Music has never just been about consumption, and it has always been social. People were using music to communicate, to express themselves, and to find their tribe of like-minded fans long before the digital era we are currently living in.
However, technology has been a force multiplier for this. Social media’s impact on music has been profound, from the newsgroups and chatrooms of the 1990s through to the 21st-century social networks and short-video apps – and their impact on the social music streaming services that have become the dominant form of consumption.
In China, social features are already intertwined with music streaming, with Tencent Music‘s thriving karaoke and live streaming arm, and the bustling comment sections on services like NetEase Cloud Music. “A lot of it is constructive comments: they give context about how they feel about the music,” explained NetEase Cloud Music’s VP international Mathew Daniel during his keynote at Midem 2019.
If one company epitomises the social music streaming trend, it’s TikTok. In less than three years since its launch as the international version of Chinese app Douyin, it has grown to nearly 700 million users worldwide, including 100 million apiece in the US and Europe.
TikTok and the Musical.ly app that merged with it in August 2018 didn’t pioneer the idea of short-video apps, but they did marry that idea to music. Clips of songs were the soundtrack to their young users’ digital lives, making TikTok a powerful new way for people to hear tracks for the first time.
“Today, TikTok is playing a major role in music discovery. That does not mean that it is a simply a place where new songs emerge, although over the past two years that has happened on many occasions,” says Chaz Jenkins, chief commercial officer at music analytics company Chartmetric, which tracks music activity on TikTok among other platforms.
“It is also a place where old catalogue tracks can suddenly reach entirely new audiences, or where tracks which did reasonably well when first released can suddenly re-ignite and engage a much greater audience.”
The scale of social music streaming is startling. Megan Thee Stallion‘s ‘Savage‘ and K Camp‘s ‘Lottery‘ have both been used in more than 30m TikTok videos since their release, although they have a way to go to catch the most-used track of all on TikTok: Jawsh 685’s ‘Laxed – Siren Beat‘, which has soundtracked 55.3m videos.
The bigger social media companies were watching closely, and have made their own moves. Facebook, for example, has signed a number of licensing deals with labels, publishers and collecting societies covering the usage of music in user-generated content (UGC) on its main social network, as well as Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and the Oculus virtual reality platform.
Scale is key here. Instagram’s ‘stories’ feature was being used by more than 400 million people in June 2018, when the app added the ability to use music clips in those stories. But UGC licensing deals have also helped Facebook to experiment with new forms of social media music streaming: like the Lip Sync Live karaoke feature in 2018.
Social media and music sharing has helped artists and labels to experiment too. Three examples from Instagram alone in 2020: augmented reality (AR) filters for some classic Pink Floyd albums; a track-by-track album preview by Gabrielle Aplin; and a filter enabling fans to remix a pair of 5 Seconds of Summer tracks.
Snapchat also signed music licensing deals, in August 2020, enabling it to test a feature for people to add music to their snaps – complete with links in those snaps to stream the full songs on streaming services. As this rolls out to the app’s 238 million daily active users, it’s another potentially powerful link between social media and music streaming.
TikTok’s blend of music and personal expression is spreading fast. Instagram has also rolled its TikTok-like Reels feature out globally, while YouTube is testing its own take on the short-video concept: YouTube Shorts.
In India, meanwhile, a host of local short-video apps sprang up this summer in the wake of TikTok being banned there. MX TakaTak, launched by video-streaming firm MX Player, picked up 45 million users within a month of launching. Moj, launched by social media company ShareChat, raced to 80 million users in less than three months.
India is offering a fascinating glimpse at another possible future for social media music streaming: the convergence of short-video apps and music streaming services. Gaana, India’s biggest audio streaming service, launched a TikTok-like app called HotShots this summer, while one of its main rivals, JioSaavn, signed a deal to integrate US short-video app Triller’s videos into its platform.
How many social media users have a music streaming app? That data is hard to come by, but this 2018 study from research firm MusicWatch claimed that nine out of 10 social media users do some kind of music-related activity in their social apps, including watching videos featuring artists; engaging with artist posts; and sharing songs, albums or playlists from streaming services. 63% of people surveyed agreed that they were discovering new artists on social media, while nearly 60% were visiting streaming services to listen to music after seeing a relevant post.
Social media’s role in music streaming has a lot of potential. Already we understand that virality in social apps can lead directly to a spike in plays on streaming services.
“We track the impact of a song from when it first comes on to the platform through to streaming success and chart placement. There are numerous documented examples where TikTok has driven spikes in streaming,” says Paul Hourican, head of music operations at TikTok UK.
The most recent example is Fleetwood Mac‘s 1977 hit ‘Dreams’, which went viral on TikTok after a user posted a video of himself skateboarding while drinking cranberry juice and miming the song’s lyrics.
“Streams followed and over 40 years after it was first released the song is back in the charts,” says Hourican. Fleetwood Mac founder member Mick Fleetwood even joined TikTok to record his own version of the clip, as a celebration.
“We see a clear correlation between social buzz and the streams. This is most clear when it’s a sustained campaign,” says Timothy Armoo, CEO of Fanbytes, a content, social and influencer marketing agency that works with labels and brands to capitalise on social streaming trends.
The social media impact on music can be seen in labels’ growing use of ‘challenges’ on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and other platforms. Accompanied by their own hashtag, these challenges encourage fans and influencers alike to share videos using a certain track, around a specific theme.
“Either originating from the community itself or through an artist’s own vision, challenges are particuarly effective when the artist leans in and really engages with the TikTok community,” says TikTok’s Hourican.
Examples include Drake‘s #ToosieSlide, Conkarah and Shaggy‘s #BananaDropChallenge, KBFR‘s #HoodBabyShuffle and Robyn‘s #OnMyOwn. “When a challenge takes off, it can take a song beyond a single moment and embed it firmly into a cultural trend.”
The mechanics of these campaigns are evolving at pace, for example to go beyond a single platform. “We are seeing more multifaceted campaigns that involve Instagram, TikTok and Triller recently,” says Armoo. “Each of them has a purpose too in the lifecycle of the song.”
Social media is having a big impact on music in 2020, but music is having an impact right back. Pex, a company that analyses the content on social media and video platforms, estimated this year that 49% of all videos on Facebook contained at least 10 seconds of music, and that those videos accounted for 77% of all views on the platform.
The equivalent stats for Instagram are 58% and 43.8% respectively. This is why the music industry is leaning into these platforms so enthusiastically.
“Our expectation is that these alternate distribution paths, particularly the social platforms, will over time be significant revenue contributors,” Warner Music Group CEO Steve Cooper told analysts in August.
Two and a half years before, when his company signed its licensing deal with Facebook, WMG’s then chief digital officer Ole Obermann said that “fan-created video is one of the most personal, social and often viral ways that music is enjoyed, but its commercial potential is largely untapped”.
Nowadays, Obermann is trying to change that from the other side of the fence, as VP and global head of music at TikTok. Just another example of the convergence between social media and music that points towards a bright future, and a shift in attitudes from the music industry.
“There was a period of time in which user generated content was considered unappealing by the traditional music industry. It was seen as ‘lesser than’ the pristine audio or music video that came out of the studio. Meanwhile, technology companies were embracing the phenomenon that individuals with no training or expertise were creating a wide range of highly engaging social content,” says Vickie Nauman, founder of CrossBorderWorks.
Nauman sees that early gap as mainly down to two reasons: first that licensing models were not yet in place to create value for music rightsholders from UGC, and second because music wasn’t ‘breaking’ in the early social UGC platforms in the way that it did on radio and streaming services.
“Both of these gaps are now closing and we are seeing a wide proliferation of social platforms around music that are surfacing music in ways that the original creators may not have ever contemplated,” says Nauman.
“In addition to YouTube, we have TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat all supporting UGC and legally licensed music at scale, as well as earlier stage companies such as Trash and Triller. They each have a slightly different user experience and audience makeup, which not only means a new revenue stream for the music industry but an exciting mix of new ways for labels to break artists and get end consumers engaged directly with the music.”
Mark Mulligan, managing director at Midia Research, agrees that UGC’s moment has come to make a real impact on music industry revenues.
“With subscriptions hitting maturity in developed markets, rightsholders need new growth drivers. This has become particularly crucial since lockdowns have dented income streams such as physical sales and public performance revenues,” he says.
“UGC is entering a new phase of market sophistication due in large part to the increasingly powerful creation tools that UGC apps are putting into the hands of consumers. We are in the era of mass customization, where we increasingly lean forward and interact with the content we consume,” adds Mulligan.
“In the first era of UGC only a small pool of consumers had the tools and know how to create compelling UGC. Now anyone with a TikTok or Instagram account can make content that has the potential to get millions of views.”