I Heard it on TikTok

Fans have always found ways to find new music and connect with the musicians they love. Is TikTok — a platform built around music — fundamentally changing how Winnipeg artists and fans interact?

A collage showing sound waves crossing a mobile phone displaying formulas and equations, over a background of broken vinyl records.

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I watch Nic Dyson gently strum his acoustic guitar. After a few bars, his delicate voice joins the warm chords. “I’ve been grieving the lives I’ve had / And for what? It’s only leaving me lonely,” sings the indie singer-songwriter from Winnipeg, Manitoba in an almost whispered voice.

This song is called “Feeling No Pain,” but I can certainly feel the pain in the music. It feels like I’m sitting on the couch right next to him while he gives a private concert — then I scroll to the next video.

Like many other musicians, Dyson posts videos of himself performing covers or sharing unreleased songs on TikTok. “It’s definitely given me an avenue to share things that I wouldn’t necessarily put the time in for otherwise,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place to put more content.”

In January of 2024, he posted a few pictures of himself with a short bio introducing his music, with his song “TV Crimes” playing in the background. The post quickly became his most popular, garnering over 900 likes and 50 comments, many from new fans. His efforts seemed to be paying off.

Collage featuring a shot of Nic Dyson performing on TikTok within a mobile phone.
Nic Dyson performs on TikTok. (@nicdysonmusic)

Music is integral to TikTok’s format. Users can add their favourite song to any video. Thanks to expansive licensing deals with labels and distributors, the app has the rights to a vast catalogue of music.

However, these agreements can be precarious. In January 2024, Universal Music Group announced they were pulling their music from the platform over concerns that artists weren’t being fairly compensated. Universal is the largest music company in the world and covers some of the biggest names in the industry, including Taylor Swift and Drake.

Songs often turn into much shorter “sounds” on TikTok, usually including the catchiest part of the tune. These snippets become the hot new trend. Once added to a video, users can click on the sound and add it to a video of their own, further spreading its popularity — until the cycle inevitably burns out. Music is the lifeblood of TikTok, and the music industry has been increasingly affected by its growing popularity.

TikTok’s viral songs come from many eras. Virtually anything can kickstart a trending song, from memes to TV shows. Notable examples include Fleetwood Mac and their legendary song “Dreams,” Måneskin’s “Beggin’,” a smash hit from the winners of Eurovision Song Contest 2021, and “Just for me” by PinkPantheress, a rising star from the UK.

The app can also be helpful for finding music long forgotten. There are countless accounts managed by rabid music fans from around the world who share music from across genres, places, and eras. Thanks to these posts — and the community that develops around their creators — I’ve found many of my favourite songs.

Music is central to TikTok, making it one more tool for musicians and fans to find each other and connect. While it isn’t really anything new, it does have the potential to speed up how quickly musicians can reach new audiences and how quickly fans can discover their next favourite artist or song.

In Winnipeg

Fontine Beavis, best known as FONTINE, is an indie-folk artist from Winnipeg. She’s toured with fellow Winnipegger Boy Golden and The Sheepdogs. She has been posting a variety of videos on TikTok since early 2020.

In one clip, she’s showcasing her musical versatility with a cover of the classic country song “Cowpoke,” while wearing a black cowboy hat. In another, she’s sharing a mini vlog from a tour, showing cinematic slices of Los Angeles: street signs, neon lights, food trucks and the scorching Californian sun. Further down her TikTok profile, she’s sharing a snippet of her song “Homemaker” that had just been released at the time.

Scrolling through her videos, it feels like you’re getting a glimpse of her everyday life, of what she likes to do, and who she likes to be around. It positions her as more than just an artist. TikTok, like other social media platforms, has the potential to show multiple sides of an artist and allows fans to connect with them in what can feel like a more personal way.

She doesn’t view the app as a serious tool for her career as an artist, though. “I use it for fun when I feel like it, but I don’t plan on pushing anything on that platform too hard,” she said. “I have seen friends of mine have wonderful success using TikTok…but I think there is a lot left to chance.”

For every success story on TikTok, there are thousands of artists still waiting for their breakthrough. “It is a platform some artists thrive on, and some artists just don’t,” said FONTINE.

TikTok also comes with a new set of responsibilities that pile onto artists who are already busy. “Sometimes there is a pressure from industry on a lot of artists to try and go viral on TikTok,” she said. “It has to be natural too, if you are trying really hard to be discovered on TikTok, it’s probably not going to happen.”

In other words, if the content that an artist is putting out is obvious marketing or viral bait, it may just be working against them. It still has to be cool, and that’s something FONTINE does so well. Her videos are natural. They’re fun to watch. They make you want to check out her music.

Collage featuring a shot of FONTINE performing on TikTok within a mobile phone.
FONTINE performs on TikTok. (@fontinemusic)

The app is not just having effects on artists. TikTok is playing a massive role in shaping the way fans, particularly young fans, discover and engage with music.

The way these fans interact with music on the app is different from past ways of listening to music. Since the early 20th century, recorded music has been delivered to listeners by the album or by the song, whether that be from vinyl records, the radio, cassette tapes, CDs, digital downloads, or streaming services. Before TikTok and the rest of social media, the only common form of music snippets were cellphone ringtones you could purchase over text. Otherwise, you’d listen to the entirety or at least most of a song.

Now, with the prevalence of TikTok edits and songs turning into trending 30-second sounds, fans are interacting with much shorter portions of their favourite music. On the surface, that might not seem like a big deal, but it’s having a real effect at live shows.

FONTINE has witnessed these younger fans’ lack of concert etiquette, from heckling and screaming to loudly singing the TikTok versions of songs over the singer’s voice. These behaviours can be frustrating for the artists performing, especially if they are playing smaller shows where the crowd’s voices are easier to hear.

She’s not the only artist noticing rowdy crowds. Steve Lacy, an American alternative R&B singer who already had a strong following for years, rose to new heights in the summer of 2022 with his viral hit “Bad Habit.” His song became so popular on TikTok that fans at his shows loudly sang along to the chorus and first verse, but went silent for the rest of the song, which isn’t part of the TikTok cut. In one video depicting this, Lacy laughs and asks the crowd why they stop singing along.

Nic Dyson enjoys sharing a more personal side of his music online. He’s well aware of other local artists who’ve also posted their music on TikTok, including some who’ve seen real success, like Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter Leith Ross and their song “We’ll Never Have Sex,” which garnered over eight million views on TikTok. Dyson spoke of friends who have found repeat listeners and merch buyers by sharing their tunes on the app. “I haven’t had that kind of success yet, but I’m trying,” he said.

“It’s an incredible tool to connect with fans or other artists,” Dyson said, adding he knows it’s not a one-way ticket to stardom. “It can be a little bit of a slog because there’s just so much on TikTok. You kind of have to get lucky.”

Thousands of artists are also putting out their demos and covers on the app, creating a seemingly endless sea of music content, but Dyson said “the algorithm does an amazing job of pushing local people together.”

But Gil Carroll, founder of Real Love Winnipeg, which puts on Real Love Summer Fest every year and does marketing for Real Love, finds that TikTok is less valuable than other platforms, since the shows he promotes are mostly in Winnipeg, and TikTok generally reaches people all around the world.

“We did have a couple of TikToks go semi-viral early on, and it got a bunch of views and a bunch of comments,” he said. Their most popular post, which garnered over 40,000 likes and 360,000 views, was part of a mini video series they called “records that the aging millennial knows and loves.” It featured vinyl records from Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Beach House, using “White Winter Hymnal” from Fleet Foxes’ debut album as the background music. These artists and albums were extremely popular in the 2000s, so the list clearly resonated with many viewers.

“But to be honest, it hasn’t helped us that much,” Carroll said. While these fun videos can generate views and interactions from far and wide, they don’t move the needle much for an organization focused on putting on shows in Winnipeg. Even with over 5,500 followers and a combined 133,000 likes, the impact on their booking and events is limited since most of those people are scattered across North America.

Carroll is also in Living Hour, a well-known Winnipeg shoegaze band. The band is on TikTok too, but mostly for fun. The band doesn’t use it as a marketing tool very often. “It’s mostly just Sam, our singer, being kind of silly, which I think is good.”

Similarly to FONTINE, Gil is wary of TikTok try-hards. “TikToks that are trying too hard to have a promotional angle usually just come off as kind of awkward and they’re not that well received,” he said. “Having said that, once we do have our new album, we will share our videos on TikTok.”

For some local artists, TikTok presents an opportunity to connect with their contemporaries or gain a little exposure. For others, it’s nothing more than a bit of fun. None of these artists I spoke to, however, view TikTok as a ticket to fame or a major part of their music careers. They see success on the platform as mostly up to chance.

Notable success stories

But there are some artists who have made it big through TikTok. Many of us will remember the country-trap crossover hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. The song was remixed with features from big names like BTS, Billy Ray Cyrus and Diplo. The version with Cyrus spent 19 consecutive weeks in 2019 at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, smashing the previous record of 16.

That was five years ago, and TikTok did not have the same influence then that it does now. Thanks to the memes and trends that were prominent at the time and the song’s catchiness, “Old Town Road” gained immense popularity that eventually translated into sales, sending Lil Nas X, then only 19, into the spotlight.

Noah Kahan, an American singer-songwriter with a folky sound, is a recent success story. He told Rolling Stone that he put his first viral hit, “Stick Season,” on the app because “everyone’s using TikTok.” In fact, it wasn’t even a whole song yet. He released only a verse, until the snippet gained so much traction that he had no choice but to complete the piece. He continued using TikTok snippets to build the anticipation leading towards the song’s official release, a strategy that proved to be successful.

The singer-songwriter’s 2022 album, also titled Stick Season, followed a similar path to Lil Nas X’s hit after attracting attention around the internet. Kahan re-recorded and released several songs from the album with new features from standout artists, most notably “Northern Attitude” with Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. The 2023 deluxe version of Stick Season featured a collaboration with superstar singer Post Malone, “Dial Drunk.” Not long after, Kahan was nominated for Best New Artist at the 2024 Grammy Awards. With clever snippets and features from big names, he’s quickly become one of the most intriguing names in popular music.

Collage featuring a shot of Noah Kahan performing on TikTok within a mobile phone.
Noah Kahan performs on TikTok. (@noahkahanmusic)

I’ve worked at a music store in Winnipeg, Sunrise Records, for over five years. I’ve seen firsthand the incredible impact that virality can have for artists. I noticed a massive uptick in calls and queries for Noah Kahan albums since the fall of 2023, during his rise to fame. He went from an artist the store never carried to a name we couldn’t keep in stock.

Among a list of 367 upcoming artists who signed major record deals in 2020 and 2021, 129 of them were signed based on viral TikTok success, found Vox. These numbers suggest a defined path from being just an artist on the platform to signing a big-time deal.

For the fans

While a few artists’ careers have been made on TiKTok and many other artists use the platform as one of many marketing tools, what’s in it for the fans? Does TikTok offer music fans — particularly fans of local music — any major benefits or drawbacks?

For me, an obsessive listener who listens to a new album every day, TikTok has been an incredible way to find my next album. There are countless accounts posting recommendations from every genre and era imaginable.

In 2021 and 2022, I hosted a radio show on 95.9 CKUW at the University of Winnipeg. It was called Journey Into Sound, and the theme was music history: every week I’d dive into a new era or genre of music. Episode topics ranged from 1970s Québécois prog to Ethiopian Jazz and the Madchester craze of the 1990s.

While I was already familiar with many songs and acts from these music scenes, TikTok was one of the main platforms I used to dig deeper and find those hidden gems, many of which have become favourites today. TikTok connects me with fellow music fans, and thanks to its powerful algorithm, easily beats out streaming services in terms of recommendations, consistency, and ease of use. What surprises me most is how easy it is to find obscure sounds on the platform, like spiritual jazz and underground rap recorded in basements. There really is something for everyone on the app.

I was curious to know how TikTok influenced what other music fans listened to, so I sent out a simple survey on Instagram asking music fans about how they interact with music on social media. I posed six questions and received 78 responses, mostly from people in their early 20s.

The results showed that people (73 per cent of respondents) use TikTok for finding new music,  and more than half noted it can be helpful as a music platform.

There was more division in the reactions to songs that have gone viral on TikTok. Thirty-seven percent said they’d likely check out the song, while 31 per cent remained indifferent and 24 per cent said they’d actively avoid it. These conflicting numbers might reflect the typical life cycle of a popular song. At the beginning, many are intrigued and join the hype. After the song peaks, it becomes overplayed and most people get tired of it and move on.

When respondents were asked to name specific songs and artists they discovered on the app, popular names like Steve Lacy and Noah Kahan appeared.

While opinions and experiences from local artists and fans differ, there’s certainly a common thread among them all: TikTok is alright. It can be kind of annoying. It can be great. It’s really that simple.

TikTok would be nothing without its enormous user base and legion of content creators. The more popular it gets, the more content it features, and the more interesting it becomes. This is especially true for music fans on the app.

The more artists there are sharing their music and fans sharing their favourites, the more opportunities there are for any user to find a new favourite song.

All about community

Artists can connect with fans and other performers thanks to the app. Listeners can share their love for their favourite acts with fellow fans. TikTok fosters communities of like-minded people in a way that’s never been so simple and appealing. Even still, the app depends on music to stay relevant, not the other way around.

As a fan, I’m thankful for all the incredible music I’ve found on the platform — but it’s not TikTok that brought me all those wonderful recommendations, it’s the people. The app shines as a community for music fans.

If TikTok disappeared tomorrow, artists and labels would find new ways to deliver their content to fans. Fans would find another way to seek out new tunes. No matter which platforms seem to overtake the music industry, the artists, their music, and the fans will live on.

Black and white headshot of contributor Olivier La Roche.

Olivier La Roche

Olivier (he/him) is passionate about writing, music, and writing about music. He's happiest at the record store, sitting under a tree, or having a pint with friends.