Artist Or Influencer: Is TikTok Helping Or Hurting Country Music?

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Last week, Big Loud Records singer-songwriter ERNEST released the 24th episode of his podcast, “Just Being ERNEST.”

Best known for penning hits for artists ranging from Mason Ramsey to Sam Hunt, including Florida Georgia Line’s “I Love My Country,” Sam Hunt’s “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s,” Morgan Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown,” plus 10 other cuts on Wallen’s record breaking double-album Dangerous, you will consistently see his name near the top of the Music Row Top Songwriter Chart.

Ernest also has a growing solo career based on a nine-song EP from 2019, a few features and a new single, “Cheers” released at the end of 2020.

In this episode, Ernest is joined by his label-mate Sean Stemaly for a candidate conversation on a wide variety of topics. Their discussion begins with Stemaly describing his journey to Nashville, touches on their inability to tour during the pandemic, and eventually hits on the impact social media has had on Nashville and the industry as a whole.

Specifically, they examine the role TikTok has taken in breaking new country artists.

This section begins around the 31:40 mark.

The pair detail the strategies they have used to reach new audiences through both Instagram and TikTok, but ultimately express their disdain for having to maintain a growing number of social platforms. Given they are both young artists looking to establish and grow their fan bases, their opinions on the topic are extremely insightful into the pressures that exist within the industry to conform to the latest trends.

Specifically, the virality of TikTok and the need to constantly produce content for their own pages. This led to Ernest explaining a recent Instagram post which was shared widely across the industry:

“I love TikTok don’t get me wrong, I’m just tired of labels handing out deals based on a user’s platform numbers and not the music/artist.

Look… there have been a few GREAT instances of talent/songs getting the attention they deserve because of the platform FOR SURE!… but this “u ain’t poppin less u poppin on TikTok” culture gotta go.”

Essentially, he recognizes the value in the platform’s ability to boost an audience but feels that chasing success on the app prioritizes the wrong characteristics and takes away from recognizing the actual artists and music.

Of course, this reaction comes on the heels of multiple major label signings headlined by Priscilla Block with Universal Music Group, Noah Schnacky with Big Machine and Lily Rose with Ernest’s own Big Loud Records. These are all artists with big followings on TikTok that are now being given the opportunity to elevate themselves as artists.

While this process is just beginning for them, many including myself wonder if long term success can be achieved by leveraging TikTok’s audience. At the end of the day, artists need their fans to listen to their music consistently in order to take the next step in their careers. Therefore, the most important question to answer is if growing a following on TikTok (and other social media platforms) can be converted to consistent listeners. As Spotify provides publicly available data for artists, it can be used to identify how well those conversations are going.

As of right now, it has proven very difficult for these three artists. The following numbers emphasize the large gap in platform engagement:

Noah Schnacky: 6.6M TikTok Followers, 100K Spotify Followers (1.5%)

Priscilla Block: 776K TikTok Followers, 36K Spotify Followers (4.6%)

Lily Rose: 647K TikTok Followers, 36K Spotify Followers (5.6%)

While of course not every Spotify follower also follows them on TikTok (nor does everybody that listens to their music use Spotify), the difference in relative size of their followings across platforms is immense. Having a Spotify fanbase that is less than 2% the size of your TikTok following makes said artist more of an influencer than a musical artist (for now).

However, these numbers also speak to the massive opportunity these artists have for rapid growth. If Noah Schnacky were to convert just 10% of his TikTok followers to Spotify followers, he would gain 660,000 followers and subsequently increase his streams and revenue exponentially. This alone explains why major labels are taking a chance on these TikTok stars.

The other, arguably more important aspect of this conversation relates to live music. Let’s not forget that many of these TikTok “stars” have played a live show… not one. There is a vast difference between artists who cut their teeth consistently playing small bars and clubs versus those who rise to fame via clips on social media. The artists that grinded their way to a fan base earned that based on an audience connecting with their music, while the same cannot necessarily be said for TikTok personalities. I even discovered Ernest for the first time when I saw him open for another artist, and if not for that I may have never come across his music.

Touring has been almost entirely shut down for over a year now, but eventually it will return. And when it does, fans are not going to buy tickets if they do not listen to said artists’ music. As Ernest alluded to in the podcast, it will be very interesting to see the size of the crowds that show up for concerts by this new wave of artists and it will also be VERY interesting to see them actually get up and perform. There is potential for a large miscalculation in anticipated sales versus actual sales so venues will need to be keenly aware when they reopen.

Eric Church alluded to this as well in a recent interview with Apple Music. He was discussing radio hits, but he argued that labels are setting artists up to fail by putting the focus on rapid chart success and not building a fanbase:

“New artists are set up in a lot of ways to fail and they don’t know it, because what promotion wants, and you know this… they want the easiest path to chart success, but normally the easiest path to chart success, is not something that’s going to matter. That’s why it’s the easiest path. It’s what researches well, it’s what tests well, but that’s not what sticks. That’s not sticky.

And I think that a lot of artists don’t understand that they’re already in a bad spot. How do you become sticky? How do you care? Why does somebody know your name? And labels are not set up to do that because those things, that’s different songs, those are songs that only go to 20.”

And the same can be said for TikTok.

Ultimately, there is no denying that the pandemic and social media have changed the thinking within the country music industry. And as Ernest said, many of the TikTok stars are very talented and adapting to change within the entertainment industry is always required. There’s also a chance that when touring restarts these artists will hit the road and pay their dues like so many did before them. However, the recent emphasis on social media engagement has certainly taken away from celebrating the music that should be the core experience.

These platforms should be used to bring awareness to artists’ music, but right now that is not being prioritized. As Tyler Childers once said, “we’ve turned the props into the play.” You may never find two artists that are sonically more different than Ernest and Tyler Childers, but they have both spoken very well to the frustrations of many with mainstream country music.

Wes and Steve also recently touched on the subject of TikTok with Grady Smith during last week’s episode of the Whiskey Riff Raff podcast.

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