Nearly three years after first facing the prospect of a ban in the U.S., TikTok’s future in the States appears to be in limbo once again as the Biden administration looks to crack down on the Chinese-owned app.
Like the Trump administration’s pursuits in 2020, the Biden administration is reportedly mulling forcing TikTok’s owner ByteDance to sell its U.S. operations, or outright banning the app if ByteDance won’t cooperate. The tension will boil over Thursday as Congress’s Energy and Commerce Committee is set to hold a hearing regarding privacy and safety concerns on the app.
TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew is set to testify. Ahead of the testimony, Chew posted a video on TikTok, warning users about a potential ban and noting that over 150 million Americans, or over half the country, are now on the app.
Here’s a quick briefing on what to expect for Thursday’s hearing, why TikTok’s under the government’s microscope, and what any such change could mean for the music industry.
Why is the app’s future in the U.S. in question?
It isn’t clear whether or not a ban will actually happen, but Thursday’s hearing reflects concern from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
TikTok collects data on its users. A lot of data. While other social media platforms also get loads of user data, TikTok’s critics argue the app’s Chinese roots lead to a potential security risk as they worry that ByteDance could be compelled to turn that information over to the Chinese government. TikTok has repeatedly said that it’s never turned data over to China — and that it wouldn’t do so if asked — though it’s not clear how much of a choice the company would have if compelled by a government mandate. Chew is expected to reiterate as much on Thursday, as noted in his submitted written testimony.
As a more secondary issue, the Energy and Commerce Committee also cited the app’s potential impact on minors’ safety, with the committee alleging that the app “exposes [children] to dangerous content online.” Fairly broad, safety for teens could mean a wide range of issues; As Rolling Stone has previously reported, TikTok has had problems with misinformation ranging from school shooting hoaxes, Covid-19 and vaccine conspiracies and far-right propaganda, just to name a few.
Those who want to tune in can watch from the Energy and Commerce Committee’s livestream.
What it could mean for the music biz
Whether or not a ban would even happen is unknown, but such an action in 2023 has different implications on the music industry than even three years ago. Along with being ubiquitous among influencers and content creators, TikTok is still the most influential platform in the music business for breaking new artists marketing hit songs. Ice Spice, to name one example, is just the latest whose initial pull from the app has turned her into one of the buzziest new artists in music. Viral trends and sounds still set the table for many songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and sped-up and slowed-down remixes of songs are one of the more recent trends that have helped juice songs, turning Lady Gaga’s deep-cut “Bloody Mary” into a viral hit at the end of last year, as well as Mariah Carey’s “It’s A Wrap” this year.
But even music executives who gained success finding and pushing artists from the app’s earlier days say their reliance on TikTok has waned as they look to diversify their marketing push. The app has grown more saturated, they say, and success on the app has grown harder given the sheer volume of content competition.
Ryan Chisholm, general manager at Work of Art management, which oversees the careers of early TikTok success stories Tai Verdes and Claire Rosinkranz, recalls the earlier days when TikTok was the largest driver for his artists, where their posts would easily garner millions of views and push users to listen to music off-platform. Today, his artists have more stable businesses from their records and tours, Chisholm says, but getting that kind of engagement like before is more hit or miss.
“Our consumption was so lean-forward because of TikTok. It was a superpower, I couldn’t describe it any other way,” he says. “In 2020, with Tai, we were guaranteed to get at least a couple videos a week getting a couple million views. Now you have a very oversaturated platform, which makes sense; every brand has a TikTok. I’m sure there isn’t a label, a manager, an artist who isn’t looking at their data and going, ‘Damn, my TikToks aren’t reaching what they were six months, 12 or 18 months ago.’”
The short-term video format that TikTok pioneered (and remains the master of) has made its way to other major tech platforms like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels and has even crept its way onto Spotify, which rolled out a new TikTok-like home feed onto its platform earlier this month. Chisholm and Chris Anokute — another music manager who found success leveraging TikTok campaigns for artists like Curtis Waters and his viral 2020 hit “Stunnin’” as well as for Muni Long on her song “Hrs and Hrs” (including a Best New Artist Grammy nomination for the latter) — both note the ceiling hasn’t been as high on YouTube or Instagram to push songs.
“I think it’s the algorithm,” Anokute says of TikTok compared to other services. “I think it’s the most sophisticated algorithm I’ve seen in terms of opportunity for exposure, regardless of where you are in your career in terms of development. And that’s for any career, music, chefs, fashion.”
Compared to 2020, when the first TikTok ban was mulled and other short-form platforms were just launching, there are multiple outlets today experts expect could have similar functions. They’ve already been incorporating these outlets into their strategies, with Chisholm noting he’s currently pursuing a hip-hop artist to manage whose engagement is strongest on Reels.
Those impacted most by a major TikTok change would be the unsigned and under-resourced or upcoming artists who would then lose out on a platform that notoriously gave footing against even those with larger followings. If it were to go, Anokute and Chisholm ponder which platform — whether YouTube, Spotify, Instagram or something else — may capitalize the most with the same appeal.
“It has democratized the business and made entrepreneurs more bullish about staying independent. A lot of the breakout success stories, the first breakout moment is usually coming from TikTok,” Anokute says. “It doesn’t stop with a viral moment, but it can be a great launching pad for a career, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I would hope if it were no longer around, we’d see somebody step up and take their market.”
Beyond individual creators, from an industry-wide perspective, there’s always been a pivot when something new pushes music, and the business will take that on, whenever that is.
“You can’t be a one-trick pony. You can’t rely on one platform or one song to break through. I was there when radio ran the business. I was there when it was Spotify playlists. Now we’re seeing this TikTok generation. Who knows what comes after, if that’s Web-3 or blockchain, we don’t know,” Anokute says. “But at the end of the day, the music industry is still about those three minutes and 33 seconds. It may not be as much about stars more so than anything than it was and that’s okay. “But it’s still about the three minutes and 33 seconds whether we like it or not. It’s about hits.”