John Seabrook's TikTok Article – Lefsetz Letter

“So You Want To Be A TikTok Star: The social-media platform is transforming the music industry. Is that a good thing?”:
And we thought file-trading was gonna kill the record business.
Let’s be clear, the major labels will never die, because of their catalogs, which they wield with an iron fist, you cannot play in the music sphere without licensing their wares. Spotify delayed launching in the U.S. because one major label group wouldn’t make a deal. But things have changed, Bob Dylan is making money from books these days, having sold his songs and recordings (Was that too obscure a reference? That’s Bob’s last transcendent track if you ask me, fits perfectly in “The Wonder Boys”…then again, they don’t make movies like that anymore either.) And the major labels have lost control of new music production. And they’re scared.
Yes, the labels controlled radio, and then radio died. Ask a youngster if they’ve ever even listened to terrestrial radio, odds are never. And everybody talks about the labels’ power at Spotify/streaming outlets, but statistics tell us that despite all the hype about playlists, the ability to get on (and Spotify denies this muscle, saying their playlisters are completely independent, although relationships are relationships), the truth is most people pick and choose what they want to listen to, playlists are for casual listeners and background music. In other words breaking solely from a playlist is very hard, people find out about music elsewhere and then go to the streaming outlet to listen to it.
So how do you make a hit? You can’t! All you can do is leverage what you’ve got, maybe have a newbie featured on a hitmaker’s track, because starting from zero is nearly impossible these days.
Oh, the major labels own print. But the target audience does not read traditional print, whether it be physically or online. Sure, you can break an adult act via a combination of print and NPR, but they tend not to be superstars and the formula doesn’t work that often anyway. As for the vaunted “CBS Sunday Morning,” my sources tell me it no longer has the impact it once did. So how are you going to get the word out? YOU CAN’T!
And then comes TikTok.
Now if you’re in the business, part of the maelstrom, nothing in John Seabrook’s article will be new to you. But TikTok used to be the wild west and the hoi polloi was unaware of its impact. Now TikTok is a juggernaut and if it’s in “The New Yorker”…EVERYBODY KNOWS ABOUT IT!
So why is TikTok so  popular and powerful?
The people, the humanity. Something ABSENT from major label product for decades. There’s no pushing of the envelope at the major labels, they don’t want to reinvent the wheel, they want it the way it used to be, they want it easy, but it’s not.
So people don’t watch TikTok videos for the music, they watch them for the clip, the visuals. And these are not the MTV mega-productions of yore, they’re shot cheaply and if you don’t evidence your true popularity, there is no virality. And virality is the game on TikTok.
But the game is completely different from any we’ve seen before. Even the losers get lucky sometimes, actually more than lucky! Just because you’ve gone viral once, made some headway, that does not mean your subsequent video will automatically be served to zillions via the algorithm. It has to have that je ne sais quoi. Conversely, if you’re no one and your video has that certain special something…TikTok blasts it everywhere.
Think about this. This is great for the public at large, anybody can play. But just because you break on TikTok, that does not mean you will sustain. You could be one and done.
This is what blew up music back in the sixties and seventies, the honesty, the humanity. If you wanted to know what was going on in society you listened to music, it was the hottest medium. Today it’s a joke.
Right now I’m in Aspen at Jim Lewi’s conference. What did we discuss at lunch? POLITICS! And the promoter most into it wasn’t even forty. And he talked with the kind of depth boomers used to have re records, he was anything but surface. Have you tried to read an artist profile recently? Nincompoops on parade. Who cares what they have to say, they’re all brands.
That’s the goal if you’re part of the major label system, the music is just a jumping off point. And I’m not saying there are no brand extensions on TikTok, it’s just that humanity is core to the enterprise.
Now in truth old acts can tour irrelevant of TikTok. And niche acts who tour constantly and are the bedrock of our business don’t need TikTok (and they don’t need major labels either). But if you’re a new, young, developing act… TikTok is radio and MTV all rolled into one, with a twist, and that twist is the creators are in control. TikTok does control the algorithm, but that’s it. TikTok is like all the rest of the social networks, the people are the product. But now the creativity of the people has been set loose, and it’s fascinating to watch. As analyst Rich Greenfield always says, Netflix’s competition isn’t Disney+ or Amazon Prime Video or Hulu or Apple TV+, it’s TikTok. People spend hours a day on TikTok, and it never gets boring, it’s addictive.
So the major labels are trying to get into TikTok. They work with TikTok to spread priorities, but the creators don’t have to use major label product, the creator featured in this article writes her own music.
And then the major label swoops down and signs you.
If you’re big enough you can write your own deal, get millions and own the recordings and publishing. But what exactly can the major label do for you other than pay you an advance? Get you on the Grammys? Who the hell is watching that? Certainly not your potential audience. Get you in the newspaper? Don’t make me laugh. The truth is creativity lives online and the creators know more about the landscape than the major labels, by far.
And if you sign with the major, you’re giving up your future. Sure, you might get millions today, but tomorrow they’re gonna keep the lion’s share of the money. So, cool if you’re one and done, but if you’re in it for the long haul, why do you need the label? Who first and foremost ARE GOING TO TELL YOU WHAT TO DO! And that’s anathema in today’s fast-paced world. Once the majors know about it, it’s passé.
Don’t talk to me about Lil Nas X. It’s like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” it could only be done one time. That was years ago, the landscape has evolved, rapidly.
Furthermore, on TikTok, you don’t even need a complete song! These creators are not worried about masters and publishing, they’re only worried about how they can get more views. They’re not recording artists… Well, they’re so much more than recording artists!
Now if you read Seabrook’s article, you’ll read about Barbara Jones, who spoke at last year’s Aspen conference, who worked at many labels, most recently as head of marketing at Columbia, but that wasn’t so recently. She worked in the mommy blogger world, and then pivoted to representing TikTok artists. Truth is major labels are a joke, they’ve fired everybody with experience, or squeezed them out, so now you’ve only got self-satisfied poohbahs at the top and poorly paid worker bees at the bottom. It’s kind of like what I said about CPAs… If you’re working at the label you’re not that sharp, or afraid of working for yourself. Because the world moves much faster than the major labels. There are tons of opportunities. But you have to see into the future and create them. The old paradigm is dead. Not only for breaking artists but moving up the food chain at a label. The label world has shrunk, there’s no longer the constant movement of executives like there used to be and the truth is established companies are really piss-poor at owning the future. MTV couldn’t capitalize on the internet. Tower Records went bankrupt. Jimmy and Doug tried to own streaming, but it was a nobody from Sweden who got it right and became a billionaire.
There’s something after TikTok, and I can’t tell you what it is.
But the essence of TikTok will be a core element of what comes next. Yes, the tapping of the individual creativity of the unfettered individual. This is where TikTok is like the sixties. There’s no formula, let your freak flag fly, we’re open to all comers. And what looks like a dud to the usual suspects can blow up prodigiously.
This reminds me of Napster. In that the reason the major labels were so far behind the curve is because nobody working at them used the service. Once you did you got it, and you were never going back to the old ways. And let’s be clear, Spotify proved that people were willing to pay, it’s just that the labels wouldn’t authorize anything comporting with the public’s desire for ten years. Don’t talk to me about the iTunes Store. It was just a replication of physical online. Not like Spotify, where you pick and choose what you want and eat it all for one low payment a month.
You’ve got to be on TikTok. If you’re in the music business, or you’re making music, your opinion is worthless unless you dive in and spend hours on the service, so you understand it, so it’s second nature, so you feel it.
And unlike so much in tech, the learning curve on TikTok is almost nonexistent.
And just like in the modern world you’re on your own trip, you control the ride, nobody else has the same feed, is watching the same videos, because in truth all our interests are different.
And unlike Spotify’s algorithmic products, TikTok serves up stuff you want to listen to. Spotify is far ahead of its competitors, but I rarely listen to Discover Weekly because I don’t want to spend all that time just to find one good track. Whereas on TikTok…use it for less than half an hour and it’s ringing your bell every time.
Yes, technology is serving us, helping us.
And it’s pushing us farther apart as it brings us together.
The old paradigm of record companies was mass. We’ve already seen that mass has declined. Quick, sing the new Taylor Swift hit! I doubt you can. Or Drake or… Never has hit music had less of a reach.
This is the opposite of everything the major labels’ business model is based on.
Netflix dealt with this by releasing a plethora of product. Knowing that few things are going to appeal to the mass, and you’ve got to satiate the niches in order to have a sustainable business, where people renew their subscriptions every month.
Meanwhile, the major labels’ have shrunk the amount of product they release. And that which they do put out is massaged ad infinitum to have the most chance in the marketplace. In truth, it’s about more reaching fewer people. But in the aggregate…
That’s what streaming is about, in both music and television, the AGGREGATE! We no longer live in a controlled environment. Everybody’s on their own trip. The good thing is they want to consume.
But they do not want to consume in the way the major labels want them to. They don’t want to create that way or pay that way or…
More to come.

By: bob | 2022/12/07 | Music BusinessPop CultureTechnology | Trackback | Comments [RSS 2.0]

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