How It Could Affect Music & the Billboard Charts – Billboard
Written by GRB on 29/03/2023
With national security concerns over TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, leading to U.S. officials debating a national ban of the service — with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy saying this week that lawmakers would be “moving forward with legislation” — the music industry is left contemplating a landscape without the generationally popular and influential app. The implications of such a ban would be widespread across the business: upending countless marketing and promotion plans, if not entire label departments, and affecting the reach of nearly every major artist, whether long-established or up-and-coming.
The impact on the Billboard charts would also be massive. While TikTok plays are not included in Billboard chart calculations, the exposure granted by viral success on the app has helped launch scores of chart hits over the past half-decade, while also allowing next-gen artists like Lil Nas X and Doja Cat a platform to help establish their personalities and images and cultivate their fanbases, cementing their stardom in the process. In terms of chart repercussions, a ban on TikTok in 2023 would be something like a ban on MTV in 1985 — its removal might not directly affect any metrics, but the lingering reverberations would still be seismic.
Here are five ways the loss of TikTok might most acutely be felt on the Billboard charts — assuming it would take some time for a potential rival app to replace its position of influence and importance within the industry — with particular focus on our flagship songs chart, the Billboard Hot 100.
1. Fewer older songs becoming new hits. One of the most consequential trends in 2020s chart pop has been the preponderance of catalog entries infusing all levels of the Hot 100 — whether in extreme examples like Kate Bush‘s Stranger Things-re-launched 1985 single “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” reaching the top five in 2022, or subtler cases like Chris Brown‘s 2019 Indigo Deluxe Edition cut “Under the Influence” becoming a 2023 top 20 hit. One thing nearly all these revived hits have in common is TikTok: Whether its newfound popularity was initially reignited there (as with “Influence”), or whether gasoline was poured on the already-existing flame (as with “Hill”), these hits would never have reached the velocity needed to break out as they did without the app.
If TikTok disappeared, it’s possible we’d still see some of these new-old hits — particularly ones like “Hill,” which have the benefit of a major pop culture phenomenon to rally their revival — but we’d almost certainly see far fewer of the “Influence” sort, without a platform for them to unexpectedly catch fire and organically grow into contemporary favorites. And while radio has also started to embrace some of these second-time-around singles, without TikTok to first drum up newfound interest in them (and demonstrate proof of concept of them as modern-day hits), it’s unlikely they’d be willing to take chances on songs like “Influence” as early adopters.
2. Fewer one-offs. Back in 2020, Billboard wrote about a number of artists TikTok had helped launch into the pop mainstream for one song, and asked if the app would be able to help sustain extended careers for them as hitmakers. Based on the great majority of the artists mentioned in the story — Arizona Zervas, Tones and I, Powfu, SAINt JHN, Surfaces, Trevor Daniel, StaySolidRocky, 24kGoldn, Surf Mesa — the answer would appear to be “no”; after their initial TikTok-boosted chart success, none of those artists have yet charted a second top 40 Hot 100 hit, and most have yet to even scrape the chart a second time.
There have been exceptions, of course — particularly the aforementioned Doja Cat and Lil Nas X, two of the biggest stars of the new decade, who were able to launch numerous hits with TikTok’s help and ultimately establish continuous stardom well beyond the app. But the speed with which TikTok generates breakout hits and the relatively anonymous relationship they often establish between listener and song — often divorced from any larger connection with the artist behind them — has been a recipe for creating single successes that prove a foot in the door to the larger mainstream for their artists, but nowhere near a guarantee of additional future hits.
In truth, without TikTok, we’d likely not only see fewer one-off hits, but fewer breakout hits from new artists in general. With the influence of both labels and tastemakers being diminished in the streaming era, and radio positioning itself more as a late-adopter of established hits than a breaker of new ones (a strategy that could reverse, or at least lessen, post-TikTok), TiKTok has been the rare platform over which previously unestablished artists have been able to reach mass audiences — if not necessarily reliably, or repeatedly.
3. Bigger and longer-lasting album bombs. Without the natural rise-and-fall of TikTok virality to help generate prominent movement up and down the Hot 100, stasis will be even more unavoidable on the chart. While that will be felt in every tier of the chart, it will perhaps be most noticeable in the chart’s middle and lower regions — which, without TikTok-driven hits, will become even more the province of the biggest albums of recent weeks.
While highly anticipated albums charting the majority or entirety of their tracklists on the Hot 100 upon their chart debuts is certainly nothing new, in the last couple years some of those albums — like Bad Bunny‘s Un Verano Sin Ti and SZA‘s SOS — have not only overtaken the chart in their first weeks, but had as many as a dozen songs continue to linger on it well after. Big artists and big releases are more omnipresent on the charts than ever, and if TikTok isn’t around to help generate new hits to siphon off momentum from (and ultimately displace) them, those album cuts will continue to play the part of hit singles in the thick of the Hot 100.
4. Less alt/indie and regional Mexican. One way TikTok’s imprint has been felt on the Hot 100 has been the rise in crossovers from the indie and alternative worlds. Hits from bands like Glass Animals, The Walters and Måneskin and singer-songwriters like d4vd, Lizzy McAlpine and Mac DeMarco all have found their way to the chart after gaining popularity on the app — where five years ago they likely would have had no real pathway to that kind of crossover success on streaming or radio, with any kind guitar-based rock music an increasingly rare presence in the pop mainstream.
Would they disappear on the Hot 100 without TikTok around to boost them? Maybe not entirely — especially after a pop-punk revival (and guitar-oriented hits from pop stars like Olivia Rodrigo, Juice WRLD and Billie Eilish) helped once again normalize guitar in the top 40 of the early 2020s — but it would certainly be a major additional challenge for newer alt and indie artists to get the kind of streaming exposure they need to cross over.
The same could be said of regional Mexican acts like Grupo Firme, Yahritza y Su Esencia and Peso Pluma — all of whom have suddenly made a genre that had literally zero history on the Hot 100 prior to 2021 into a major factor on the chart, with each act scoring top 40 hits in the last year, boosted enormously by their TikTok presences. Those artists have still yet to achieve even the relatively modest level of stateside mainstream pop exposure or acceptance that most of the aforementioned alt/indie acts have, so losing TikTok would likely be an enormous blow to their chart fortunes.
5. Longer chart runs — but fewer truly historic ones. As already mentioned, TikTok success is one of the primary accelerants on the Hot 100 these days — the force that gets songs zooming up and plummeting down the chart with disruptive speed — and without it, a lot of songs are going to stay in place for a very long time. The slowing pace of radio and streaming in the 2020s has already resulted in seemingly endless, borderline-historic stays for hits like Dua Lipa‘s “Levitating,” The Kid LAROI and Justin Bieber‘s “Stay” and Harry Styles‘ “As It Was” in the chart’s top regions, and certainly without TikTok, there will be even fewer impediments to those songs staying in place for as long as the mainstream will have them.
However, the loss of TikTok could also impact these hits’ endurance in the other direction — preventing them from ever reaching the truly unprecedented territory tread by hits like The Weeknd‘s “Blinding Lights” and Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves.” Those songs’ journeys were marked by late-cresting waves of TikTok popularity, which helped them recapture momentum at key moments in their chart treks, reinvigorating their streaming and radio presences in the process. Without those unpredictable second and/or third lives for the two singles, their respective chart runs would likely never have stretched out as they did — and without the ordered chaos of TikTok, they’re not the kind that anyone could ever meaningfully reproduce inorganically.