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Surprising No One, TikTok Is Driving a Lot of New-Artist Growth

Analytics company Chartmetric examined breakout artists from the second half of 2019

Burna Boy (left) and Arizona Zervas illustrate two different paths to success in the music industry.

Joseph Okpako/WireImage/Getty Images, Lydia Kenney

In 2008, Jay Sean released “Ride It,” a dance-floor come-on that became a hit everywhere — except for the U.S. Now, it’s enjoying a second life. A house-music remix by Regard became popular on the video app TikTok, which allows users to set short clips to music. After the “Ride It” remix soundtracked millions of TikTok videos, Epic Records picked up the rights to the single in the U.S. and started promoting it to radio. Regard’s version earned more than 4,200 spins on the pop airwaves in February, according to Mediabase, good enough to crack the Top 40. “When a hit’s a hit, you can’t hold it down,” Sean told Rolling Stone.

TikTok helped ensure that “Ride It” resurfaced after more than a decade, and the app’s influence is glaringly apparent in the latest semiannual report from the music data analytics company Chartmetric, which tracks artist performance across a wide range of platforms, from well-known streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music to Wikipedia to Instagram.

Chartmetric, which was founded in 2016, released its first global music industry report last September. At the time, the company focused on artists enjoying the most growth between January and June, 2019 — a club that included household names like Taylor Swift and Lizzo — and dissected the genre preferences of listeners on different streaming platforms. 

The follow-up, which comes out on Tuesday, aims to track the development of rising acts: rappers and singers and producers who are quickly building followings but not yet headlining arenas. And “so many of those artists got big on TikTok first, whether it’s Tones and I [with “Dance Monkey”] or Regard [with “Ride It”],” says Rutger Rosenborg, Chartmetric’s digital-strategy lead.  

This is no surprise to anyone who’s been watching the music industry closely in the past year. A steady stream of singles have become popular on TikTok — early examples include Sub Urban’s “Cradles” and Flo Milli’s “Beef FloMix”; more recently, users have been excited by Mak Sauce’s “Good Morning” and Tokyo’s Revenge’s “GoodMorningTokyo!” — leading to fierce bidding wars from major labels. “If you have a viral TikTok song, you can get a multimillion-dollar deal,” Daniel Awad, whose Good Luck Have Fun management company works with the rap-rocker Oliver Tree and the electronic producer Whethan, said last year

Once major labels sign an artist with a TikTok hit, they attempt to transfer the momentum from the anarchic, rapid-fire, amateur world of the app to the highly controlled, slow-rolling, big-budget world of Top 40 radio — to transmute hypermodern online popularity into old-fashioned cultural ubiquity.

Artists at various stages of this process pepper Chartmetric’s latest report. Thanks to the runaway success of “Roxanne,” Arizona Zervas enjoyed a 2,472 percent increase in Spotify monthly listeners (first among artists who had more than a million monthly listeners in June 2019). Doja Cat’s “Say So” is in the middle of its app-to-airwaves transformation — she is Top Ten at two radio formats this week — and her Spotify listeners have increased by more than 500 percent (sixth). Trevor Daniel’s “Falling” was originally released in October 2018, but it only took off on TikTok last year; the bump he’s experienced has been big enough that Daniel is third on Chartmetric’s ranking of “cross-platform performance gain.” Ashnikko had a TikTok hit with “Stupid”; no rising act gained more YouTube channel views in the second half of 2019.

But even though TikTok acts as a volcano constantly erupting with hit singles, it’s not purely a machine for creating new stars. Chartmetric is one of the first companies to chart TikTok activity, and when the company ranked songs that saw the biggest percentage gain in video count on the app over the last six months of 2019, it found that old songs are as likely to catch on as new releases. Throwbacks like Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” and War’s “Low Rider” were both in the Top Ten, as were Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight” (from 2011) and Chief Keef’s “Faneto” (2015). 

“The interesting thing with TikTok is [that] it’s not always front-line stuff [that performs well on the app],” says Jason Joven, manager of content and insights for Chartmetric. “Catalog is pretty much toe-to-toe with new music when it comes to what people attach to.” That means it’s not easy for labels and artists to know what will work on TikTok — and when. 

So it’s encouraging that while the app offers one potential route to a massive hit — and the follower-increases that accompany it — that’s not the only path for artists to grow. It’s impressive that the Nigerian star Burna Boy has earned a 681 percent increase in Spotify monthly listeners (third among up-and-comers) and a 67 percent gain in Twitter followers (first) over the second half of 2019, all without one major song storming up the U.S. charts. 

This reflects a different approach to building a career than betting big on one hot single. Burna Boy has been crisscrossing the globe, steadily winning over fans with dynamite live shows, and finding new listeners through savvy international collaborations. “One thing that’s constant [in my career] is growth,” Burna Boy told Rolling Stone in 2019. “It’s not an up-and-down thing. I climbed every step. I don’t skip steps — I’m too heavy to skip steps.” 

Burna Boy is part of a large international contingent among the rising artists collected in Chartmetric’s report. Some platforms clearly favor artists from North America over all else — only two of the Top Ten rising artists on Spotify are from outside North America, and all the Top Ten tracks that saw big video-count gains on TikTok are from the U.S. But YouTube and Instagram are more open-minded, and that’s where the English group D-Block Europe and the Argentinean producer Bizarrap are making the most impact. 

Chartmetric’s Breakthrough Artists report provides only a six-month snapshot. Readers will surely be curious if some growth paths are more sustainable than others — is this the start of a long career for Regard, who is now enjoying more than 1.5 million streams a day on Spotify alone, or will the producer endure primarily as a one-hit wonder? That’s a subject for a future report.