Film | Wide Angle

TikTok sets its sights on the music industry

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Short-form video app TikTok isn’t content being the center of online youth culture in Japan. Now, it’s eyeing the music industry.

Earlier this month, TikTok announced a new project called Spotlight. This initiative invites users to submit original music, which will then be siphoned into a special playlist available for anyone using the app to access and add to their own creations. At some point, a panel of judges will whittle contestants down over the course of a season, with somewhere between five and 10 artists being selected as winners at the end. They’ll get the chance to link up with a major label and put out music — with TikTok supporting them.

Spotlight — which will also unfold in South Korea over the course of the year — finds the flagship product of the world’s most valuable startup, China’s ByteDance, trying to develop music stars of its own.

It’s an interesting move considering TikTok to this point has been more defined by songs than singers. Here’s a crash course in the app: like with Vine before it, users record short videos of themselves dancing, lip-synching and beyond, with music playing a huge role in these creations. Thanks to some savvy deals made with usually web-shy Japanese companies, TikTok offers a wide array of J-pop tunes alongside an international selection (plus user-generated numbers, that get added to a vast digital library).

TikTok has been a boon for artists hoping to gain exposure, and the app has mostly been a trampoline capable of bouncing musicians up to something better. The duo I Love Friday’s “Mia Khalifa” (aka “Hit or Miss”), a rap diss aimed at the former adult film star of the same name, mutated into a meme on TikTok and while the group earned some solid money from it, none of it came from the app itself. The platform also helped rapper Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” skyrocket to the top of the American charts. He’s the first case of TikTok really breaking a song, but whatever happens next for Lil Nas X will play out in the music industry — not on the site.

In Japan, TikTok musical memes range from older Kumi Koda cuts to last year’s smash “U.S.A.” by Da Pump (though that one was powered by YouTube and social media, TikTok came in later). The variety of songs that turn into dances and funny gags is impressive, but hasn’t led to anyone cracking through to mainstream popularity.

So Spotlight aims to change that, by trying to break the first TikTok J-pop stars. But it might be a bit of a misread. Spotlight will use major label artists such as Miyavi and Monkey Majick as judges and mentors, with major labels playing a prominent role. But the app’s real appeal lies in how its users — who choose what tunes soundtrack their work — determine what’s popping.

Best case scenario? The kids fueling TikTok in Japan help turn one of their own into a superstar. But if this feels more like “American Idol” than the wilds of the internet, the app is just trying to enter the old model of the music business. Which would be a let-down, as the folks using it have shown how much potential exists within.