You’ve definitely seen them: The teens (and even some adults) dancing and lip-syncing their way through fifteen seconds on an app that sprung up in the wake of Vine’s death. If you live under a rock and don’t know, I’m talking about TikTok.
In a short time, TikTok has become the new It app for a strong majority of today’s teens and young adults. Of course, this means there’s a whole new genre of influencer, one that, essentially, seems to have even less substance than the infamous YouTuber, or even an Instagram star.
So, why is it that musicians are using TikTok (and other questionable forms of social media) to launch music careers? Why are there so many articles out there telling them how to do so (really, Google it!)?
Obviously, transmedia has always had opportunities when used in a traditional marketing sense: Post some pictures and short videos on Instagram, put concert dates on Facebook’s events, and Tweet a few snarky comments to make yourself seem more relatable, and you’ll have fans. But apps like TikTok are an anomaly. What do fans get out of watching their favorite artists flossing (The dance kind, not the tooth kind. I’d be even more confused by the latter.)?
Before finding the answer in the present, we have to dig into the past.
If you’re around my age (21), you’ll likely remember when YouTube and Vine were the main sources of entertainment, and, as a result, the influencers that came from them. Yes, I’m talking about MAGCon.
I’m not here to make fun of the people who enjoyed MAGCon culture (or TikTok, or anything, really). In fact, I’ll admit it: I attended DigiTour, and I had fun! Yeah, some of the influencers didn’t really have a talent, and they just jumped around onstage, but there were some acts that I really enjoyed thanks to their charisma, comedy, or musical talent.
But, many people were there because they wanted to see those seemingly talentless influencers, the ones jumping around onstage. Why?
The answer is simple: They felt connected.
This could be the key to the TikTok phenomenon, too. When someone—especially a young, impressionable person—feels like they know someone’s personality online, they will want to know them in person, too. They will want to support this person, to feel like the relationship goes two ways. For many of these lucky fans, it can. For others, a “concert” is enough of an illusion to mask the true distance between creator and consumer.
So, we can understand this: People will support a creator with whom they feel a connection. But what about musicians on these apps? Would people still enjoy their music if the social media connection was severed? Should these performers stick to the apps, or expand their brand and play live?
From my own experience, and in my personal opinion, no—unless they’re extremely well-practiced and prepared to put on a show, not just a performance. The thing that breaks many social media-based artists in my mind is a lack of differentiation between a performance on an app, and a live show.
The perfect example is Brothers Page, a popular Instagram/TikTok team of brothers. Please take my critiques with a grain of salt, and remember that they are just that: critiques. As a music reviewer, this is my job, and it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy someone’s music.
And I do enjoy Brothers Page’s music! I think they have great voices and a lot of talent within the mashups they create on social media. Their vocals are very well-blended, trained, and suit the songs they choose to sing. I can definitely understand why they have (at this moment) almost forty thousand followers on TikTok and over a million on Instagram. I think it would be fair to say that they are, objectively, talented people.
That being said, I would not think so if I was only exposed to their live show. When I was first introduced to Brothers Page, it was via their opening act for Hot Chelle Rae’s Burlington, Vermont show on December 5, 2019. While it was mentioned that it was Brothers Page’s first live show, it was also completely obvious (at least to the trained eye) that they were completely unprepared. I can understand nerves and a lack of polishing for a first show. Heck, I can even sympathize with a train wreck. But it is my strong belief that bands who are not ready to play live should not do so until they are as bulletproof as possible, at least in rehearsal.
That’s not to say Brothers Page was a train wreck: Their vocals sounded very much similar to their social media videos, and nothing went explicitly wrong. But—and this is the Big But—they appeared as if they were performing for a phone camera, not a ballroom full of people. Marching in place and swaying back and forth may give videos a great sense of movement and presence, but it does the opposite on a large stage. Unless a social media musician understands this, their show will likely feel staged and small, much like this one.
That’s not to say that musicians who get their start online shouldn’t perform live. They should, but they should also keep in mind that live music is a whole new ball game.
In some ways, TikTok and other forms of social media can also truly benefit beginning artists, and this should be acknowledged. In fact, many artists that we know and love (Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and Alessia Cara, the list goes on) gained fame because of social media. In fact, without TikTok, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” might have never gained popularity: Its viral success as part of the “Yeehaw Challenge” is what put him on the map as an artist. It will likely do the same thing for countless others before a new app replaces its fame.
Social media is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the music industry, to the point where, in coming years, I could see apps like TikTok becoming the place for fans to discover new music, and for artists to primarily create it. We’ll all just have to wait and see.
In the meantime, check out Brothers Page and decide for yourself: