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Bob Lefsetz: TikTok

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“How TikTok Chooses Which Songs Go Viral – The app’s hits seem to emerge organically, but the success of artists like Megan Thee Stallion reveals a highly managed curation process”:

This is the most important music business article you will read all year, well at least the year that’s already transpired. And what stuns me is NO ONE e-mailed it to me, NO ONE!

Remember twenty years ago, in the days of file-trading, when music was disrupted and the news was everywhere? When something happened and it was blasted into every nook and cranny instantly? Those days are through. “Billboard” is a complete joke. Mediocre writers pointed towards the consumer as opposed to the professional. As for “Rolling Stone,” behind a paywall sans its classic writers, its trajectory seems to be one towards death, then again, this was ensured when the magazine aged with its users as opposed to focusing on the demo, like MTV.

And the demo is young.

You might not be listening to the young music, but all the innovation takes place amongst the youth first. The youth were file-trading, the youth put videos on YouTube and audio on Soundcloud, the youth embraced smartphones and their possibilities and it’s the oldsters who followed in their wake. And if you want to know what’s going on right now…read this article.

There’s an attendant podcast: which you should listen to if you listen to podcasts, it’s much more informative than the true crime b.s. spreading throughout the podcast universe, and maybe it’s because its host, Shelly Banjo, has been following the TikTok story for THREE YEARS!

That’s the problem with most news, it’s written by reporters, getting the story as opposed to living the story. Then again, if you want to know what is really happening oftentimes you have to turn to business publications, which “Billboard” used to be and Bloomberg is now. Bloomberg did go mass, but it pulled back and decided to focus on business news only, and if you get one magazine, subscribe to “Bloomberg Businessweek.” The latest issue also contains an article on Kevin Liles, but you can skip that, you don’t learn much, but Shelly Banjo tells us EVERYTHING!

So on the podcast you have a teen TikTok creator talking about activity. Beyonce posted her baby reveal on Instagram and got a million likes in twenty four hours. Sounds pretty good, right? WRONG! This girl said she and the other TikTok stars get three million likes AN HOUR!

It’s always the same, the news is controlled by oldsters who continue to miss the plot. Like with video games, whose numbers far outstrip both music and movies, but they still don’t get respect.

So why should you read the above article… TO LEARN THAT IT’S ALL MANIPULATED! TikTok is not only a platform, it’s essentially a manager, in deep contact with its stars, it’ll even give them money. But even better, TikTok tells them how to stay atop the charts, it tells creators which songs are priorities, to make videos for them so these creators can continue to dominate and grow bigger. As for the priorities…those are heavily-influenced by the major labels. The perception that TikTok is a passive platform is patently wrong. You get lucky, you get a million views…unless you get in touch with the TikTok ecosystem (actually, unless they get in touch with you) you’re one and done. It’s a professional business, and if you’re not a professional, forget it.

So if you listen to the podcast you’ll hear about the founder, Zhang Yiming, who’s the opposite of a Silicon Valley star, who basks in the attention. Turns out you can’t even find Zhang, he’s elusive. And Banjo opines that if Zhang were American, he’d be as big as Zuckerberg, but since he’s Chinese…

You’ll be stunned when you hear about the Chinese operation. First and foremost, they live in a 9-9-6 world. That means you work nine a.m. to nine p.m., six days a week. And it’s not like America, where the dumb get traction, where we had an inane do-nothing president who still thinks he won an election he lost, no, in China they’re looking forward. It’s America a few decades back. But too many think we can win via trade wars, no, we can win by paying attention!

As for the aforementioned Zuckerberg, TikTok is the platform that is eating his lunch. Facebook kicked the tires, they weren’t interested, they believed they could duplicate if it gained traction.

But that was before sold to Bytedance. Bytedance paid a fortune, many people believed the company overpaid, but sometimes you have to do that to gain market share, to get ahead. Oh, Bytedance tried to compete with, BUT IT COULDN’T! Turned out the algorithm was just too strong, just too good, not that it’s not being tweaked constantly, for he not busy being born is dying, like all those acts complaining about streaming payouts as opposed to wholeheartedly embracing the new business model.

As for that new business model… This is a time when many will get out, TikTok is a game-changer.

Used to be acts were broken on radio. Then they were broken on Spotify and radio came next. Now they’re broken on TikTok and then they spread to streaming and radio. And how did TikTok achieve this? VIA CONSUMER PARTICIPATION! Exactly what the oldsters fought for decades, in many cases are still fighting. But that skateboarding cranberry juice swigging Idahoan brought Fleetwood Mac to the youngsters, adding longevity to the act, never mind enlarging its grosses.

And all this has been happening under the radar. There’s a whole ecosystem, building new stars.

And while you’re at it, read Jon Caramanica’s story in today’s “New York Times” which talks about acts making multiple versions of the same song, without even bothering to make an album. Yes, it’s about the song.

“Who Needs an Album? Just Keep Remaking the Song! Recent hits by SpotemGottem and Lil Nas X show the power of extending the life of a single track, album be damned.”:

And if you want to go even deeper, read Connie Bruck’s article about Ari Emanuel in the latest “New Yorker”:

“Ari Emanuel Takes On The World – Hollywood’s most tenacious agent tries to remake himself as a mogul”:

Bruck wrote the definitive statement about Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham Lambert, “The Predators’ Ball,” and this Ari Emanuel article is incredibly well-researched, but much less insightful than the TikTok one in Bloomberg. Sometimes you’re so focused on where you’ve been that you can’t see where you’re going, which is why the “New Yorker” article ultimately falls flat.

But the “Bloomberg Businessweek” article, it’s positively now. And unlike Ari, it’s not about business shenanigans so much as creation, the arts. Sure, art intersects with business, but most people don’t want to talk to Ari Emanuel, they’d rather watch TikTok. And never forget, disruption happens from the bottom up, so WME can be disrupted too.

But reading this article you have to ask…have you been disrupted? It’s not simple anymore, you just can’t make a record and hire a PR person to spam it to radio and other outlets. First and foremost, no one is paying attention, you can’t reach anybody! Today you’ve got to be a creator but you’ve also got to understand the systems, how they work, where they’re going.

It turns out today the people make the hits. And where they make them is on TikTok. But TikTok ultimately decides what is a hit.

So what if you’re making oldster music?

Think about how you can connect with the audience, how you can reach people.

Then again, not one single person has told me about this “Bloomberg Businessweek” article and it’s genius, so insightful, better than anything about music in newspapers or online. You’re now hipped, you’re a member of the club, but let me forewarn you, it will be both insightful and depressing, inspirational and overwhelming, but you can’t turn back the clock, this is where we are. China is building infrastructure at a pace we can’t even contemplate. TikTok ate Zuckerberg’s lunch. The ball keeps moving, the government missed WhatsApp and they missed TikTok, elected officials think they can quash something already embedded in the culture…not that TikTok deserves to go, rather we’ve got to act like the Chinese, we’ve got to take the best and IMITATE IT! There’s so much we need to imitate from around the world, let’s start with universal health care. It’s these foundational elements that are letting the rest of the world improve and accelerate and that are holding the U.S. back. Free child care gives a boost to the economy, because suddenly all mothers and fathers can work. If you think it’s about saving money on the front end, please don’t have any power, please get out of the way, because one great idea, implemented by a believer(s) can change the world.

Like TikTok!

More TikTok

You absolutely must listen to the third episode of the Foundering podcast on TikTok. I don’t care if you’re an agent or a promoter, a label executive or a wannabe act, this will set you straight on where we’re going and where we’re not.

“TikTok Redefined the Economics of Fame – Episode three ofÊ’Foundering: The TikTok Story’Êexplains how the startupÊchooses who gets famous, which videos go viralÊand which trends blow up.”:

You see there’s a great bifurcation in music today. All the focus has been on streaming payouts, when the ball has moved, now it’s all about the kind of music that’s being made!

I know, I know, that does not correlate with the news, but when did the news ever tell you where you were going to go?

This podcast episode will tell you that TikTok is active with its users in a way that YouTube and Facebook/Instagram are not. Those are old models, TikTok is new. TikTok is consumer facing. Sure, the other platforms depend on users, but they’re hands-off, they provide the tools and then it’s a free-for-all. But not on TikTok. TikTok handpicks its stars, nurtures them, provides information to allow them to maintain their stardom and does not close out newbies. Yes, once a platform reaches critical mass, if you’re late to the party you’ve got no chance. Sign on to Facebook for the first time today, good luck building a friend base, that was something people did ten years ago. Same deal on Twitter. The stars have been anointed, and even though a few new ones may be minted, the odds are really long. But TikTok focuses on building new stars, otherwise the creator class, in this case the hoi polloi posters, gets discouraged and moves on.

You see TikTok knows its creators are the stars. They are the focus, they are number one, they supersede rights holders and advertisers, everybody in the ecosystem. And the creators can get rich. Come on, try to make it as a musician, you’re gonna be broke, quite possibly forever, your odds are better online, and fewer skills are required.

Now TikTok satiates the music companies, the site is music dependent, but when you listen you’ll learn that labels were reticent. This is what has hampered music for decades, there’s so much money in it that those involved are averse to risk, whereas art is always about throwing the old over for the new. And believe me, if you’re making bucks on TikTok, you’re reinventing the wheel every damn day, you’ve got to post content that is appealing all the time, or you’re forgotten. That is today’s internet paradigm, something oldsters rebel against. If you’re not posting content constantly, you’re never going to make money online, look to other avenues. And the amazing thing is there are other avenues, in the real world.

So the record labels are businesses. They don’t create trends, they follow them, and they go where the bucks are. And before the internet, there was a very narrow sieve of exploitation. If you didn’t have a record deal, you were SOL. But today, you don’t need the label’s imprimatur, you can just start. That doesn’t mean you can get fans and get rich, that just means the barrier to entry is low and some genius will figure out how to make it.

But now you don’t focus on the platform. This is what all the wankers complaining about streaming music payments don’t get. That paradigm has sailed. With the twentieth century. Now it’s about the music itself.

Let’s be clear, TikTok is not about the music, but the performances. But even more significant, only a snippet of a song is used. Which is why you’ll find the tracks in the Spotify Top 50 have brief intros, if they have intros at all, and they’re laden with hooks. But as we make the tracks ever more bite-sized, the more we open the playing field to other music.

Let’s start with the money. You pay your dues until you make it. And you make it much slower in the real world as opposed to the virtual world. It’s kind of like education. You can make bread on TikTok without schooling, but you can’t get a job in the real world sans degree. You see TikTok fame is an extension of Kardashian fame. But now you don’t even have to know Ryan Seacrest to get you a TV show. YOU DON’T WANT TO GET A TV SHOW, THAT’S NOT WHERE IT’S HAPPENING!


You complain the Spotify Top 50 is crap, no-talent music made by committee for those with challenged ears. And to a great degree you’re right. Hell, try to find a hit written and performed by one person, it’s an impossibility, never mind the insurance of adding a featured performer to the track. Popular music is swirling down an ever-deepening drain, and if you’re complaining about this, your head is up your rear end, you should be jumping for joy, so much of the landscape is open for exploitation! And one thing is for sure, the major labels don’t want it. They operate under internet metrics, but not all art can be quantified this way, all listeners don’t go around liking online. What I mean is…

If you want to be successful, don’t go where everybody else is, blaze your own path!

Once again, I must remind you, very few people can make a living making music. Don’t get too enthused, because odds are you’ll never make it. You have to be a near genius creatively to make it, and most people are not. Not everybody can be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and not everybody can be a hit act. But someone can be. And not all the hit acts are in the Spotify Top 50.

And too many other acts are focused on radio genres. Active Rock is very active, in that it’s loud and in-your-face, they’re not playing the equivalent of Crosby, Stills & Nash on Active Rock.

What I’m saying here is…

To focus on the music.

When everybody else goes short, you go long. Now is the best time ever to create a long track. Demonstrating your skill, entrancing the listener. These tracks grow via word of mouth, not via hit pathways. A perfect example, Alice In Chains’ “Rooster.” It’s slow and dirgey and over six minutes long, but it’s fantastic, ethereal, hard to burn out on. Or Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” from “Houses of the Holy,” that’s the track people e-mail me about the most, and it’s seven minutes and thirty nine seconds long! And neither of these tracks are about instant hooks, never mind multiple hooks…

You see what is outside today is inside tomorrow. But in today’s world, there’s not just one pathway to success, but many.

The key today is live performance. That’s where you feel the music. That’s where you get touched by it. And the truth is you’ve got to pay a lot of dues to get good enough to get people’s attention when they’ve never heard your music previously, that doesn’t happen out of the box, but if you can… Today’s world is all about experiences, streaming music on demand is not an experience. On some level TikTok is, proving that the online recording game is now subsidiary to the layers of creativity poured on top!


Want to break through today?

Form a blues band. Yes, someone in the act has got to be able to play guitar, and the vocals must be excellent and the songwriting must be stellar, but if all three align, you’d be a breath of fresh air talked about everywhere. The problem today is most people focus on fame before songs, and people don’t realize we only have room for excellence, for greatness, if you’re not the best songwriter of all time, you can’t have Bob Dylan’s voice and expect to be a star.

The truth is active music listeners are looking for a cornucopia of sounds. Even more they’re looking to be affected by the music. Today’s hit music slides right off of you, it’s sauce for your efforts to hook up. Today’s music is secondary, not primary. And it’s all about the money. Everybody in music talks about the money, even people who’ve never made a record, that’s the focus, but that’s never the focus in art. If you don’t love it for itself, stop. And if you love it and take the public on an exquisite journey the doors are open!

But for far too long the best and the brightest have avoided music, the odds are too long, and innovation is abhorred. But the key is to use the notes, the instruments, to create something new and different, not me-too and expect a new result.

You see today’s music is so in pursuit of the dollar, a platform for branding more than standing alone, that it satiates fewer listeners.

And look at the concert grosses. They’re rarely packed with those in the Spotify Top 50. And if they are, they’re usually different acts the following year.

Yes, you can get depressed learning about TikTok or you can be inspired. Everything you love about music has been excised. How long a journey can you go on? Sure, the TikTok clip can be replayed ad infinitum, but let’s also be clear it’s about the trick, not the music.

As systems become ever more digital, you want to go analog. Even acoustic. Look at movies, they chased the dollar with cartoons/superheroes and the end result is that most people never go to the theatre anymore, never mind watch the Oscars, they’re too busy consuming humanity-based longform content online.

The medium changes the message. But now the medium has resulted in music that’s all about brief hooks, which is ultimately background, disposable. Never in the last fifty years has the landscape been more wide open. Now is not the time to complain, now is the time to innovate!

The public is all ears.

But only for the new and different.

That’s your responsibility. Only a few are up to the task. But those few will be bigger than all the rest. We saw this when FM superseded AM. Sure, there continued to be AM hits, but all the action, the money, the respect, the gravitas was in the FM acts.

The Spotify Top 50 is AM.

The world at large is FM.

FM started small and took over. That’s what’s going to happen again. Look at the rest of the world, the non-musical landscape, it’s endless niches, many of them profitable, why should there be only one profitable niche in music?


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