They’re big on TikTok, but can they make it IRL?
Exploring the fame trajectory from the app to playing music festivals
Saturday 13 August 2022 By Jacquelyn Lumley
You know it’s a moment in time when a classic song takes on a new reference for a budding generation. Up until a few months ago, the song ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off You’ had one contemporary reference in my mind, that being Heath Ledger’s rendition of it in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Then came TikTok and 2022’s version of this song.
A musician known as Surf Mesa remixed a cover of the 1967 Frankie Valli track and first uploaded it to TikTok in March of 2020. There’s no viral dance or meme associated with the song, but his version, titled ‘ily (i love you baby)’, has since been used as the soundtrack to over 7.6 million individual TikTok videos. The song landed the 22-year-old a record deal with Universal and a summer tour, with stops at music festivals across the nation. He had previously never toured and never released a full album. The wild thing is that he’s one of many rising artists experiencing this phenomenon, which is completely shaking up the music industry. As we peek our heads out into festival season, many TikTokers have scored set times on the lineup. They’ve proven their ability to connect with fans, but can they wow it IRL?
Data reports that 25% of new artists who charted on Spotify last year came from TikTok. A lot of these musicians did so without a record label or marketing team. They simply downloaded TikTok, turned the camera around and started posting consistently, cultivating loyal internet groupies. For rising artists, landing a set time at a music festival is where accomplishment meets opportunity. In this case, it’s an accomplishment to showcase the viral hit that made them famous with the opportunity to advance past ‘one hit wonder’ status and move beyond the realms of the internet.
Take Tai Verdes, the man behind two viral TikTok hits, ‘A-O-K’ and ‘Stuck in the Middle’. Verdes was working at a Verizon store during the pandemic when he posted ‘Stuck in The Middle’ to TikTok. He’s now got performances at Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo under his belt with set times at Austin City Limits and Leeds coming up. It’s hard to believe artists like Lil Nas X and The Kid Laroi trailblazed similar trajectories.
It’s now officially a marketing tactic to try to get your song to trend on TikTok, with bigger artists reluctantly jumping on board, per their label’s demands. These already famous artists are trying to match the tides of their almost famous indie predecessors. Attempts like this only further legitimise artists on the come up who are able to authentically connect with an audience on TikTok, like Norwegian singer/songwriter Girl in Red. Remarkably, Girl in Red has no viral songs on TikTok, but her off-the-cuff videos on the platform have established her as a queer icon with over 11 million monthly listens on Spotify and sets at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, Primavera Sound and Outside Lands. She only recently signed with Columbia Records, having previously self-released her entire discography.
In the same realm is Petey, who boasts no striking metrics other than his sketch videos on TikTok, which frequently rack up millions of views with hundreds of thousands of likes and a bustling comment section. Like Girl in Red, Petey doesn’t have any trending sounds on TikTok, while his Spotify metrics are nothing substantial (yet). Still, he’s landed festival set times at both Outside Lands and Lollapalooza, a sponsorship with Miller Lite and a crazy loyal fanbase who all feel like they’re part of his friend group. And the list goes on, with artist after artist after artist finding candid fame via TikTok and buckling up for the summer of their dreams on tour.
If we zoom out, it’s obvious that TikTok does not operate like a normal social media platform. It’s more of a creators’ showcase, where both the message and the medium act as art. This enables people like Petey to demonstrate his humour and storytelling skills, leaving you to seek out his music on your own. It empowers someone like Girl in Red to talk you through her dating life and then drop songs that have you singing along to the same stories. The ‘best’ videos on TikTok captivate viewers like a cultural digest with comment sections that read like subplots. Yet unlike traditional content creators, emerging musicians on the platform aren’t finding immediate ways to profit off of their big followings. TikTok has no direct payout set up in terms of streaming for musicians. Touring is the money maker.
These emerging artists are all in the midst of playing the biggest crowds of their career this summer. Are they worth seeing? Oh yeah. They’re having the time of their lives, IRL. Internet groupies are out in the crowds, singing along while capturing content to post on TikTok next week. It’s a show within a show. At Outside Lands, Surf Mesa played to a crowd so large that it flooded out of view, blending into the skyline. Contemplating one last song, he turned to the side stage at the end of his set to gauge the risk. ‘I want to be invited back, I think I gotta cut it right here y’all,’ he proclaimed apologetically.
I saw a video of Girl in Red rebelliously making out with a fan as she walked off stage from one of her recent shows. She, of course, reposted the video to her own IG, declaring, ‘Holy shit, probably the sickest show I’ve played.’ Already famous on the internet, these artists are going deeper and doubling down to absolutely bring it on stage. When compared to a standard venue, a festival setting has always offered something seemingly more authentic. Mix that with first-timers playing to big crowds doused in a lot of passion and a little angst, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a show.