TikTok Social Media Technology

Is the TikTok algorithm actually killing music’s groove?


By Jonny Ray, Managing director

February 22, 2024 | 6 min read

There’s been a murder! On the dancefloor, that is. The deceased? Music. The killer? TikTok. Above+Beyond’s Jonny Ray investigates the scene of the crime.

Is TikTok wasting music

The ongoing row between TikTok and Universal Music Group and the latter’s removal of its library from the social platform has many, many layers. Layers I’m not going to attempt to dissect here. What really fascinated me is the recontextualizing of music consumption and what this means for future artists and our listening habits.

In many ways, TikTok was built on music. The business recognizes this, with a specific music-based impact report posted late last year, showing the power of the platform and its contributions to the music industry on a global scale. Music is a linchpin for trends. It can define a narrative and help it permeate culture. And brands are all over this.

The platform can catapult the unknown to superstardom. It can also bring an old track to a new audience in surprising ways – Saltburn may have re-introduced ‘Murder on the Dance Floor,’ but TikTok super-charged it. Kate Bush’s role in Stranger Things was apparently bolstered too.

But scratch beneath the top examples and the relationship between TikTok and the music business is less symbiotic than it might seem.

The musical landscape and craft behind great tracks are becoming victims to the shorter format and, sadly, the epidemic that is shorter attention spans. That is clearly encouraged by TikTok, where the hook in the track is king with that one killer lyric or line at the center of this week’s trend. Tracks are removed from albums, extracted and cut and made disposable.

It’s clear that TikTok (and other short format platforms) are now a well-trodden route to artist growth; we’re seeing more and more tracks being created with that instant gratification in mind. With that, I believe we start to run a risk that music starts to become more homogenized as a result. Artists seeking that adrenaline hit from a single hook, all trying to one-up with how it can transform into a trend.

The algorithm can also be linked to this homogenization. Beyond TikTok, the opportunity to search within music platforms like Spotify and others by ‘artists similar’ is brilliant – opening the listeners up to new artists they might not have heard of before. But it’s all within the ‘similar’ bracket – leading to playlists all becoming, well, as the name suggests… similar. You get where I am going with this.

As with TikTok, tracks are consumed individually, albums are removed from the conversation, and even the artist’s name is glossed over. Speedily clicked through, if not liked, disposable within the algorithm.

Not all of this is inherently terrible. If I like a style, I want to hear more. I might like a track, but it doesn’t mean I need to like the rest of the catalog. Oh, and perhaps a hook is the sign of a banging track - but that seems to be more of an outlier than an expectation.

There is more to music. It can be immersive, joyful, unifying. It can offer escapism from the madness of everyday life. But with TikTok reducing music to need this instant hook, we’re diluting the artistic value, resulting in an increasingly disposable craft. At best, we’re at risk of losing that magic in the future; at worst, it could be the road to death by algorithm.

However, it’s heartening to see that vinyl album sales continue to grow year on year, and if Andre 3000 can get a 12-minute track into the Billboard Hot 100 chart with his all-flute project, then perhaps the immersive escapism offered by music isn’t lost yet. TikTok might even be playing a role in that journey.

However, we need to be careful. Yes, new technology and media platforms have always informed the way we consume music – from the 78 vinyl record to radio play to music videos, media has informed both the length of tracks and the content. And TikTok certainly isn’t going to go away. But I hope the Universal row will kickstart a conversation about balance and whether its effect on music devalues or harms the way we consume it. Perhaps it’s time to take a beat (no pun intended) on how we’re consuming music in a longer form before it’s Murder on the Dancefloor for music.

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