Written by Sarah Dalton
TikTok, created in 2016, is perhaps one of the few things to have thrived as a result of the global pandemic. A year living indoors means that young people have turned to the short video clips as a form of entertainment. The social media is currently estimated to have 689 million active users as of January 2021 and this figure only continues to grow at a rapid rate. So, why might this be a threat for radio?
As a result of its global popularity, TikTok has outgrown its intended purpose – it has become the new tip sheet for weekly chart hits. Meanwhile, mainstream stations, such as BBC Radio 2, have dropped 1 million listeners in the past year. Previously unknown artists on TikTok have now risen to fame which gives these music makers entirely new ways to reach audiences. For 19-year-old Amber Louise (known by the alias ‘rainbow frog biscuits’), this has meant a record deal and debut single with Tin Pot Records. For Scottish postman Nathan Evans, this phenomenon has resulted in an Official Singles Chart Top 10 hit and a singlehanded revival of the sea shanty genre on popular radio stations.
So, is TikTok the new radio of a modern generation? Listening to the charts after scrolling through the app, it certainly seems that way. A phenomenon such as this has not occurred since the early 2000s when American Idol winners rocketed to the charts after exposure to prime-time audiences. Yet the most important question to ask here, is why?
One key reason for TikTok’s success at exposing new artists is the accessibility of the app. Anybody across the globe can record music from their bedroom on a phone and in an instant, their music is out in the world. Whilst the attention of record labels can then rocket this success even further, record labels and professional recording studios are not needed to get that foot in the market. This removes many barriers which currently exist within the music industry for newcomers.
If we are to consider exposure as a key factor in the success of a track, the battle of the platforms becomes even more complex. Radio stations like Heart FM, who estimate an average of 9.8 million week listeners, appeal to their large audience by, as one of their slogans state, ‘playing what you want’. Listeners tune in to genre-specific stations that target particular audiences. One could then argue that the real radio-worthy gems of TikTok get swamped in amongst a sea of mediocracy. However, it is this very lack of specialisation which is showing to be TikTok’s biggest trump card over radio.
The social media exposes individuals to a greater range of musical genres which they may not have previously listened to and is, therefore, creating waves in the music industry like never before. This could not be better highlighted than by the sudden rise of Nathan Evans’ 60 second loop of ‘Wellerman’, a sea shanty cover that appeared on almost everyone’s ‘For You Page’. The loop went viral, hit the charts and before long, you could not walk five minutes down the street without hearing a child singing the popular shanty. Evans has now quit his day job and signed a record deal off the back of his viral sensation. How many of these people would have tuned in to a specific sea shanty radio station before? Well, certainly less than the 7000% increase of Spotify streams it gained in just one week of that I am sure.
So is ditching the old-fashioned radio for TikTok the way forward? Not necessarily. One thing which the modern platform robs us of is the important availability of stopping cues. A stopping cue is defined by social psychologist Adam Alter as a ‘signal that it is time to move on’, and they existed everywhere in the 20th century. The ending of a chapter would prompt you to ask if you wanted to read on or put the book down and the end of a tv show would be followed by a week-long wait for the next one. While the end of a radio show prompts us to ask if we want to switch off or listen on.
However, media platforms such as TikTok have removed these stopping cues from our lives – instead, they are a scrolling stream of media which never reaches an end point. As a result, hours of our lives are scrolled and swiped away often with little sense of the passing of time, and the detrimental impact of screen time on mental health is sparkling clear.
Perhaps then the rocketing of TikTok loops into the global charts is not the result of the platform’s success, but rather its addictive nature. As more young people turn to the app as a replacement radio, only time will tell if it’ll be boom or gloom in the music industry for these newfound ‘radio stars’.
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