these sort of cover stars were harder to find; now it’s possible for someone to use TikTok only as another way to monitor celebrity activity. These mega-celebrities can’t help but suck up a lot of the platform’s oxygen, making it harder for the “little artist” to find an audience.
And major labels are also flooding the platform with money, hoping to harness its power for their own purposes. This is not only because TikTok has so many users — labels lost many of their other promotional avenues during the pandemic. “You can’t put this act on the road, shoot a normal video, even do a radio run,” says Yaasiel “Success” Davis, vp of A&R for Atlantic Records. “There are not a lot of syncs and licenses [in TV or movies] happening at this moment [because productions have mostly halted].”
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This means labels now have a large pool of money to play with and limited places to put it. “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,” explains Tarek Al-Hamdouni, svp of digital marketing at RCA. “We’re definitely starting to move a lot of funds into the digital space.”
TikTok was perfectly poised to accept that cash. “It is a part of every marketing meeting now,” says one manager.
Novices looking to spend money on the app are often drawn to its big names — the easy-to-find TikTokers with massive follower counts. In the minds of those marketers, winning on TikTok is a simple equation: More followers equals more views equals more attention for whatever song they’re paying to promote.
As a result, the app’s top influencers have gained additional leverage. “A lot of these influencers can make so much money because a lot of labels just pay,” says Antonio Chavez, who has helmed successful TikTok campaigns for bbno$ and Y2K, Shotgun Willy, and Breland.
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Charlie D’Amelio, who has more than 60 million followers on the app, might do a post for $25,000 but can charge as high as $30,000 to $40,000, according to three independent digital marketers who declined to be identified since they sometimes work with top TikTok influencers.
D’Amelio is currently the most expensive of the expensive bunch. The same three marketers say that a post from Addison Rae (44 million followers) will set most labels back $20,000. JustMaiko (25 million), who is responsible for a couple of the most-liked clips in TikTok’s young history, costs $10,000 to $15,000. Chase Hudson (21 million) ranges from $2,000 to $10,000 per post; the Lopez Brothers (17 million) from $2,500 to $5,000 per post; Cowboy Cale (2.6 million) from $2,500 to $3,500 per post.
There is wiggle room in these prices. Some marketers have been working with specific TikTokers since the app’s early days; a good relationship might lead to a discount, or at least to getting charged on the low end of the cost spectrum. And in an echo of the app’s less corporate past, prices might also fall if the TikToker really likes the song in question.
Even as labels fall over themselves to throw money at TikTok’s superstars, there’s some debate as to whether that’s the best use of marketing dollars. Even as those top influencers rack up new followers by the million, TikTok has become increasingly crowded and competitive, limiting the impact of any single user.
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“Especially during the pandemic, when everyone is home and locked down on the platform, it’s even more difficult to grab people’s attention, because there’s such a volume of content,” says Tim Collins, whose Creed Media company has executed TikTok campaigns for various major labels. “Putting thousands of dollars behind one post that you assume will make that dent — that might not generate anything.”
And some marketers believe that an overly aggressive promotional campaign with top influencers also has the potential to backfire if users sense they’re being preyed upon. “If every influencer is posting the song, some people don’t want to use it because they think it’s being pushed on to them,” Chavez says.
These natural checks have helped TikTok avoid reaching a saturation point. Songs are still able to seize the public imagination without massive marketing budgets behind them. A recent example is BMW Kenny, who initially spent just a few thousand dollars of his own money promoting “Wipe It Down.”
But the nature of TikTok has shifted. “It’s become extremely crowded,” says one digital marketer. “It’s hard to stand out. We’re all just trying different things, seeing what kind of explosions we can make to get people to notice.”