Have you ever been so fascinated by the catchy melody of a video’s background music on TikTok that you instantly added it to your playlist? This scenario has probably happened to most of us. Indeed, TikTok has played an enormous role in feeding people songs and shaping their music taste. However, it is not considered a music streaming platform. But, it will soon become one. This month, TikTok parent company ByteDance Ltd. announced its plan to reach out to record labels and expand into the music streaming service. The goal is to compete with top-tier digital music platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. While many are impressed by TikTok’s ambition, this plan may not generate additional welfare. This is because the way music streaming functions on TikTok harmslisteners and most musicians.
The songs commonly observed as background music and popular sounds on TikTok have long been controversial. Detrimentally, selection trends constrain the variety of the music people are exposed to. Given the time limit of each TikTok video, only the most memorable part of a song–usually the chorus or another memorable hook–is exploited and then played repeatedly. This phenomenon demands artists, especially those who desire popularity and reputation, to reconsider how to produce songs. As a result, many musicians invest more time and effort into creating mind-numbing choruses and uninspired melodies to appeal to the trends of the algorithm and pay little attention to the remaining artistic elements of the song.
The lack of a meaningful listening experience is only one of the troublesome scenarios. The overall quality of the songs prevalent on TikTok remains reasonably questionable. Many popular songs with catchy and, at times, even brainwashing melodies often lack depth and diversity. Because the ultimate goal of TikTok video editors is to boost popularity, the songs they exploit usually need to trigger instant excitement in viewers so they watch them longer. This mechanism creates obstacles for quality music to be incorporated, and then discovered, by a broader range of audiences.
The fact that good songs are seldom heard, and the songs heard are seldom good, becomes the dilemma of music streaming on TikTok. In the long run, it impedes the cultivation of the audiences’ taste and capacity for aesthetic judgment. A critical way to improve their aesthetic taste and judgment is to jump out of “comfort zones” and stay open to unfamiliar forms of music that are temporally, geographically, and categorically different from the songs one is usually exposed to. It is doubtful that one solely fed on the so-called popular music and mainstream genres present on TikTok will be able to think critically and act wisely in the domain of aesthetics.
Additionally, music streaming on TikTok undermines the interests of the majority of artists, particularly independent musicians that cannot rely on record labels to fund the advertisement of their music. Playlists serve to introduce songs from distinctive genres, periods, languages, and regions to the public. TikTok seems to only promote songs that are either primed for popular content or that can be applied to a wide range of video types. Such a phenomenon resembles the “winner-takes-all” situation, in which a tiny portion of the overall musician population occupies most of the shares in the music market.
Suppose TikTok is ambitious enough to expand its music streaming service. In that case, the company should work on differentiating the audience’s listening experience from existing streaming platforms. One action plan the company could initiate is to create a section devoted to music for news regarding album releases and performances to be published. By building authorized lists of weekly hit songs covering various genres and regions, users are no longer limited to certain types of songs. Since TikTok is a short video app, it would also be creative for them to include music videos when generating these lists.
TikTok would do well to concentrate on discovering and spreading the original works of independent artists and amateur musicians. The user-friendly process of recording and editing their songs or performances on TikTok’s video software is probably the most accessible way for them to advertise their music. As a result, supporting the original compositions and performances of these unrepresented musicians generates a win-win solution for the company and the musicians. It also more or less resolves the barriers confronted by musicians who own fewer business resources in expanding their influence.
Another possible selling point would be the social experiences it could offer. Whereas the information shared on Spotify and other platforms is still limited to music, TikTok can include other users directly in videos when selecting background music. Features like this that strengthen interpersonal connections provide more opportunities for music to appear in conversations and spread among listeners.
Quality music exposure is crucial both to people’s recreational habits and to the development of the music industry in the long run. How TikTok currently manages the spread of music is already concerning given that it is unconducive to neither the listeners nor the majority of musicians. If TikTok decides to expand its music streaming service, let’s hope it can address its current issues and provide a professional streaming experience.
Wendi Wang is a first-year in the SFS studying International Economics and planning to minor in Philosophy and Music.