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Artists from Drake to SALES Find Success with TikTok Dance Crazes

on June 24, 2020, 2:00pm

Drake’s “Toosie Slide” is as simple as it gets: “Right foot up, left foot slide. Left foot up, right foot slide.” There are no bells and whistles to this “dance,” and maybe that’s the point. At first, the song was just a hook and verse until the popular TikTok user Toosie got a call from the Canadian artist. According to an interview with GQ, Toosie, a 23-year-old Atlanta rapper, received a message from Drake asking for assistance to create a dance that paired well with his new record. In just a matter of 45 minutes, the “Toosie Slide” had become an easily mimicked dance. Two months after its release, the song has been used over 2.5 million times on the TikTok app.

Drake is no stranger to widespread viral trends. The 2018 #InMyFeelingsChallenge invited multi-platform users to jump out of their car and dance along to the rapper’s newest single. More recently, “Nonstop” spurred a memeable routine where users would “flip a switch” and swap outfits. The TikTok-born challenge even found its way to the SNL stage with Kate McKinnon and Elizabeth Warren’s cheeky rendition. Although these two challenges happened after the release of each record, TikTok has shown its potential to influence and even control the Billboard charts. Songs like “Old Town Road”, “Truth Hurts”, and Doja Cat’s “Say So” have amassed millions of streams after predominantly teenage users from the app crafted a mockable dance pattern or challenge. Now, major artists have realized the power the app has to determine the charts. So, does this mean artists will begin to sacrifice lyrical integrity to pander to TikTok’s simplistic and repetitive format? It seems that in order to accrue as much profit and scope as possible, creating a catchy, possibly even meaningless record is the way to go.

For those who aren’t fully familiar with the app, TikTok is basically just a short-form video platform (like its predecessors Vine and Musical.ly) where anyone and everyone can easily post and share content. Unlike Vine, TikTok thrives on the repeated use of 15-60-second-long audio clips, usually featuring the hook or chorus of a high-energy hip-hop song. For example, over a fourth of the records on the Rolling Stone 100 charts, such as Roddy Ricch’s “The Box”, Doja Cat’s “Say So”, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”, found popularity by way of dance challenges on TikTok.

Despite the popularity these dance routines have seen on the app, the concept isn’t new. For decades, top songs have been accompanied by a simple routine. Beginning in the late 1950s, dance fads were fashioned in a similar manner to Drake’s “Toosie Slide”. Used as a tool for promotion, record companies capitalized on the styles and moves of African-American discothèque goers in cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia. From the free-form, almost instructional tunes of “The Twist”, “The Jitterbug”, and “The Bunny Hop”, groups of listeners could easily mimic the movements for each tune. From disco tracks like “The Hustle” to the 1980’s “Walk Like an Egyptian” to the ‘90’s “Macarena” and even the more contemporary “Gangnam Style” of 2010, the trend of creating dance tracks for profit has carried on for decades. But, over the last 10 years, the trend seemed to become stagnant. Although efforts accompanied “The Wobble” and “Watch Me (Whip / Nae Nae)”, these songs were used more as a boastful party trick than for radio listening. Now, TikTok has co-opted the trend but with fewer guidelines. Any song can become a dance routine, and more importantly, the dance routines are not generated in a studio of producers. They’re made in the bedrooms of teenagers with the constant need to create and consume media.

The mass catalog of available music within the app has created a platform where smaller bands can also expand their reach without any effort from the musicians themselves. One example of this success is the indie-pop Orlando band SALES.

In 2014, Lauren Morgan and Jordan Shih of SALES released their record “Chinese New Year”. The song took over a year to make. At first, they wrote in two halves because they couldn’t figure out how to match the beginning. Once they were done, Morgan and Shih were convinced the song was going to be a hit. But, when they released it, nobody seemed to care. Now, almost six years later, “Chinese New Year” has over 76 million plays on Spotify alone. This is three times as many plays as their second-most-streamed song. Lauren called it “the slowest burn in history.”

“TikTok was so cool because it just started because one person uploaded our song in that section and started the whole thing,” Morgan said. “It wasn’t even seen as ‘Chinese New Year’, so people are typing into Google ‘I see you at the movies.’”

Unaware of the trend, Morgan and Shih were on the road to Coachella when a fan brought up the dance. At first, SALES ignored it because they didn’t really understand what it meant. It wasn’t until TikTok actually reached out to SALES because they were putting the song info and the artist info on the tracks page that the band began to see the influence of the app.

“I had seen the dance, and I didn’t get it,” Morgan said. “The basic dance started out, you run out somewhere, and then you start doing the dance. So it was very like … okay, like, what’s the punchline? They’re all the same. Now, it’s grown into like offshoot memes, like there’s a remix of our song. Lizzo did the thing to the remix, twice. And the remix has a totally different dance, which I think is really a better dance.”

The “Chinese New Year” dance(s) are even easier than “Toosie Slide”, but instead of being created by the artist himself, the song went viral after a small account posted the original rendition. With some of the most elementary moves, both the original and the remix’s audio are included in approximately seven million videos.

“It’s definitely a dance for people that don’t dance,” Shih said. “And I think that’s what caught on so much. Just like anybody could do the dance. You don’t want to feel like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a difficult one,’ you know? It’s intimidating.”

It seems there are a lot of “indie” bands that are uncomfortable, embarrassed, or even angry that their songs have blown up on the app. However, SALES happily welcomed their newfound success. This might be because throughout their career they have used alternative streaming services for exposure.

“I think when I started making music, I was nervous about my fan base getting younger and not connecting with people my age,” Morgan said. “But now I think it’s really awesome. And Jordan and I have always like, we live and die by the internet. SALES wouldn’t exist without music blogs or Soundcloud or Spotify and now TikTok. It’s incredible how our project has been picked up by every niche of the internet.”

Unlike Spotify or Apple Music or even Bandcamp, putting music on TikTok is virtually free (for now). So, there seems to be no real consequence to promoting music through the app. Much like many pay-what-you-want websites, TikTok, surprisingly, seems to be an open playing field.

“That’s the thing about the platforms, like you got to kind of hop on each of them and catch the wave as they come, you know?” Shih said. “We were lucky enough to not have actually like, put our content on TikTok ourselves, and other people kind of disseminated it. But, it’s great. I think every time a new platform comes out that lets people put out content, it’s not gated. There’s no gatekeeping — I think that’s really good.”

As of right now, one TikTok loop does not officially register on the Billboard charts as a stream. But, as musical analyst Cherie Hu said, TikTok right now is currently in talks with labels, publishers, and performing rights artist organizations for licensing deals. No doubt, this would be a necessary step on the back end to start registering these songs as streams. However, if you click through a specific audio within the app that is registered by the official artist, the app allows you to go to Apple Music to play the full song.

It is a well known fact that a stream on Spotify, Apple Music, or virtually any platform is worth next to no cash. Earning less than a penny per stream, the landscape of these services can be hard for smaller bands to navigate and actually monetize. There have been some movements to allow artists to capitalize on their own music. For example, last year Congress passed the Music Modernization Act to adapt to newer technological developments. But, because of TikTok’s seemingly lawless copyright regulations, the music industry is unsure how to properly profit upon and manage the app.

“That raises the question of, once a tech platform has access to so much talent, to what extent do they become the arbiter? Did they become the record label?” posits Hu. “I think this was a very mild possibility for Spotify. They tried to strike some direct deals with artists and essentially cut out, bypass the label or distributor system. But at least in the US, there’s a lot of pushback against that.”

In China, there seems to already be an effort to give creators more of a platform than just the capacity of the app itself. About a year ago, TikTok launched their own program See Music, a partnership with global labels such as Taihe Music, Sony, Universal, etc., and streaming services such as Xiami and NetEase Music to scout TikTok creators to partake in a compilation album.

The mechanics of the app consist of a “contest” of sorts, where users upload 15-second videos as an audition. Ten songs created by nine musicians and bands were published as the album Heard, Seen and released at a 2019 January launch conference for See Music.

But, unlike China, “fame” on the US version of the app can only go so far. Without a TikTok-adjacent company like See Music, musicians have to score a record deal after their virality from outside labels.

“Lil Nas X is a great example because I don’t think he would have gotten to his historic position today were it not for his major label deal,” Hu said. “I think because he signed to Columbia, which probably poured so much money behind him, not just to promote his album or his EP, but also to get seemingly endless remixes from Billy Ray Cyrus and from so many other celebrities as well, which takes money to sustain. And so, yeah, it’s an interesting situation now where the concept of going viral actually means less because it could mean so many different things. And actually what it means is more like keeping people plugged in over a longer period of time.”

So, in order for a record deal to happen, you need a popular TikTok song. Hu sees this dilemma changing music in a variety of ways. In a similar way to how standard 12-inch vinyl could only spin 20 to 25 minutes, Spotify’s algorithm when crafting playlists looks to keep listeners engaged by choosing songs that hold their attention, which often means songs with an earlier hook or ones that are just generally shorter.

Hu believes a similar thing is happening now with TikTok. Artists will try to make a song with specific sound bytes that are easily transferable to success on the app. But, while focusing only on an interesting hook, artists are neglecting the rest of the song.

“One reaction that I hear from a lot of people at least is that they’ll hear a clip of a song or hook from a song on TikTok from one of these viral clips and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that sounds super interesting. I want to click through and listen to the whole thing.’ And then they end up not being that interested by the rest of the song. It was only that one specific hook that really drew them in that was super high-energy or really catchy. So, that’s a potential danger that I think is actually quite realistic in terms of people only crafting for these specific 10-, 15-, or 20-second ear worms without thinking about the structure of an entire song from start to finish.”

But there is another piece of the puzzle. Hu also believes that bigger artists and labels will collaborate with creators to market their content, such as creating a dance to their song (e.g., Drake and “Toosie Slide”).

“People are incorporating TikTok much more deeply into their rollout strategies. A lot of the time, these agencies have direct access to influencers on TikTok and might pay them to post the video with a certain hashtag or with a certain dance around the song in the same way that already happens on Instagram and similar platforms. It’s becoming a more official part of campaigns, which is interesting given that going viral seems difficult to control most of the time. But, yeah, a lot of people in the industry are building it into their strategy anyway.”

Despite the positives of the app, such as mass success for musicians like SALES, Lil Nas X, and Doja Cat, Tik Tok has been in some hot water recently. After being accused of illegally collecting personal information from minors, the app paid $5.7 million in settlements and was even banned in India as it was deemed “unsafe” for children. Generally, the app also has been ridiculed for its inaction when it comes to hate speech and inappropriate content.

More recently, the app has been under fire for its “collaborative filtering,” a term they use to describe the way it recommends more accounts to follow after following someone new. This can limit the reach of creators of color by not recommending their accounts if someone only follows White creators. Some users have even noticed the “community guidelines” being used to take down content that points out racist behavior against people of color while actual racist content is allowed to remain up. In order to remain an open platform to all, TikTok will need to address its noticed racial bias and take the necessary steps to ensure all creators are treated equally.

The evolution of TikTok is complicated, to say the least. Just three years ago, it was minimally used and written off as adolescent and inconsequential. But, as we see big artists like Drake using the app to draw attention songs, it’s a testament to how relevant and impactful the app has become within the music industry. Much like the early origins of Spotify and Apple Music, TikTok isn’t completely understood yet, but there is no denying its remarkable reach.

“I remember talking to people years ago, and they’re asking, ‘Oh, how do you think SoundCloud or Spotify has helped your music, or Bandcamp?’” Shih said. “I feel like that’s just going to be a conversation that keeps happening like every couple years. I’m excited about it. It’s cool to see.”