TikTok artists who broke through to the mainstream
Social media has always provided the ultimate platform for artists, both budding and established.
Back in the day, the likes of MySpace assisted new acts in finding a global audience. Adele and Lily Allen were both discovered there. Today, the go-to platform for new talent is TikTok, which has helped launch the careers of Olivia Rodrigo, CKay and Sam Ryder, among many more.
What distinguishes TikTok from, say, Instagram, is the fact it primarily is a music-driven app. It became and remains famous for its creative and often striking use of music and dance, not to mention it was originally called Musical.ly.
Here’s our pick of some of the great singer-songwriters and performers to make it big thanks to exposure on TikTok.
As far as music accounts go, Magdalena Bay’s TikTok is out there. A mixture of lo-fi surrealism, jokey existentialism and industry insider tips, lead singer Mica Tenenbaum describes it as “abstract sci-fi cybercult symbology-ridden laser light show masterpiece[s]”. In 2021, a slowed down version of their song “Killshot” went viral. Off the back of this, the duo released their debut album Mercurial World in October, one of the first albums to arguably cater to the snippet demands of TikTok.
Much has been said recently about the supposed nagging record labels do when it comes to TikTok promotion. Matthew Lewin, however, the other half of Magalena Bay, said the band’s TikTok engagement is “encouraged but not enforced,” with Tenenbaum confirming that “they’re not sending us (messages), ‘You have to do this TikTok today.'”
Still, Lewin is wary of any artist being told to create videos for the purpose of generating a mass response.
“There could be downsides if labels expect every song they put out to go viral because that’s just not going to happen,” he said. “So if there’s pressure for an artist to create a viral moment, I could see why that would be negative overall.”
This teenage Mexican-American singer-songwriter gave TikTok some much-needed romance with his song “Está Dañada” last year. Ivan Cornejo’s song was used by more than a million people since its release, making him a certified success on the app. The track peaked at Number 61 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming only the second regional Mexican song to chart on the all-genre chart.
Born and raised in Riverside, Calif., Cornejo didn’t grow up listening to the type of music he’d eventually make. “To be honest, I didn’t listen to regional Mexican until like three years ago when my friends introduced me to T3R Elemento and Grupo Los De La O. That’s when I fell in love with the genre. But I grew up listening to whatever my family listened to. Kudos to them for molding my style,” he said. “My brother would listen to alt-rock like Arctic Monkeys, Tame Impala, and my parents listened to Café Tacvba. Very on the alternative side.”
As a result, there is a decent hint of rock in his guitar solos. “I for sure want to keep that same style, very indie, rockfish. People are really liking me for that.” He admires Junior H, who in his opinion took a “risky step and changed regional Mexican, making our music more alternative. It’s scary because you don’t know how people will take it. But people accepted it.”
What’s next for Ivan? An album full of love and heartbreak songs, which will be his ‘best yet’. “With my first album, I was barely understanding how to write music. Now I’ve been researching tons of music by listening to a lot of different styles and understanding what makes a song catchy or why it makes me feel the way it makes me feel. I like to see how music works; what makes it catchy, what makes you feel happy or sad. I take that into consideration now when doing my own music. There’s no release date on the new album yet but it’s coming soon.”
Ritt Momney, yes. Not a typo. Not the almost-president of the United States, Mitt Romney. No. Ritt Momney. He’s a big hit thanks to TikTok. And Corinne Bailey Rae, of course, whose “Put Your Records On” was covered by Ritt, racking up over 370 million Spotify streams. However, Ritt (real name Jack Rutter) says the cover isn’t representative of his usual “heavier and sadder” sound.
Ritt is also accepting of the criticism of him profiting from a personal song created by a black female artist, acknowledging that his position allows him to put out “music that’s true to me” and have it “flop.” “If a song I put out performs really well, then it’s going to get maybe 1 percent of the listens that ‘Put Your Records On’ does, so it doesn’t even matter,” he said. “I won the lottery and just have enough money to support myself continuing to be a musician.”
PinkPantheress caught TikTok’s attention with her throwback house and garage samples, turning them into modern-day floaty bangers. TIME Magazine named the British singer’s album the third-best of the year. Over on TikTok, she has over a million followers. She uses the app as a testing ground “to assess if music is good enough to put out or not,” she said. Her biggest hit on the app was “Just For Me.”
What makes PinkPantheress’ viral success interesting is that she isn’t a zany, social media personality. To her, TikTok is a great tool for spreading the music rather than spreading any kind of image. Her relationship with it is careful and considered.
“I still have lots of freedom,” she told Complex. “I think when you’re attached to people that want you to promote yourself, as someone that doesn’t like to promote myself it might feel a little bit like now I’m signed, I’m going to have to do this and this and this to fit a criteria that someone else has set. But honestly for me I think the proof is kind of in the pudding. I got here without a label thus far, so I don’t see why a label would change my approach when it’s been working.”
She continued: “Being online… You know, like being streetwise, it’s almost like being internet-wise. You become savvy with what you can say, what you can’t say, what’s a good look, what’s not a good look. I mean there’s no right or wrong, but I think if you want to have people perceive you a certain way then there are definitely things you can do online to kind of push people into the direction of this. For example, I wanted everyone early on to know that I’m not the type of person to let [out details] about me. I wanted to make clear that I’m a musician first and then everything else second. So you’re not going to see me out every day. It’s maintaining a private life as well as an online one and finding the balance between the two.”
CKay’s “Love Nwantiti” was a decent success in the Nigerian singer’s home country in 2020, but it went stratospheric thanks to exposure on TikTok, and is now one of the biggest international songs in African pop history. Videos hashtagged with #lovenwantiti have 1.5 billion views on the app, with many users dancing along to a routine created by the TikToker Tracy Joseph.
CKay didn’t receive immediate credit on the app as the version that had initially gained global traction was a slowed-down, mistagged remix. “I felt robbed at first,” CKay told Rolling Stone. “Certain countries enjoyed the music a little too much and started to claim it was theirs. I appreciate the love, but, yeah, I had to go on TikTok again and set things straight.”
He originally recorded and released “Love Nwantiti” in 2019.A remix featuring fellow Nigerian artist Joeboy and Ghana’s Kuami Eugene then followed in August of 2020.
“Love Nwantiti was a freestyle,” he said. “I didn’t pen a single word. I was in my living room, making beats like I usually do, and I played the chords, built on them, and did my freestyle. I recorded around midnight and I was really sleepy, so I decided I was gonna put words to the ‘ah ah ah’ part in the morning. Long story short, woke up in the morning and realized it was fire exactly how it was.”
Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter Amaarae garnered accolades in 2020 for her debut album The Angel You Don’t Know thanks to its unique combination of Nigerian alté, R&B and Southern rap. In September 2021, however, she released a remix of her song “SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY” featuring Kali Uchis and a new third verse.
That new part of the song immediately caught fire on TikTok, with dancers around the world showing off their fancy footwork to accompany Amaarae’s special vocals. The song hit Number 1 on TikTok U.S. Top Tracks chart, allowing Amaarae to achieve her first ever Hot 100 hit.
“I don’t know if it’s about representation as much as it is about expression,” she told NME. “I just want girls and boys like me - you know, young Africans - to be able to express themselves freely. We really come from a community and a society that oppressed expression, probably up until the last five years where the internet and Instagram started to become a thing and our cultural values shifted. It’s always about what I am doing to help the next generation of young people.
“Being an artist is a big thing because, for the longest time, it was taboo for young women to make music in Africa. My grandmother tells me all the time that you were looked at as some type of loose girl. She told me, ‘I get to live vicariously through you. To see you with pink and purple hair: these are things that I wish I could have done’. I want people to know that creativity can be a commodity through which you can earn money, and there is no shame in that. Creativity truly is the key to the world, and this is about helping African parents and young Africans to really understand that and embrace it.”
32-year-old Sam Ryder had been in and out of bands his entire twenties, gigging anywhere he could to little avail. He worked in construction with his dad(aiding in the erection of Wembley stadium) and even opened a vegan cafe with his long-time girlfriend Lois. Only during the 2020 lockdown did he get attention for his vocal talents by posting short lo-fi clips on TikTok.
“They were just silly, fun videos,” he told the Guardian. “There’s a difference between taking something seriously and treating it with respect. No one can say to me that I don’t have respect for the music or put my heart into it, but I can still mess around and try and sing Britney Spears as high as I can go.”
His rise coincided with UK Eurovision changing its selection process for its entry into the singing contest, moving away from a traditional public vote held by the BBC and leaving it in the hands of talent scouts at music management company TaP. Ryder became the pick of 2022.
His breakout tune, Space Man, was written at random. “I never meant for this song to go to Eurovision,” he said. “I’ve always been a fan of Eurovision but that wasn’t my dream - I never thought I’d love to do it. Making a career for yourself in music is a mountain to climb, and the wind’s against you. Dreaming of Eurovision on top of that - you’re basically saying: I want to be the 1% of the 1%. But when the opportunity came along, my heart leapt at it.”
Olivia Rodrigo? Wasn’t she already famous? Technically. But unless you were a die-hard seven-year-old Disney Channel addict, chances are you didn’t know of Rodrigo until she transferred her skills to music.
Everything changed in January 2021 with the release of her debut single “Drivers License” which she co-wrote with producer Dan Nigro. Within the week of its release, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record twice for most daily streams ever for a non-holiday song with over 15.7 million global streams on January 11 and over 17 million global streams the next day. If that wasn’t enough, it went on to break another Spotify record for the first song in history to hit 80 million streams in 7 days. The song debuted at number one on Billboard Hot 100, and reached number one in numerous other countries. Rodrigo said at the time, “It’s been the absolute craziest week of my life … My entire life just, like, shifted in an instant.
In June 2021, Rodrigo premiered Sour Prom, a prom-themed concert film on YouTube. That December, Rodrigo announced a world tour. A couple of days later? She was named Entertainer of the Year by TIME. No biggie. Surprising to nobody, Rodrigo closed 2021 as the best-selling singles artist worldwide, placing eight songs on the year-end Global 200 chart, including “Drivers License” at number four, “Good 4 U” at number nine, and “Deja Vu” at number 27.
In the US and UK, Sour was respectively the third and fourth best-selling album of 2021. Sour and “Drivers License” were also Spotify’s most-streamed album and song globally. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry ranked Rodrigo as the tenth best selling artist of 2021 and Sour as the second best-selling album of 2021. In short, TikTok was very, very good to Olivia Rodrigo, who - it’s worth emphasising - was born in actual 2003.