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TikTok Already Helps Artists Go Viral. Now It’s Helping Them Build Careers

Artists like Muni Long are using this new marketing and distribution platform to harness “the expertise and power of TikTok”

Muni Long distributed her viral song "Hrs and Hrs" to TikTok through SoundOn.

Muni Long’s “Hrs and Hrs” has become enjoyably ubiquitous in the last three months. Like so many hits, it attracted the interest of TikTok users first — the sticky R&B ballad has now been used in more than 1 million videos on the app. From there, it moved quickly to streaming services: “Hrs and Hrs” has been a constant presence in the Top Ten on Apple Music since Christmas. Now the single is reaching the commuters who still rely on the radio to pass the time while sitting in traffic: Long’s single rose to Number Four on Mediabase’s latest R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. 

It’s an impressive moment of vindication for Long, who enjoyed an illustrious career as an A-list-songwriter-for-hire before changing her name and breaking through as an independent artist. It’s also a win for TikTok’s fledgling marketing and distribution service SoundOn, which partnered with Long on “Hrs and Hrs” as well as another track, “Time Machine,” that has also enjoyed TikTok success. SoundOn officially launches Wednesday after being quietly tested in four territories: Indonesia, Brazil, the U.S., and the U.K. 

“We’re making it easier for [independent artists] to get their music on TikTok, and we’re going to work with them to better understand how to reach their audiences on TikTok,” Ole Obermann, the Global Head of Music at TikTok, told Music Business Worldwide. And “we are not charging [artists] to use it.”

In the old days, distribution partners were essential for getting records or CDs into stores. In a digital world, distributors serve a different function, usually uploading artists’ music to streaming services and helping manage back-end accounting for a flat rate or small percentage fee. At some distribution companies, artists that perform particularly well may be able to access marketing resources, playlist pitching, or other label-like services in exchange for a higher distribution fee. 

In other words, a distribution company can almost start to function as a label, with one key difference: In a distribution deal, artists don’t cede control of their masters. It’s not surprising, then, at a time when maintaining artistic ownership is seen as increasingly desirable, that TikTok’s launch comes as part of a wave of new distribution options in the music industry. In fact, it’s starting to feel like everyone — whether it’s a streamer like SoundCloud or a massive major label — now offers artists a wider range of options, including a distribution relationship. 

But TikTok’s foray into distribution is particularly notable because the platform has played a key role in catapulting so many hits in the last few years. The artists behind those tracks used to have to leave TikTok to find distribution options. Now they can do everything in one place, using the app not only to grow an audience but also to service music to all the other streaming platforms. 

And TikTok is offering highly favorable terms, at least for the first year: Artists initially keep 100% of their royalties when they use the company as a distributor. That number falls to 90% — comparable to Stem, another well-known distribution option — if they continue to work with TikTok after that period, though acts are not required to do so. 

Like many of its competitors, TikTok also promises to offer speedy and transparent royalty accounting through SoundOn; unlike its competitors, it says it will provide nearly-up-to-the-minute analytics to show distribution clients how their music is performing on the app and help them improve their reach via “a range of promotional tools” and “expert advice from a dedicated SoundOn artist team.” And SoundOn is very flexible, happy to be part of a menu of options available to an artist: Muni Long distributed her songs to TikTok through SoundOn to get better analytics and assistance on the app, but used another service to push her music out to traditional streaming services. 

Managers whose artists have tested SoundOn say it appears particularly appealing for those who aren’t looking to sign with a major label, providing an opportunity to forge a potentially fruitful relationship with the most important platform in music right now — and do so without giving anything up (at least for that first year). The same managers were particularly excited to speculate about whether SoundOn might eventually start offering advance payments to coveted acts, meaning it would begin to rival better known distribution companies like Sony’s Orchard. And on top of that, managers said that if TikTok was distributing more of the hits that went viral on its platform, that would give the company additional flexibility to sync that music without having to deal with major-label red tape. 

While Muni Long is the highest-flying SoundOn partner to date, she’s not the only success story. The English singer Chloe Adams partnered with the service to release “Dirty Thoughts,” a single that stays single-mindedly carnal even as it plays with tempo changes; it has amassed close to 10 million streams on Spotify.

The most recent potential breakthrough came from the Indonesian singer Fabio Asher, who connected with SoundOn to release his debut single, a quavery power ballad titled “Bertahan Terluka.” It debuted at Number 163 on Spotify Top 200 in Indonesia on February 25. By Tuesday, “Bertahan Terluka” had climbed to Number Four, and was earning more than 300,000 streams a day. 

Jumps like that will certainly intrigue other independent acts looking to jumpstart their career with help from TikTok’s promotional muscle. “We’ve heard from many artists that when they upload music to TikTok, they feel like they’re walking into a venue but they can’t find their way to the stage… because the platform’s just so vast,” Obermann said. “SoundOn is like a well-lit entryway to that stage.”

From Rolling Stone US