Inside Planet TikTok

Ole Obermann Paul Hourican

In the last 18 months, video sharing platform TikTok has exploded, moving from a fun app for kids to the rocket fuel powering the music industry’s biggest hits – all the while enraging US President Donald Trump. TikTok music bosses Ole Obermann and Paul Hourican take us inside a cultural and business phenomenon…

It all started at the 2019 Music Week Tech Summit at The O2. Freshly arrived back in the UK after a stint in New York as YouTube’s head of international artist marketing, Paul Hourican (pictured right) was contemplating his next move while keeping up to date with all the latest developments on the music-technology bleeding edge.

“I was talking to a few different places,” Hourican remembers a year on, via Zoom in London. “But almost every conversation at the Summit turned into a conversation about TikTok and I was like, ‘This is real, it’s not just hype, everyone in the industry that cares about music is really thinking about this app’.”

Suitably inspired, Hourican found a quiet corner to ace his job interview for head of UK music operations with ByteDance’s app and, well, the rest is history. And, occasionally, hysteria.

Because 12 months on from being a delegate in the crowd, Hourican is a headline act; arguably the most influential person in the UK music business right now. 

He’s far too modest to say so himself of course (“Anything like that is down to the amazing team effort,” he blushes) but there is no denying that TikTok is currently right at the epicentre of both pop culture and the music biz. What was once, in its days, seen as just a fun lipsync app for tweens is now the single biggest hitmaking machine in the industry.

If TikTok was already big when Hourican joined in November 2019, it’s now immense. Its phenomenal growth went into overdrive in lockdown, as it chimed perfectly with a global population with both unlimited time on its hands and a desire for some fleeting moments of joy amidst the pandemic gloom (TikTok employees like to refer to the platform as “the last sunny corner of the internet”).

Meanwhile, its influence on the charts grows with each passing week. From early breakthroughs such as Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road through to Ashnikko, Saweetie, Doja Cat, Powfu, Jawsh 685, Saint Jhn and a zillion more, the one, surefire way to have a hit in the modern music biz is seemingly to have a track go viral on TikTok. No wonder more established acts such as Drake, Dua Lipa, Little Mix, Lewis Capaldi and Rita Ora are also getting involved.

However, despite huge chunks of record label time every day being devoted to it, how to go viral remains something of a mystery. TikTok doesn’t work like other social media platforms: creations (other users using a song for their own videos or a TikTok trend) carry more weight than views; content served up to users is based on relevance not recency; and unfeasibly perky ‘creators’ that no one over the age of 21 has ever heard of wield far more influence than the biggest musicians on the planet.

That environment ensures that the app has a phenomenal reproduction rate, where every creative use of a song passes it on to multiple others, who pass it on to yet more. And the app’s modus operandi of honing in on the most memorable segment of a song (most videos are just 15 seconds long) magnifies the earworm effect to epic proportions, driving users to stream the full track elsewhere.

“Honestly, I’ve got no idea what I’m doing on it,” laughs singer-songwriter Nina Nesbitt who has, nonetheless, carved out a following of 315,000 on TikTok since she joined at the start of lockdown. Her videos – usually ‘found sound’ recording sessions or spontaneous ditties dissing ‘fuckboys’ – can attract over five million views, more than even her biggest songs have on YouTube. The clip of Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon dancing to Long Run, Nesbitt’s collaboration with Witherspoon’s son Deacon, has over 35m.

“I discovered this whole new fanbase, because it’s very different to Instagram, Twitter or even Spotify,” she says. “There are loads of people who’d never even heard my music before, which is pretty cool. I’m a big fan.”

But not everyone is such an admirer. The app has been criticised by some in the biz over its opaque licensing structure and suspicions of its ambitions in other areas. Meanwhile US President Donald Trump has threatened to ban it over concerns about its Chinese owners and the security of users’ information, demanding the US operation is sold. The app is also under political threat in India. 

TikTok is adamant it has never shared any data with the Chinese government and never would, but the turmoil was enough to see Kevin Mayer, TikTok CEO and former top Disney exec, quit his role after less than four months in the job.

No one at TikTok would comment, but senior sources there insist the company is being unfairly targeted in the toxic US political climate. As for the vexed question of possible new corporate owners, most seem unconcerned at the prospect, believing that the TikTok juggernaut is unstoppable right now, whoever is in charge.

As Music Week went to press, rumours of likely buyers continued to swirl, with Microsoft seemingly the front-runner, although TikTok’s UK company is unlikely to be part of such a deal. Hourican pleads ignorance of such affairs (“We’ve got a big enough job to do with music”) and politely refers such topics ‘upstairs’, where we find Ole Obermann (pictured left), TikTok’s global head of music, breezily dialing in from Ibiza. 

Obermann is a familiar figure to anyone who’s worked in digital music over the last couple of decades, winning a reputation as a refreshingly forward-thinking deal-maker, first at Sony and then, most recently, as Warner Music Group’s chief digital officer and EVP, strategy & business development. There, part of his role was to stay on top of all new digital start-ups and take a view on whether Warner should get involved. One day, ByteDance brought him TikTok and he was immediately smitten.

“I went home and got completely obsessed with it, I played with it for hours,” he enthuses. “The first thing I thought was, ‘This is the most incredible next generation music promotion machine’ because I fell in love with a bunch of songs, even though I’d never heard any of them. I remember thinking, ‘This could be a real gamechanger’.”

Obermann joined TikTok in October 2019, and changing the game is very much part of his new remit. Although recent deals with Believe and the US National Music Publishers Association – which had previously called on Congress to investigate the app over licensing concerns – were announced with great fanfare, an agreement with pan-European licensing body ICE is still on, well, ice after they agreed to enter arbitration. And the picture with regards to the majors remains unclear, to say the least.

Obermann, however, knows how to reassure the music biz.

“My goal is to get TikTok fully licensed,” he says. “We want every major and independent rights-holder, labels, publishers, societies licensed for TikTok. We’re well down the road to doing that.”

But one issue for the music biz may well be that – unlike, say, Spotify – TikTok may not actually need to license everyone. Would users notice if their memes and trends were only soundtracked by artists from certain labels? In such a trend-driven rather than artist-oriented environment, unlikely.

That could leave TikTok in possession of most of the cards, although Obermann is clearly completely sincere when he stresses: “My job is to get us licensed and legal”.

If the economic and political whirlwind swirling above their heads phases either Obermann or Hourican, they certainly don’t show it. And an increasing amount of music biz executives, as well as artists, are finding life without TikTok hard to contemplate.

TikTok became a Music Managers Forum associate partner in May and MMF chief executive Annabella Coldrick says “the relationship is already off to a roaring start”, with over 250 managers joining TikTok’s first online training session.

“The MMF always wants to engage with innovative music and tech companies so that we can support our membership,” says Coldrick. “TikTok is becoming increasingly important in new artist campaigns to engage and grow their fanbase. Managers need to develop their knowledge and skills on the platform and know what questions to put to their label and creative partners. By working together, particularly at this difficult time, we can build bridges and grow the industry.”

Over at Sony’s Black Butter Records, co-president Joe Gossa declares: “You’d be hard pressed to find a marketing meeting, and in some cases an A&R meeting, where TikTok wasn’t mentioned.”

Gossa saw Young T & Bugsey’s Don’t Rush take off internationally after the fan-fuelled #DontRushChallenge spread from other social media platforms.

“It was when the challenge hit TikTok that it really went nuts and audio streams on DSPs started to pick up,” confirms Gossa. “When I noticed the challenge was really starting to bubble, I spoke with TikTok who said they’d get behind it and help push it as far and wide as possible.”

Nesbitt saw a similar impact when her revamped Loyal To Me went viral on the platform.

“I check my Spotify For Artists once a day and I could see a huge spike when Loyal To Me went viral,” she says. “But some people are literally getting 200m streams through going viral on TikTok – you actually need the sound to go viral, not your video.”

Nesbitt says she will be working on a strategy for that with her manager, Vicky Dowdall of VDM, for her next record. And no wonder: Gossa confirms her analysis, saying Don’t Rush creations resulted in over 800m TikTok views. That in turn drove an exponential growth in streams, with nearly 200m globally to date (the track has 575,751 sales in the UK, according to the Official Charts Company). “Don’t Rush was always a great track,” concludes Gossa. “But I would be lying if I said I didn’t think TikTok had a major part in its success. The reach is global and transcends genres.”

Time, then, for the music biz to get to know the two men in charge of that game-changing capability. Starting with Paul Hourican…

TikTok has sparked a revolution in how people want to communicate

Paul Hourican, TikTok

Why has TikTok blown up this year?
“Well, it’s a brilliant product, genuinely best in class and revolutionary in terms of how it serves content and learns what people like. But, first and foremost, it’s about the users, the artists and the music. They wanted a way to communicate and express themselves creatively that they weren’t finding anywhere else. Like all platforms, lockdown has obviously helped, more people have more time on their hands. But it was happening way before that, because it genuinely sparked a revolution in how people want to communicate.”

What did you learn at MTV and YouTube that you’ve brought to TikTok?
“That you can really package something to be much bigger than the sum of its parts. MTV and all those amazing idents they created reinvented the grammar of television. Before then, people wouldn’t have recognised something like an ident, it would have been too short format. And that’s what TikTok reminds me of. If, five years ago, we’d have said you’ll be able to learn how to make a carbonara to your favourite house track in 15 seconds, we’d have laughed. But the audience is ready for it. It’s a new frontier of creativity. And it adds to the music industry rather than being cannibalistic. Who’d have thought, when every piece of music is on demand, that 15 seconds of music would spark discovery and get people to go and consume that music?”

That link to consumption seems less clear on other platforms. Why is TikTok so effective?
“It’s that potent concoction of amazing creativity and hearing the right song at the right moment. Back in the day, you’d walk down the street and there’s a white van man with the window down and he’s got that song playing and then you hear it in the shop and you piece it together. When you hear music on TikTok you’re in an immersive mood and the music just resonates so much stronger.”

So how do you get your track to go viral on TikTok?
“[Laughs] If I knew the answer, I’d probably be running my own consultancy – somewhere in the Caribbean! Let’s not forget, it all boils down to the art. It’s got to be amazing music and the artist has to be connected with the song. In terms of more practical stuff, I always ask labels and managers to really think about the segment of the song they’re uploading. It might be the bridge into the chorus, a lyric or a set segment of the song that drives it.”

Tracks can go viral without the artist even being involved. So how important is it that artists are on TikTok?
“It’s crucial. One of the amazing things about TikTok is a song can fire beyond this boundary and go on to have a life of its own. As an artist, there’s an amazing community on TikTok; if you’re not on there, you’re not tapping into that community. The more you can provide a story, the more the music gets connected with the artist and the more you’re setting yourself up for success.”

It seems like TikTok works best for young, pop/hip-hop artists. Could, say, Bob Dylan go viral on the platform?
“Yeah! Any artist could work on TikTok. A couple of months ago we launched Prince’s catalogue on TikTok and it’s done amazingly well. I don’t think fans growing up now really differentiate; good music is just good music. The other week, we saw an Arctic Monkeys song come out of nowhere on the platform, it had 10,000 creations on a weekend. Any artist of any age can find its groove on TikTok. I would love Bob Dylan on TikTok, that would be amazing.”

We want all artists on the platform,” confirms Ole Obermann with a chuckle. “Every feed on TikTok is personalised. So if I love The Doors, Springsteen, Bob Dylan and The Eagles, I’m going to get that content in my feed.”

But Obermann has other matters on his mind than persuading heritage acts they should get involved. Time to talk business…

My goal is to get TikTok fully licensed

Ole Obermann, TikTok

How are you finding life on the other side of the fence?
“Tech companies think about the world very differently. They address any issue with a technological solution. On the content side, it’s all about how you get the most out of the creator. But the reason they wanted me over here was they know they need some perspective about the creative and content side. We’re trying to get the right balance.”

How has TikTok’s success changed the dynamic of its relationship with the labels?
“There’s a lot more focus on figuring out how to work with us. There’s a strong desire to understand it better. It’s different to everything we’ve ever had in the industry, so it’s taken some time for people to get their heads round. But it’s happening now.”

How are your licensing negotiations progressing?
“We’re making really good progress. We’ve got a number of both major and indie deals that we’ve done in the past months, a couple of them have been announced but there are a few other very big ones that have been done as well that we haven’t talked about for one reason or another. And then there are a number of other deals where we’re basically at the finish line. Everybody’s getting their head around how TikTok works and that’s leading to a negotiation that’s positive for both sides.”

Are you saying you have long-term deals in place with some of the majors?
“I am. But for reasons that I can’t talk about, I can’t [tell you] which.”

How hard was it to do the NMPA deal after their criticism of TikTok?
“There was a real gap in understanding and there had just never been a great level of engagement [with the] NMPA and those very influential publisher members. But once myself and my team started explaining how it works and negotiating, it was actually a relatively straightforward process. The last thing we wanted was to get into a major public legal battle with a trade body like the NMPA.”

And the ICE deal?
“That is nearly there – it’s very similar to NMPA in that there was a lot of misunderstanding and never enough focus on both sides getting to sit down at a table and explain how everything works. We’ve been very focused on that one and we’re making good progress.”

Why should the music business value TikTok over other platforms?
“TikTok is the ultimate direct marketing machine. There is nothing else out there as good at recognising exactly what people want to hear today. There’s never been anything at the kind of scale that we have, that can be that personalised and is that good at it. That is the magic of TikTok. You will find songs you never knew existed but they’ll give you goosebumps the minute you hear them. And the short-form aspect of the service means affinity breeds affection. You view things over and over again and it gets caught in your head. We do that, ‘You just can’t get that song out of your head’ feeling better than anybody else.”

But that engagement doesn’t remain on the platform, it goes to Spotify or Apple Music. Doesn’t that bother you?
“It does not. Right now, our mission is to build deep relationships with the industry, labels, publishers, managers, artists to really help one another grow the power of music on TikTok. If all of this then gets bigger and better as a result of what we’re doing, we’re really happy. We are testing Resso, our premium subscription service, in Indonesia and India right now, and it is much more visual and social than any other service that’s out there, so you feel the elements of TikTok in that service. There’s a very elegant user experience going between the two. I have very high hopes for what we can do, and we will eventually launch that in other parts of the world. So, down the road, the goal would be that what we’re doing on TikTok to break songs and artists would then feed into Resso. But, in the meantime, if we can help someone get TikTok famous and then go to the top of the charts on Spotify, Apple or YouTube, then I’m thrilled.”

Some of the deals you’ve done, such as the United Masters partnership, seem to be moving TikTok towards becoming a rights-holder. Is that the long-term plan?
“No. Our mission is to give the creators who are on the platform the ability to become successful. The United Masters deal is about us enabling a creator who doesn’t understand the music business yet, but has an amazing viral song on their hands, to be able to get that song distributed to other music services. We’re not going to be part of that downstream success, but we want to make things as easy as possible. That’s always the lens through which we look: how do we enable creators to start on TikTok but then move onto everything else?”

Would you like TikTok to feed into the charts?
“We’ve got a bit of work to do to figure out exactly how that needs to work, but long-term I absolutely want us to feed into the charts. That is on the road map.”

Lest we forget, MySpace was once where TikTok is. How will you avoid ending up where MySpace is now?
“If we were talking 12 months ago, I would be much more concerned that we could be a one hit wonder. But when I look at how embedded we are in popular culture and at how amazing the technology teams we have working on everything that powers and progresses TikTok are, I believe we are in the driver’s seat. It’s ours to lose. We have to keep innovating but I see all the right things happening in terms of where we’re going to be six to 12 months from now.”

And where is that?
“We see ourselves being a tremendous marketing platform for the music industry, and also a revenue source for the music industry. So it’s very important to keep both of those pistons chugging along. It’s worthwhile the industry spending the time to really understand us, because there’s some kid in his bedroom right now crafting a song and a video for TikTok and he’s going to be at the top of the OCC charts 12 months from now.”

PHOTO: Andy Tyler

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