Earlier this month, Duncan Cooper wrote a piece in Pitchfork
titled “How TikTok Gets Rich While Paying Artists Pennies” about multiple creator side issues found within TikTok. The story is again reminiscent of the early days of YouTube, where creators are happy to see their content get shared and gain notoriety, but start to wonder why they aren’t getting paid more when the app they’re posting on is worth over a billion dollars.
The story initially centers on two creators, Xeno Carr and Smokehijabi, whose quasi-viral song “Mia Khalifa” skyrocketed in popularity due to TikTok. Cooper lays out the step-by-step development that brought the song to such fame and in the process helps unknot just how many individual creators are needed, and are often overlooked, when it comes to creating a “viral” hit. Yet it was this part of the article that really stuck out to me (emphasis mine):
Not long after, TikTok finally got in touch with their manager, who tells me he worked out a deal that grants TikTok continued, free use of “Mia Khalifa” in exchange for the promotion of iLOVEFRiDAY’s future releases. “At the end of the day, the relationship with TikTok is more important than asking them to pay me for a record,” he adds. “It’s giving us exposure, and that’s what we need to push the brand forward.”
There’s that word. That singular word that has defined so much of this decade’s conceptualization of social media fame in lieu of actual money: Exposure.
TikTok, like Musical.ly before it, is an app mostly for kids and by kids. The business choice of relying on advertising pushes apps away from fully supporting creators on their platforms because that isn’t how these companies ultimately look to make money. That’s why I found Pitchfork’s article a bit odd; not because I think artists shouldn’t get compensated for their labor on these platforms, but rather because these are platforms built explicitly to exploit that labor. Even for artists who see their music flourish on TikTok, the deal signed by a major label like Warner leads to payouts much closer to Instagram’s
than Spotify’s, as Cooper writes:
In 2016, Warner was the first label to announce they were sharing music with Musical.ly, and as is typical of early arrangements with tech companies, they did a blanket license, also known as a buyout: The royalty-holder grants access to a bundle of songs, with a payment up front to distribute however they see fit.
The story does highlight that the duo behind “Mia Khalifa” did find monetary success on other platforms, but that just obscures the fact that the platform where one finds an audience isn’t built to support them. If one can’t make money off TikTok, there can be a boost of streams from YouTube or Spotify; if one can’t make money from YouTube, then create a Patreon. Even if an obscure song by an artist goes viral on TikTok, one must hope that the interest generated can jump across to a platform that will properly compensate them. Not exactly the best system for building a career.
Now I do think TikTok is a neat app and certainly creates a lot of fun content to watch. But Cooper effectively shows that striving for career sustainability on one of these platforms at this point feels misguided. A small step would be for labels to sign better deals with these entertainment platforms, but most of these companies don’t want to end up like Spotify, where the money generated just funnels back to the same cluster of music companies. Ultimately, TikTok may birth new artists, but the platform isn’t interested in building talent, much in the same way as it doesn’t want to pay artists properly. The demands of creators are viewed not as workers demanding their rightful piece of the pie, but rather as a burden placed on the platform.