In 2020, the shortest route to a major label deal was undoubtedly TikTok. Thanks to the app’s music-centric platform and algorithm, its stars have come to define an “overnight success” — a term that was once used to deride a career boost, but is now simply a fact. In the last year, breakout artists like Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion skyrocketed thanks to the platform, helping them both earn Grammy nominations, including for best new artist. TikTok has boosted the careers of veteran artists — most notably Fleetwood Mac who saw a resurgence thanks to a viral video using their song “Dreams” — and it’s helping to create acts, too.
It’s no wonder TikTok is booming this year. With the live music industry stalled by the cancellation of touring, the world’s ears (and eyes) turned to other venues, most of them virtual. The COVID pandemic and on-and-off lockdowns kept many people at home feeling antsy. That presented the perfect opportunity to find an audience and proved its ability to catapult songs to epic streaming numbers and chart-topping placements. According to TikTok’s first year-end music report, 176 different songs surpassed 1 billion video views in 2021, and five of them reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Indeed, COVID birthed a new kind of star on TikTok — one that had a massive following before even starting a music career — and those artists are circumventing the traditional A&R process.
Isabel Quinteros, senior manager of artist relations and music partnerships at TikTok U.S., says she has seen over 70 artists signed by labels after going viral on the platform — some who already had fanbases, like Dixie D’Amelio, sister of Charli, TikTok’s most-followed personaltiy, and others that seemed to blow up over night, like Avenue Beat. But how, exactly?
“TikTok distributes content based on performance and interests, allowing for good content to have a wide reach despite of how many followers you may or may not have,” Quinteros says. “This is why the app is the best for music discovery.”
But TikTok has also shown its potential to launch viable music careers, and has even helped to unlock that passion in several of its biggest personalities. Among them: singer-songwriter Nessa Barrett, pop-punk revivalist Jxdn, hip-hop artist Jufu and R&B newcomer Tayler Holder — three of whom have already landed label deals from their presence on TikTok.
The 18-year-old Barrett started her TikTok account in early 2019, mainly posting lip-synching videos to popular songs. Nearly two years later, she boasts over 13 million followers on the platform. But internet fame was never her end goal. “I never really went into social media wanting to be a social media influencer if that makes sense,” Barrett tells Variety. “While I was gaining a huge following and posting often, I never wanted it to be my job and I never really took it full force. And so as soon as I made the decision that I was 100% following my dream of doing music all the way, I started to find myself.”
For Barrett, social media was a stepping stone on the road to a career. After posting a few clips of her singing on TikTok, Warner Records reached out, and eventually signed her. In July, her debut single, “Pain,” was released. The piano-based ballad puts Barrett’s haunting vocals and lyricism on full display. Barrett says she sat down and wrote the song at the piano during a session when she wasn’t “feeling it,” and the original version came out to be 30 minutes long.
“Because of how raw it was, I knew I wanted that to be my first song,” Barrett says. “I just wanted it to be real.”
“Pain” has nearly 14 million Spotify streams, and its accompanying music video has garnered over 10 million views on YouTube. Barrett has since released another single, “if u love me,” and a punk-rock take on the Christmas perennial “Santa Baby.” As for her future projects and debut album, Barrett says she’s going for a “punk, dark rock kind of vibe.”
Already embodying that vibe is Jxdn (pronounced Jaden), a TikToker-turned-Travis Barker prodigy. Formerly a member of the content hub known as Sway House, the 19-year-old — whose real name is Jaden Hossler — started out making mainly comedic content on the platform. Once he joined, it was off to the races, gaining 2,000 followers in a week and was at 50,000 within the month. His social media career skyrocketed from there, and Jxdn now has nearly 9 million followers on TikTok. Though Jxdn participated in choir and plays throughout high school, he fell in love with singing after watching Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never” documentary.
“Justin Bieber’s ‘Never Say Never’ really inspired me to become a singer,” Jxdn says. “I had really floppy hair like Justin’s, so I felt a connection to him. Then that really grew into me just building my talent of singing without really knowing.”
After moving to L.A., Jxdn found himself enamored with the e-boy style that invaded TikTok, which led to his discovery of the pop-punk genre. When he heard Blink-182, he knew that he wanted to be a rockstar. He released his first song, “Comatose,” independently in February – and got a call from legendary Blink drummer Barker the next morning.
For a first venture into music, “Comatose” is undeniably impressive. Jxdn’s ragged but perfectly-pitched vocals match seething lyrics against a backdrop of crisp drums and hearty bass. It’s no wonder that Barker made Jxdn the first — and currently the only — signee of his label, DTA Records.
“Travis took a chance on me because he saw my heart, and he knew that I would be searching for the right perspective on this new music,” Jxdn says of the experience, adding that Barker told him he was “the perfect clay to mold.” “As soon as Travis hit me up, man, every label in the fucking country did too. I didn’t even know what shit was, like I genuinely felt like Justin Bieber.”
Five singles later — two of which, “Angels & Demons” and “So What!,” broke through the top 10 on the U.S. rock charts — Jxdn is preparing to release his debut album in early 2021. The album’s first single, “Better Off Dead,” was released on Dec. 18 with co-writing credits from Lauv and Blackbear.
“‘Tell Me About Tomorrow’ is going to be a groundbreaking experience, as movie critics would say. The energy I put in this album is like I’ve made timeless music for people to listen to 100 years from now and it would still feel just as relevant,” Jxdn adds. “This is gonna blow people away. This is going to be like, a shift in culture.”
Even after a TikTok star is signed, Quinteros says that it’s part of her job on the artist relations team to keep the momentum going.
“What we do at TikTok is work with creators and artists to provide them with the insights and tools to find success in-app and are here to support them in whatever way we can,” Quinteros reveals. “Additionally, once a creator gets signed we work closely with the label to ensure we continue to build on the momentum created in-app. We work closely with our editorial team to secure banner support and placements in key playlists and to see if there are live-streaming opportunities or creator support we can tap into to further amplify the trend.”
For 20-year-old hip-hop artist Jufu, making the transition from social media personality to serious musician has been a seven year process.
Jufu — whose real name is Julian Jeanmarie — started his social media career on Vine (TikTok’s short-lived six-second video predecessor) at the age of 13, where he made comedic content with his friends. By his second year, he had over 250,000 followers, which eventually carried over to Musical.ly, and then TikTok, where he currently boasts 3.2 million followers. Though he has played guitar since he was nine, making his own music also had its roots in comedy. His first song to go viral, “Woahh,” was made with the popular TikTok dance move in mind, and started off only 30 seconds in total. When interest in the song piqued, Jufu went back and made a full version.
@jufuWHO R U? (Use this sound for a cookie) #foryou #whoru #meme♬ Who R U – Jufu
“At first I was making just music for people to enjoy on social media,” Jufu says. “But I realized that I have a lot within me that I want to put out there, music that’s putting out a vulnerable piece of myself.”
For his next viral release, “Who R U,” Jufu made the full song before the TikTok sound. It spurred a viral TikTok challenge that was used by the likes of Will Smith and Steve Harvey. Next thing he knew, “12 to 15” labels were knocking at Jufu’s virtual door. Island Records, home to Shawn Mendes (who, incidentally, was also discovered on Vine), was the winning bidder.
“Island definitely had the most the most family vibe for me and the best vision for longevity,” Jufu says. “They didn’t want to just make ‘Who R U’ into a number one record, and then nobody ever hears from Jufu again.”
Quinteros has been along for the ride with Jufu since the beginning.
“The first time he came onto my radar was when he went viral with ‘Woahh’ and I thought to myself, ‘I think there’s something here.’ We had a short meeting and stayed in touch,” Quinteros says. “It’s been amazing to witness the journey from viral creator to bonafide music artist.”
Though he’s not signed to a label just yet, it won’t be long for 23-year-old Tayler Holder, who has the most TikTok followers out of this bunch — over 17 million. A former member of the infamous Hype House, Holder has been in the social media game, in addition to gigs as a model and actor, for some time. Though Holder put out a song, “Who I Am,” in 2017, it was only recently that he revealed his true vocal talent.
On Oct. 31, Holder posted a short cover of Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First” on TikTok, showcasing a raspy vocal delivery and strong control. The post immediately blew up, eventually gaining over 5 million likes and nearly 30 million plays. In the comments section (which has nearly 140,000 posts), fans and friends alike pleaded with him to release original music.
@itstaylerholderyou broke me first. By: @tatemcrae1♬ original sound – Tayler Holder
Well, he certainly plans to. Fans got a taste from his collaborative single “Feels Like Christmas” with Kelianne Stankus and Nate Wyatt, which dropped on Dec. 8. But, Holder says his original music, due early next year, will stay in the R&B lane.
When asked why he’s waited so long to delve into music, Holder answers: “It’s been a passion for me my entire life, but I just never had the right team around me, or even know how to do it myself. But with getting more established in the social media industry and meeting producers or writers or other artists, it’s brought me more into it. … I wasn’t always blessed with vocals, it’s just something that I picked up on. Over the last two years, I really started watching vocal lessons on YouTube and singing every day.”
Holder acknowledges the skepticism that comes with a launching pad like TikTok, but it’s only providing him with more motivation. “Whenever you’re an influencer and trying to make that transition over to being a musician and being taken seriously, it’s very hard,” Holder says. “I hope people see that I’m not just some influencer trying to make music. I actually love this. I have a passion for it. I hope they see something different in me as an artist and not just a TikTok star.”