For decades, new musical talent was discovered from all over. Scouts would catch bands playing in dive bars, A&R professionals would pore through demo submissions, and managers would push hard just to have their clients heard. Some of this is still going on, but the search has almost entirely moved online, with one app turning more hopefuls into signed hitmakers than any other.
These days, record labels are looking to TikTok to uncover the next great—or at least momentarily popular—thing, and it’s working. In just a few years, Tai Verdes, Jax, and perhaps most notably, “Mood” singer 24kGoldn, have all been scooped from the short form video platform and thrust into stardom. While many of the artists who emerge from that app haven’t kept their careers going for more than one era, there’s still plenty of time for that to happen.
Now that it’s well-known that those in positions of power are looking to TikTok for hits and young artists, the competition to stand out has become fiercer than ever. I spoke with Cassie Petrey, the co-founder and co-CEO of music marketing firm Crowd Surf, which specializes in helping up-and-comers strategize, create, and market themselves and their careers on social, about why this is happening, what artists can do to build their followings, and what’s next in this ever-evolving landscape.
Hugh McIntyre: Tell me a bit about Crowd Surf and what, what you do?
Cassie Petrey: Yeah, for sure. Crowd Surf is a digital marketing agency and recently also an artist management firm and our overall goal is, you know, pretty simple is to help artists. That’s a really big initiative of ours. We started in digital marketing and digital marketing over time has become a bigger and bigger part of artists’ careers. That’s led to managing artists, because as digital became a bigger, bigger part of people’s career, we ended up doing more and more. And it just was sort of progress. So we do both things now. On the digital marketing side, we have over a hundred clients in that space, which is crazy to think about. It doesn’t feel that way, but it’s grown to that point over the past 15 years. And then on the artist management side, we have six clients. Social media is a big part of that job and that’s kind of where we started. So that’s content, calendars, editing content, strategy, that sort of thing. We also do things like build email lists, run text lists, build websites… Anything that deals with an artist, the digital, and is consumer-facing or a strategy for getting an artist or songs in front of more people, that is our lane, and that is where we live.
McIntyre: What grabbed me to jump into this is your work on TikTok. Tell me a bit about how you see TikTok factoring into the music industry ecosystem today.
Petrey: It’s changed a lot of things. I would say the biggest thing that sort of catches my eye right now is how much TikTok data affects two things. One, it really affects how marketing budgets are spent. So if a song is or isn’t doing well on TikTok, that can really determine how much a label or distributor or an artist’s team feels they should continue marketing the song. It could drive people to spend more money, because it’s not doing well. It could drive people to spend more money because it is doing well and they want to take it all the way. It could inspire people to drop a song. It could inspire people to switch singles. That data really affects marketing decisions.
The other way it’s really affecting the industry is by dictating who gets a record deal and who doesn’t. Almost all new signings, that’s gonna be looked at. When labels are actively seeking out people to sign, they’re looking at TikTok data and deciding who to go after, based upon that. So there’ll be somebody that’s never been on somebody’s radar. They’ve heard of them and they didn’t care. But as soon as they start to see certain data points go up, they start making offers. I actually went through this last year with an artist that I was working with. I saw as her song went up, how more offers kind of came in and it was, it was really fascinating. She’d been pitched to these A&R teams before to be signed, but not until the data from TikTok and this particular song she had started to go was when all the offers started to roll in really, really fast. So those are the two main things I’m seeing TikTok affect how operations work.
McIntyre: I have seen some of that, but I wonder, is this model sustainable? Do you think it’ll be around for much longer?
Petrey: There’s obviously been some great finds and signings based upon TikTok, but I don’t think TikTok can replace traditional artist development. The pendulum, I feel, has kind of swung too far in terms of viewing data over raw talent, long-term sustainability, and that sort of thing. I think that the data should be considered because I understand that data can make a signing for a record label feel less risky, but I’ve almost seen it go too far. And I think it needs to come back a little bit. One TikTok hit doesn’t mean more TikTok hits, and it doesn’t replace all the traditional artist development and things you should look at when you’re signing [an artist].
Like, you know how talented they are, how great they can sing, how much experience they have. Were they in the choir at school or not? There’s a lot of that stuff that’s really, you know, irreplaceable and I’ve seen people get signed before they have ever performed on stage. They’ve never gone to the studio. They’ve never had to play more than 15 seconds of a song. It’s crazy. I learned this experience firsthand. There was a kid I found on TikTok and I’m like, oh my gosh, his videos are so cool. He sings so well. So I flew to Miami to meet with him cuz I wanted to sign him and develop him. And I, you know, went to Miami to meet with him.
I’m like, you’ve never recorded a song before. Let’s put you in the studio. Very sweet kid, very interested in music programs at school, but he could not get through playing the whole song. He could not get through singing a whole song in the studio. He would get off time. He would not sing the course at the right time. It really made me think about this topic more. I thought this kid had it because of what I was seeing on TikTok, and then when I went to try to execute, I realized how far away he was from that. That was my real, physical, in-life experience that showed me [that] it can be a part of it, but it can’t be all of the reason why I choose to work with somebody. There’s so many other indicators there.
McIntyre: We’ve seen a number of people who found fame on TikTok jumping into the music industry. There have been a few big successes, but now we’re seeing tons of them do it. What advice do you have for someone who does have a following on TikTok who is considering this jump?
Petrey: I’ve talked to a lot of creators about this and a lot of creators often feel like they have to make music because their peers are doing it. I would encourage them to really think about if they want to do it and to let them know that they don’t have to do it if they’re not feeling it. It isn’t a requirement to be a creator to release a song. I know a lot of people have felt that way over time and they’re like, “All my friends did it. And they told me about a producer who can do all this stuff for me and only charges me this amount of money, so I might as well do it.” I would tell them that if you really want to do music and you can’t live without doing music and that’s always been something you had at the back of your mind that you wanted to do, go for it and use your following!
You’ve built your advantage, but you don’t don’t have to do it and you shouldn’t do it if you’re not really, really passionate about it. And also don’t [if you don’t] have plans to build your musicality in terms of writing and being in the studio all the time, possibly taking vocal lessons, possibly taking lessons to play instruments. If you don’t have visions for what your music video should look like or what your merchandise should look like…if that doesn’t feel exciting and doesn’t feel somewhat easy to you in the sense of you being motivated to do it.
The second piece of advice I would give is don’t just record one song and put it out. Record multiple songs and then figure out your strategy from there. What happens–not just with creators, but with artists in general, especially in this environment where you’re releasing music so frequently–is they get behind on releases. And so they record a song, put it out, record a song, put it out and it kind of gets into this cycle, and I feel like you get away from being an artist in that cycle. I always encourage people to take a step back and spend time getting multiple songs done. That puts you in such a better place. Generally it’s better to have five songs to pick from than to have one. I would say spend some time being an artist and making music versus just having one song and putting it out and then not knowing what you have to follow it up with.
McIntyre: I think you answered this, but I’ll pose the question anyway. We’ve seen a lot of these TikTok stars who hit big in music. There’s only a very small number who have had any success with more than one hit or one project, really. What advice would you have either on the creative side or on the business side for people who found some success and are now looking to sustain that, or maybe climb their way back to that after several unsuccessful releases?
Petrey: I would say that if you really want it, keep going for it and do the same thing I said. When you decide to release a song for the first time, make a batch of music and figure out what you wanna do with it. Maybe there’s only two songs you wanna release from that batch. Maybe you wanna make an EP. But I think it’s important to have a lot to work with, to figure out what the best plan is gonna be. And you don’t have to rush it. I think a lot of people feel a pressure to be like, oh, it’s been six months… If I don’t put a song out, my monthly listeners are gonna drop below a million or a hundred thousand or whatever the number is. I have to get something out. Granted, yes, there’s some data and strategies towards that, but the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is if your music is good and if you like your music. If you don’t feel like you have those two things, there’s no point in rushing a release.
But I would say that if somebody really wants to do it, they should do it. And there’s a lot of great funding and partners out there that can help with that, especially if they do have a following. So, the time is better than ever.
McIntyre: In the years I’ve been covering the music industry, it’s been interesting to watch what platform pops up as the next one that everyone discovers talent on. Before, it was YouTube, and now TikTok. Do you see something else on the horizon, whether it’s an app or website, or just a way that people in power will be unearthing these hits and these artists?
Petrey: I don’t feel like there’s anything huge on deck next. I think it has to come soon though, from a digital marketing standpoint. For a while I thought BeReal was gonna be it. We’re seeing the major platforms clone that tool now, but I don’t know how BeReal would be it. They would have to integrate some level of video and audio in order for it to become somewhere where you can discover music. I think people are gonna start looking in other places to find artists or to find stories about a song exploding. I think the place that maybe people aren’t looking at that I am seeing be impactful for my clients–maybe not necessarily on like the A&R discovery front, but in terms of views and data, because I’m seeing a ton of impressions–is YouTube Shorts. In the past 90 days it has really blown up. It has really become a meaningful platform for a lot of different talents that we work with.
Snapchat Spotlight oftentimes is the place where a lot of my clients get more views than anywhere else. And I think that it is an underutilized tool and I really like utilizing it because it, you know, a lot of times can go “viral” and get pushed to a big audience.
If I were an A&R person, a place I would be looking is a website called Ultimate Guitar. People use it for playing guitar-based tabs, that sort of thing. I remember when I was learning how to play guitar, I used their app. They actually have a TikTok-type feature where artists can post videos of them playing different songs and different tabs. I’ve actually found a couple artists there that I thought were really, really incredible. And the volume is not as high and you’re not gonna necessarily go as viral because the audience base isn’t as big, but I think that’s a really good place to see videos quickly of people who are interested in music and a place that not as many people are looking at yet. They’re not trying to build their TikTok numbers. They’re on Ultimate Guitar because they have an interest in either playing and writing music or becoming a great bass player. So I actually like to sit and scroll through the video feed, because that exposes me to different types of people, and I know [music] is their priority. And there’s a lot of really talented people there.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/hughmcintyre/2022/10/12/how-musicians-can-make-the-most-of-tiktok-virality-according-to-the-expert/ How Musicians Can Make The Most Of TikTok Virality, According To The Expert