At the end of 2019, singer Jason Derulo’s career was at a low ebb. While the singer had enjoyed a string of multiplatinum singles and Teen Choice Awards in the early 2010s, he hadn’t had a major hit in several years, and an attempt at branching into acting — er, in the epic star-studded flop “Cats” — hadn’t really worked out. He was a 30-year-old former pop star who’d just split from Warner Bros., the only record company he’d ever called home. Then the pandemic hit.
But while hunkered down at home, Derulo began experimenting with TikTok, filming videos — some music-based, some not — in his Los Angeles home: short, funny clips starring him, his girlfriend, Jena, and their friends and dogs. The posts caught on fast, racking up millions of views and likes, showing a dedication to feeding the pipeline with content, discipline he’d developed from years of performing, and a previously unrevealed gift for comic timing.
“I was never really a social media guy because Twitter and Instagram didn’t really speak to me,” Derulo says. “And when it started, TikTok was more of a dance app, and I tried a challenge or two. But because I was at home, I started to experiment with it. More than half of the top TikTok videos are comedy, so I’d post things and be like, ‘OK, they don’t respond to this, but they seem to like that,’ and learned what made it tick,” he laughs, “for lack of a better word. And it all just kinda exploded.”
Needless to say, it didn’t explode by itself. Early in the process, Derulo met with Isabel Quinteros Annous, TikTok’s head of music partnerships and artist relations. “He said, ‘Isabel, I want to be No. 1,’” she recalls. “So I went to his house, just before lockdown, and we spent about two hours going through best practices, how to create content and talking through a content strategy.
“That was last March, when he had about 6 million followers — and now he has 43.7 million,” she marvels. “That is astronomical growth in just 12 months.”
Not only is Derulo the most followed artist on the platform (he ranks 12th overall, behind social media personalities Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae) but he has a graphic novel, a podcast, a vodka line and a book about social media strategy in the works. Most significantly, last month he inked a long-term deal with Atlantic Records, after launching several singles embraced by a rabid TikTok audience.
Many of the songs by older artists that have exploded on TikTok have been flukes — like Fleetwood Mac’s 45-year-old “Dreams” — and younger artists who are social-media natives tend to say they “just do what [they’re] feeling” when asked about strategy. But Derulo is downright scientific about his posts and made sure that he’d established himself on the platform before he tried promoting music to his followers. How did he accomplish that?
“It’s kinda deep,” he says. “Everybody has a different audience, and you have to spend some time to get to know yours. Then, the most important thing is good lighting, and use trending songs because they capture people’s interest instantly. Also, start your videos with a close-up — you have literally one second to stop people from scrolling, so what are you going to do with that second? Quick cuts keep people’s attention,” he continues enthusiastically, “and there’s tricks like having two or three sentences on the screen, but just long enough for people to read just the first one, so they have to watch the whole video again to read the rest of it.” He pauses. “I have a million things like that.”
But Derulo’s TikTok’s show an acting and comedic skill that goes even beyond the experience he would have accumulated by starring in music videos. “I went to college for musical theater and I’m a trained actor,” he says, “but I just haven’t had the right role to actually demonstrate that. I thought it might have been one I did that I don’t even want to mention” — that would be “Cats” — “but things don’t always work out the way that you plan.”
And comedy? “I always thought I was funny,” he laughs, “but my mom used tell me, ‘Nah, Jay, Joey’s the funny one,’ my brother. I don’t really have any background in it, no.”
Not surprisingly, Derulo’s forthcoming book about social media strategy currently has offers from four publishers.
When talking with people about TikTok strategy, he says, “I’m always like, ‘Damn y’all don’t know that?,’ so I decided to write a book about it — not just for everyday people but for big brands too. They hire people who have no experience, and although this is all new to everybody, I have experience in the field. How can anybody at a big brand speak to how social media works if they don’t have a presence? Everybody is just playing it by ear and acting like they know what they’re doing.”
But the biggest coup from his TikTok success is his new record deal, which came after he and his longtime manager, Frank Harris, launched a series of singles on their own label that they licensed to different distributors, including Atlantic. After parting ways with Warner, “we thought about going back to the major label system, but the right deals weren’t out there,” Harris says. “So we said, ‘We’re gonna do this our way,’ and we started rolling out music.” Derulo had five successful singles — including the smashes “Savage Love” (a collaboration with New Zealand artist Jawsh 685) and “Take You Dancing” — inside of a year by the time he signed with Atlantic, a deal that also includes his and Harris’ label, Future History.
The music rollout was just as carefully strategized as his TikTok campaigns. “We had four songs: ‘Savage Love,’ ‘Take You Dancing,’ ‘Don’t Cry for Me’ and Cono’ — and we knew the first two were hits,” Harris says. “I knew that if everything went the way we hoped it would, we’d either be in a position to get the right label partner, or just keep rocking on our own.”
Derulo and Harris began releasing the new songs on Future History (which they’d launched in 2015), teasing them on TikTok, and then licensing them individually to a series of different label partners. The plan hit a snag when “Savage Love,” which basically consisted of Derulo building a new song on top of an existing TikTok hit by New Zealand teenager Jawsh 685 without obtaining full permission, began receiving cease-and-desist orders from Columbia Records, Jawsh’s label. “We had a little static with Columbia at first, because we pretty much gangsta’d the record,” Harris admits. “They wanted to stop us from putting it out, but the song was already a hit. It was acrimonious at first and it’s a long story, but the song got so big that we eventually came together, and [Columbia chief] Ron Perry and his team have been great.” In the following weeks, the pair released “Don’t Cry to Me” through Virgin, the more dance-oriented “Coño” via Big Beat, and followed with “Take You Dancing” through Artist Partners, with both of the latter songs distributed by Atlantic.
“We released all of those songs in a two-month period, and people said ‘You guys are inundating the market, maybe this is too much,’” Harris recalls. “But we were like, ‘No, this is our plan,’ and we had our biggest record ever — outside the major label system.”
Derulo is currently working on his Atlantic debut, along with the multiple projects listed above. But he insists that he’s not making music that is deliberately TikTok friendly. “I really can’t think like that, because I’m really involved in the culture and I know that only really good songs pop there — it’s not really about a specific sound,” he says. “So I’m just working on making the best songs I can so that people can connect to them. There’s not a formula.”
That’s an easy thing to say when you’ve got 43.7 million fans waiting for your next move. “Jason is the king of TikTok because he not only delivers amazing content that goes viral all the time, but he also delivers on the music,” Quinteros Annous says. “If you look at his body of work, he’s had at least four songs trend on the platform. The sky is the limit for him.”
Jason Derulo’s Top 5 TikTok posts
“When She Knows You Too Well” 149.9m
“Jena Was Not Hurt in Making This Video… But I Was” 94.7m
“So This Is What U Meant When You Said You’d Doggy-Sit” 91.6m
“How I’m Putting On Pants From Now On” 81.1m
Tried Putting #icederulo on a Diet” 71.1m