Is TikTok changing your taste in music? Inside the rise of #MusicAd influencers
It’s 2021. The world is gradually emerging from lockdown, blinking in the balmy sunshine as normal life – its pubs, parks, pubs in the park – begin to bubble with life again. One song is inescapable: an intimate electronic track from a little indie outfit from Oxford. “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals is the indisputable soundtrack of the summer, having come seemingly out of nowhere. Or did it?
When a song goes viral on TikTok, it feels organic. The spread of a danceable pop track, memeable sound bite, or classic Eighties love ballad seemingly happens overnight and at random selection. Suddenly, 14-year-olds are choreographing dances and vloggers are outfit-of-the-daying to it. And just like that, a trending track is born. But even a trend can be manufactured for the right price. Increasingly, TikTok influencers are being paid by PR agencies and music labels to post videos using a particular song in the hopes of making it go viral. That’s right; your listening habits could very well be dictated by content creators without you even noticing. Unless, that is, you’ve spotted the tiny, innocuous-seeming #MusicAd hashtag recently buried in the captions of Love Island stars Jack Fincham and Andrew Le Page. The hashtag may be new, but the marketing strategy is old, used for years by up-and-comers and big-hitters alike. It’s only now that the world, and its laws, are scrambling to catch up.
“No one knows how these deals work. It’s absolute chaos,” says Jesse Cannon, music producer and author of the 2012 non-fiction book Get More Fans: The DIY Guide to the New Music Business. “It’s the Wild West.” Cannon has 57,600 subscribers on YouTube, a large chunk of those are artists eager to learn the blueprint for going viral. Essentially, how it works, Cannon explains over the phone, is that a music label or PR agency will contact an influencer, their management, or the influencer marketing agency they work with and request them to post a video featuring the song they are promoting. The booming practice is mostly associated with TikTok, but it has also been a strategy on Vine, Musical.ly, and Instagram – where “top tier” users got involved.
“A lot of the smaller influencers are happy with $100 to $200 (£80 to £160),” Cannon says. “And that deal is usually whatever you specify. You want to write the caption; you want to choose the part of the song that they use? Most of them are pretty game for it.” At the top end of the spectrum, though, are the big names. With them come big figures; payments can be upwards of $10,000. “I was hearing of five-digit deals for one song,” says Cannon, who worked at Atlantic Records until the pandemic in 2020. He recalls speaking with colleagues at the label about “wiring a 16-year-old five digits” to use a certain song in their videos. “That… feels very weird to do.”
Back to “Heat Waves” – that Glass Animals song became TikTok’s first unignorable big music hit in 2021. The hazy, wistful bass tones blasted from roof terrace sound systems – and tinny mobile phone speakers – all summer long. Everyone from US TikTok star Dixie D’Amelio to Chelsea FC midfielder Mason Mount shared videos featuring the song. It was a huge success, no doubt thanks – in part, at least – to a marketing campaign led by VRCTL. Since it was established in 2019, the Las Vegas-based masters of music influencing have worked across the spectrum, from smaller artists to bigger names – so big, in fact, you wouldn’t expect them to need external help in the marketing department. Adele, Lil Nas X, Justin Bieber and Swedish House Mafia have all enlisted help from co-founders Griffin Haddrill and Sean Young. The duo – who call themselves “trend architects” – joined the “Heat Waves” team shortly after the song was released in 2020. Within months, the song was everywhere.
After that first injection of money, the campaign unfolded more naturally. Fomo (fear of missing out) took hold and soon, even influencers whom VRTCL hadn’t paid were posting videos soundtracked to “Heat Waves”. No payment necessary. “We knew it was going to light fire,” Haddril told The New Music Business podcast in 2022. “Heat Waves” was a case-study, proving that success on TikTok could translate in the real world, too. Now, there are 1.5 million posts spotlighting the song on TikTok; it also became the fourth most streamed song in America a year after its release. In 2022, Glass Animals became the first British band to top Spotify’s global chart with the song, which by then had 4.26 million plays per day. On top of that, “Heat Waves” broke the record for the longest run on Billboard Hot 100. Still, Haddrill is keen to downplay VRTCL’s involvement. “It’s such an easy song to love,” he claimed. “The artists made a hit and we were happy to be a small part of their journey.”
In March, the winner of the Brit Awards rising star award, Lola Young went viral on TikTok with her song “Don’t Hate Me”. A soundbite from the track – “You said I’m really f***ing boring/ Well, that’s rich coming from you” – currently has 1.6 million likes, 203,000 saves, and has been used in 212,000 videos from people, including social media royalty Bella Hadid and Kylie Jenner. Notably, though, before the song really took off, it was used in a video by Love Island winner Millie Court. In February, as “Don’t Hate Me” was released, the reality TV star used the shade-filled song to soundtrack a video of herself arguing that Sagittarius was the most interesting star sign. In the tiny, blink-and-you-miss-it small font of the video’s caption, Court wrote one hashtag: #MusicAd. It’s a disclaimer that is being seen more and more frequently as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and TikTok, itself, become stricter on users labelling sponsored content.
When British couple Caitlin Bridget and Leah Joseph – known collectively on social media as “Caitlin and Leah” – announced their pregnancy to their 9 million followers, they did so to the chintzy nostalgia of Stephen Sanchez’s Fifties-indebted track “Until I Found You” with #MusicAd in the caption. Other celebrities, though, aren’t as upfront. Notably, the CMA only announced crackdowns on YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok’s hidden influencer advertising in October last year, despite the sites existing since 2005, 2011 and 2016, respectively. And it wasn’t until November that the organisation published a document outlining its principles about hidden ads that platforms could follow as a guide. “There’s a grace period for newer apps in the laws about labelling,” explains Cannon. “When I work with smaller influencers, they don’t label anything. They’re just like, ‘Whatever’… So, the hidden hand is there. And it’s not like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is going to come down on some girl in Iowa with 5,000 followers.”
Currently, TikTok keeps track of subliminal influencer ads using a moderation team who attempt to ensure compliance with the rules. (Although, they are vague on what those entail.) But with millions of videos uploaded globally every day, hidden influencer advertising is hard to keep track of manually with its effect over us continuing to grow. “We are all susceptible to messaging, especially when repeated frequently. This is, in part, how propaganda has worked over the ages,” says marketing professor and co-author of Influencer: The Science Behind Swaying Others, Bettina Cornwell of #MusicAd videos, whether labelled or unlabelled. She does, however, admit the latter carries a greater risk.
“Influencers can be particularly persuasive in sharing marketing content when it doesn’t raise a red flag of persuasion intent,” she explains. “If a person feels their contact on social media is simply sharing their preference of insight, it may not be flagged in the mind as persuasion.” But even as TikTok moderators tighten up their regulations and #MusicAd becomes a more common hashtag, the videos will likely retain their powers of persuasion. And in some cases, she says, “a disclaimer of sponsorship can result in the influencer being viewed as honest.” Essentially, if we trust and respect the influencer then we trust their #ad content too. “Over time, people may forget the disclaimer and just remember the message,” adds Bettina. “Especially if the post is visually or auditorily appealing.” Which, viral songs almost always are.
A TikTok ad can’t guarantee a hit, though – no matter how much a label is willing to shell out. Cannon says an unsuccessful campaign can cost labels anywhere between $10 to $100,000. “There are tons of flops,” he says. “A recent Kim Petras song had so many misses [on TikTok],” he claims. “When you hear of the budget, that’s just what one agency sunk into it…”
Whether algorithms – including trending songs – are changing consumers’ music tastes for the worse has been a debate for years. “Harlem Shake” by Baauer assaulted our eardrums in early 2013 when creators made endless YouTube videos of one person dancing to the tune, before a jump cut revealed a group of people dancing wildly together – often in fancy dress. (Ed Sheeran, Azealia Banks, and Miles Teller all uploaded their own versions). “‘Harlem Shake’ – the first No 1 of the viral era – wasn’t the greatest song ever written,” admits Cannon, adding that the more “consumable” a promoted song is, the more likely people will “listen to it out of free will”.
There’s an argument to be made that music influencing, as well as being somewhat of a manipulation tool, is also an equaliser for artists. Newcomers can gain attention in the same way Justin Bieber can – or at least try to. Similarly, Bastille’s decade-old song Pompeii has just as much a chance of belated internet success as 23-year-old Lizzie McAlpine’s new hit “Ceilings”. Both songs are trending with hundreds of thousands of posts over the last year. It’s thanks to TikTok and its trending tracks, Cannon argues, that we’re authentically listening to songs rather than looking at who’s singing them. “In the last 20 years, we’ve never had an era where people are listening without judging who the artist is first,” he says. “Judging the song first seems better to me.” But the more money you add into the mix, the less organic this feels – and the less likely that smaller musicians and their smaller budgets will have a shot at competing with the industry bigwigs.
One person who hopes to democratise the TikTok music ad process is PushTok CEO Itai Winter, whose agency has worked with “1,800 artists and every major record label on the planet” since it launched mid-pandemic in 2020. “I saw [influencer agency] prices go up from $1,500 a day to $3,500 a day,” Winter explains of his motivation to start PushTok, which he did long before other businesses jumped on the bandwagon. “I was like, before you know it, it’s going to be a $10,000 minimum. No independent artist can access that, which invigorated me to go and create a tool like PushTok to see what you can do with $50 to $100. What you can do with $500.”
Winter worked with Harry Walker, the artist behind the fuzzed-out indie persona Moon Walker. “It was a long journey for him,” says Winter. “He was doing nothing, living with his parents in Colorado. Now, he’s living in New York City, he’s going on tour.” It’s exactly this that Winter finds most satisfying. “What makes me really happy is when I have an impact on someone’s life,” he says. “Whether or not I get Nat King Cole’s streams up by 10 per cent around Christmas time is like, ‘Great, awesome!’ but it’s not as fulfilling as saying, ‘I changed that person’s life and now they have a career in this field.’”
Most importantly, Winter claims, #MusicAd campaigns can be empowering for TikTok users, too. “Audiences get to feel like they’re really pushing this song and driving it,” he says. “They are giving the artists support where they need it and giving them to a place where they can be themselves, write songs, release more songs, all that stuff.” Looking at Moon Walker’s stats from last year – the 7.3 million Spotify streams and 784,200 listeners – is enough to convince anyone. “You guys changed my life in one year,” a visibly emotional Walker told his fans in a video, many of whom had discovered his music on TikTok, thanks in no small part to PushTok and the influencers they paid. Whether music influencing is a net positive or negative on the industry remains to be seen. No one, however, can dispute its impact.