Let me take you back to 1999. The average CD cost around $17. The market for recorded music was around $40 billion. And who ruled Billboard's year end hot 100 single list?
Britney Spears Clip
No, I don't want your number. No, I don't wanna give you mine. And —
Ricky Martin Clip
Outside, inside out. Livin' la vida loca.
Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me. I ain't the sharpest tool in that shed.
Now, let's say you wanted to find something more interesting. You had to know more interesting people. People with better music collections than you. Maybe live near a cool record store... Or be willing to mine the blogosphere. That was how you escaped the tyranny of MTV's Total Request Live, or the fast consolidating radio industry that made the biggest artist inescapable.
Backstreet Boys Clip
Backstreet Boys live on MTV.
Ask me what's on the top 40 charts to day... Does it matter? I mean, long before the charts figure it out, TikTok users have made the decision for us. And that has music labels freaking out.
It used to be, step one, put these writers in a room. Step two, put this song to radio. You know, step three, have an SNL performance. And now there's a really broad consensus that everything that used to work isn't. So what is the new path?
Today, exploring that "new path"... How TikTok became the new radio, and why going viral is the quickest way to get discovered. How it's changed our expectations about how a pop song should sound... How that's changing the very nature of the work for artists. I'm Audie Cornish, and this is The Assignment.
Now, there have been seismic shifts for the industry before, we didn't pick 1999 at random. That's when Napster and illegal peer to peer downloads shook the industry. Then, streaming went legit, changing the value and price of a song. And the very idea of a mainstream pop star started to wobble under the weight of a business model that had once mostly relied on recorded music sales.
I think the last time that the music industry produced a mainstream star was Dua Lipa.
Tatiana Cirisano is a music industry analyst and a professional music nerd. Currently at MIDiA, that's an entertainment industry consulting and research firm. As part of her job, she crunches a lot of data about you — the consumer.
TikTok did two things that I think completely changed music, which is, one, it opened to a discovery page, which no social media platform, or at least no like mainstream one had really done that before. Usually you're opening to updates from your friends, but on TikTok, you opened up to just whatever the algorithm decided you might be interested in. And the second big impact for music was that it allowed people to really put their own spin on the songs that they were fans of and sort of participate in a way that hadn't existed on social before. TikTok really changed the game by sort of encouraging people to create music-based content where music wasn't just like in the background of something, but it was kind of part of what you were creating.
How does that change our expectations of what a pop song is?
Yeah, I think we're getting to a place where younger generations expect to be able to participate in the content that they are fans of rather than just kind of passively consume it. And I think we're getting to a place where more often than not, the songs that kind of rise above the rest... Part of the reason is because of listener participation. Like whether it's, you know, a trend on TikTok or whatever it is that people have sort of been able to make their own version, and that's how the song has traveled, or that's how it's had sort of like this cultural resonance. And some artists love that. Some artists hate it.
So you've given me a sense of how the technology is changing, how we interact with the music. What more have you learned about how we're behaving as a result? Like, are we making mixtapes? Are we listening all the way through?
What does your company know, like data-wise about how we treat music now?
Right. Younger people are engaging less with these kind of passive traditional forms of streaming, like listening to playlists — curated playlists that, you know, Spotify is giving you. But the other interesting thing is also how much more their music listening is song-based rather than artist and album based, which is a challenge when you're an artist trying to break through and, you know, develop fandom. So they are much less likely to listen to full albums. We also find that a third of all consumers say they orient their music fandom around songs and not artists, which is still the minority, but a third is a lot. On the one hand, you have people being more engaged. But on the other hand, we're finding that it's a lot harder for artists to break through because there's just so much music out there.
I want to talk about the effect on the music itself.
Is it possible to reverse engineer a viral song?
I think people have tried to reverse engineer viral songs. I mean, I think they definitely are trying all the time. But I think also audiences on social media and younger generations, they can kind of like sniff out BS in a way that the music industry is learning. As an example of that, there's an artist named Gayle who has signed, I believe, to Atlantic Records, and she was on TikTok asking fans in a post to come up with a name for a song, and she would write that song and release it. So she was using Tik Tok to try and engage with her fans and give them, you know, like we're saying, participation in what she's doing. And somebody commented, "Write a song based on the alphabet." And of course, she came out with "abcdefu," which was a big radio hit.
You, and your mom, and your sister, and your job, and your broke ass car and the [bleep] you call ours.
But somewhere down the line, some fans were doing some sleuthing and pointed out that the person who commented that on TikTok worked at Atlantic Records and said, "Oh, this is a marketing ploy.".
Oh. So that's what the marketing people are doing now. Commenting! They're in the comments.
Right. And I just want to say, I don't know what went on behind the scenes. What I mean is that labels are definitely trying to reverse engineer these moments, and audiences are getting good at trying to detect when something is a ploy.
Footnote here... Atlantic told The New Yorker that this was not, in fact, a marketing ploy.
Don't you feel like you've lived through this like... Like a very big shift?
I just feel like it was radio, radio, radio, radio, radio, radio, radio... And then like in 1997, it was like a bomb went off.
And it completely changed how we thought of music, the concept of ownership, this whole, like, identity part of the music... Like, it just feels like we just happened to be around for this, like, very dramatic couple of years.
Yeah. And in the past, it was always a format shift, right? It was like vinyl to CDs made a big difference. And then CDs to streaming made a big difference. And now it's like we're still on streaming, but so much else has changed. Music has become a lot more fluid in that way, where when you release something, it's not the end of its life. It might just be the beginning, you know, where somebody might remix it and then you might say, "Oh, I actually like that remix. I'm going to release that officially as an artist." And there's just so many lives that a song can have after it's released, and it's not necessarily just going to stay in its static form. And that's a huge shift.
That's music industry analyst Tatiana Cirisano with the consulting firm MIDiA.
Hit making is more art than science, but one of our experts knows more than most. Kaydence. She's been in the business since 2015. She's earned songwriting credits on hits by Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Brandy and more.
Working with the artist, I think the first thing is having a conversation. I think that's what starts most sessions, because you want to figure out what the artist wants to say and figure out the different ways or different experiences that you can pull from to create these songs. So, you know, being able to dig deep and get vulnerable or, you know, something interesting that happened or something they like that we can pull from. And once we lay some melodies down, mumble some words, you know, we pull from the conversations that we had, and we try and create a concept around some of those conversations.
And the structure of that song is like intro, verse, chorus, bridge.
Ooh, a bridge. I haven't heard about a bridge in a while.
But you know what I mean. So how is that different? How has the search to beat the algorithm affected how you think about how that song should be structured?
I mean, it definitely affects it. I think, you know, before I loved writing a song and a pre-hook and a hook, and I did love writing bridges. But I think that, you know, songs naturally, because people's attention span is so short, the song can be a minute, minute and a half. And the point is, if this song is short and you get to the point with it, then people are going to like it so much that they're going to want to repeat it and and put it in a loop.
Armani White Clip
Big t-shirt Billie Eilish. Watch on my wrist but I want that in diamonds.
Rapper Armani White in this song, it's called "Billie Eilish." Last February, Armani posted a 15 second TikTok of he and his friends jamming out to the clip... And it eventually got more than 4 million views. But it wasn't just about going viral. He asked his audience for help to get it to the next level.
Armani White TikTok Clip
Alright, I need your help. So the mix is done, the video's done, the merch is done. We just need a sample clearance. Now clearance can take anywhere from 8 to 16 weeks unless we make it a priority for them. Now if we get 100,000 pre-saves, we can prove this song is as big as we think it is. And they've got to expedite it.
Six months later, Armani was signed with Def Jam Records. Now, the way I told you that story makes it sound easy... It's not.
You have literally the first 10 seconds, maybe less, to get people's attention. If you don't get the attention, you know, it's like you can build it up and build it up and build it up, and that moment might be in like second number 30 or 40 and like, they may never even hear it.
So I brought Kaydence and Armani together to compare notes on the creative process, and on how the drive to go viral can throw it off balance. He has lots of thoughts on what works and what doesn't.
The first place I was ever like social media famous on was Tumblr. And as I was trying to understand why, like things went well on Tumblr, why things worked out, why things went up. It was really just like this idea of FOMO. Like, that's what the Internet builds is this idea...
Which is fear of missing out. That's — I'm saying that for the olds.
So you're saying you are trying to create a feeling like if someone didn't catch your latest song, they had, like, missed out on something.
If someone didn't catch this moment. Not even my latest song. Because I think in marketing, the best marketing happens when you don't realize that you're being sold something. So I wasn't trying to sell anybody, like just directly like, oh, here's this song, you're missing out if you haven't heard it. But just like, here's this experience. Let me create this room. Here's this room. You're missing if you're not in this room. You're missing out if you weren't... If you didn't hear this song, if you can't play this song, you don't know what this artist is, you're missing out if you weren't here today. You know, it's almost like... It's like the lunch table. If you, you know, if you had a sick day at home and you came back to school and they like, "Yo, you missed what happened!" Like it all- I wanted to create that. I wanted to create that lunch table experience the next day where you come back.
Now, Kaydence, I'm going to bring you in because when I listen to "Better Off," there's a good 25, 30 seconds of just like opening... What I am familiar with, right? Opening sound.
Mm hmm. Yeah. No, I mean, I completely agree. I think that it takes only 10 seconds... I mean, the attention span of people nowadays is like, barely...
Yeah. But I'm just saying there is a world where "Better Off" was a song that totally makes sense and made sense for the radio. And the way it opens is a part of that like traditional structure.
Because also the DJ used to talk over that. Back in the day, those long openings is when the DJ would be like, "Oh, it's your boy blah, blah, blah, and here's the new blah, blah, blah." And that would go for like 20 seconds.
Totally. I think that with the Ariana song, well, first, it was an album cut — the "Better Off." So it wasn't until, you know, "Thank U, Next" and "7 Rings" and like, you know, those have a shorter...
And these are the other songs that you've got songwriting credits on.
Yeah. So those like, you know, have a shorter intro. But essentially, I think with an artist like Ariana who has a cult following, you know, and developed that over years and years and years, they will wait minutes.
You did what... You said exactly what I was about to say.
They will wait minutes to, you know, to hear her voice come in. So it doesn't matter how long the intro is, especially if you've developed that strong of a fan base. But I think...
But for a songwriter like yourself, what... How is what Armani's doing affecting how labels and executives... How is that affecting the songwriting process from your position?
What kind of pressure are they exerting on it?
Yeah, I mean, I just... I notice just from whether I'm playing songs for executives or playing them for artists, I think I can notice if they're engaged in the listening experience within those 10 seconds. And they ask like, you know, a lot of times like nowadays it's like hook comes first. Like, we want to get to the great part right away, you know, because they want to see if it's worth listening to the rest of it. Definitely changed my process because I've always like started songs or I'm just like, nah, intro and then verse.
Armani, you seem to have nailed something about the medium in particular. And I think from Kaydence's position, where you've now been working more in that realm of like hits and hits that might have radio play, that there are differences in how you'd approach your work.
No, exactly. I think I'm kind of in this world of like, how can I make something sticky? You know, how can I make something that's like infectious? And for me, you know, if you look at like, I think an example like Roddy Rich, Roddy Rich's song "The Box." When that song came out, when it went platinum, it was it was really just like this concept of what was the beat doing. Ee er.
Like it wasn't you know, it wasn't necessarily him doing anything. It was just him, you know, it was that it was that that sound that effect. But it's something it's something that happens when the song starts that you're already engaged with. You know, it doesn't have to be the hook. It can be like an opening line in the verse. It can be, you know, whatever that is. But it's something that like draws you in. It feels familiar and it makes you feel like you're a part of the experience.
Totally. I mean, it could be a production thing too, where it's just a sound that really just like, you know, is like ear candy. And you, you know, you remember it, or you can play one note of it and everyone knows what song it is.
It's interesting because there is this phase and still is of dance challenges, right? So there's the visual element. Then there's like captions. Am I- like it feels like there's just other elements to making the music sticky in the way Armani's talking about.
Yeah, I mean, so in "Better Off" there's a lyric with Ariana where she says, Let's put this topic to bed and go [bleep] on the roof.
Ariana Grande Clip
Let's put them topics to bed and go [bleep] on the roof, just to say that we did.
And I think a lot of people are kind of like, whoa, you know, I wouldn't expect Ariana to say something like that, you know, and, you know, just little things like that.
So creatively, you're relying on the cultural understanding of her and her brand and juxtaposing that with this kind of raunchy idea. And that's how you come to something that's, as you say, like a little spark.
Yeah, absolutely. And there's you know, there's other ways, like I know Armani mentioned having a sample people are already familiar with that catches their ear and makes them want to be engaged. That happened with, you know, obviously "7 Rings." You know, you you recognize the Sound of Music.
Ariana Grande Clip
Breakfast at Tiffany's and bottles with bubbles. Girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble.
Yeah. You can't do better than Rodgers and Hammerstein, I think.
'-catchy samples. Expensive.
Oh, they're expensive. They took 90%.
Really? Because it's their song.
Sound of Music clip
Brown paper packages tied up with strings. These are a few of my favorite things.
So Armani, this brings me back to you, because when I think of your song, you have the hook up first. Then you have a song that is I would call SEO ready, a search term, which is Billie Eilish's name, right? Just even the people who might go looking for that music and will end up finding your song. Is that another one of your trinkets?
Yes. No, definitely, because I was- I just liked the idea of the challenge. I was like, I wonder if we can take over the SEO. Like, if one day we'll be able to like, if you search Billie Eilish and we'll pop up and we are.
Which we should say that means search engine optimization. I know that sounds really nerdy, but that's again, a part of your creative process now.
Never knew what SEO stood for, but I knew what it was, yes.
Everyone's learning things today.
But yeah, I mean, and then another trinket I think is like and this wasn't even for social media, but just really like for performing. And that's like if you look at a lot of the records that happen on TikTok, this was before even TikTok. It was just me being a performer. I would do my songs where the hook was really exciting, but the verse was just like a moment in space where we're waiting for the hook to come back. And I was like, you know, so as I started to perform more, I said, well, let me find different hooks to put inside of the verse. You know, let me find different little moments that can almost be like a hook. So even like, you know, and "Billie Eilish." is like, it goes for a while and it's like or actually it's this kind of the same cadence the whole time. But I got everything I wanted as I'm extra, nah nah nah nah nah nah. It is just the same cadence. And then right after that, it's like this idea is duh duh duh duh free. I got it a duh duh duh duh ee. I mean, like, I feel like my nephew, who's one years old, he knows that part. Like, he knows when he's coming up. He just goes ee.
But it hits the ear because it's in another pitch.
Exactly. So it catches it catches your attention and it's something else that you can gravitate onto before the hook. So you're not just waiting for 50 seconds until the hook comes back around.
And you don't have to give him 90%.
After the break, the TikTok-ification of music and surviving as a songwriter. We'll be right back. Armani, do you or did you have a moment where industry executives came to you and and would be like, you seem to know how to make things go viral, make us another one?
The real response to that is that there's a time there's like there's a certain amount of time and dedication and consistency you have to put into making something really like go up or, you know, like making sure everyone sees something. And because we're in this like microwave society, not everybody really understands that time span that like, you know, like "Billie Eilish." Is like it took the initial TikTok went out and the song didn't drop until like March 19th. So it was like almost three months of me keeping the candle lit, keeping people excited, keeping people engaged, entertained, having like, you know, just giving them a real time line of this song for people to really be involved, invested and like, want to stand behind the song. When it came out, a lot of times now it's like, we can do it still. But they're like, okay, do everything you did in three months and two weeks or less. Maybe a week and a half.
I mean, that's that's what every executive is looking for, right? You know, they walk into the room and when they're describing what they're looking for, they just say, yeah, we want a hit. We want something that's going to go viral.
But they don't say we want a hit. We want it on the radio. Right? Like what- how do they express their interest in social media?
They pretty much say they like something that will go TikTok viral. They you know, they say that they say we want to hit that can go TikTok viral.
We need a moment. We need another moment.
And when they say moment that's all encompassing. It's TikTok it's radio.
And Kaydence, what do you do when they say that?
Of course. Everybody wants that, you know. As a songwriter, you know, Of course you want that. You want to be able to make money, pay your bills and and experience that moment as well. Not every song is a hit, though. You know, some songs are for the culture, some songs are a vibe, and you can't predict what you're going to be able to create that day. You can try, but you know, it doesn't always come that way.
If what you're making in social media is viewed more as just kind of content- we go through this in the news as well- where we're providing content, whereas we used to think we were providing kind of service and information. Who is your real competitor? Like, is it about music competing with other music, or are you just another thing that is competing for our attention?
Oh no. Then I'm, I'm really screwed.
Nah, I'm- on my side I'll answer to say, I'm not competing with music as much as I'm competing with content. You know, like, like even, like my favorite podcast goes up twice a week, you know, like, like my favorite Twitch streamer may stream three or four times a week, and that's like, that's an endless supply of content, you know, that you might have gotten those 4 hours, whereas I might have given you one song a month. I'm competing more so with those people than I am music, because we're, you know, like at this point it's less about what song we're playing. It's just like how you can gauge somebody's attention.
Yeah, I mean, I feel like, you know, there's different there's still different avenues of entertainment for people or, or informational things. But for me, for me as a writer, I feel like it's not like a competitive thing. It's more like, how do I create or bring these emotions out? Again, I don't like thinking of songwriting as a competitive thing. I think of it as well, how how much of a song can can I bring these emotions out of the consumers? Like, how many people can I affect in creating this song?
I get the sense now- the current social media encourages interaction with the creator.
Kaydence, you're nodding. In a way that I don't know if it's intrusive. I don't know, I mean, different artists have different feelings about it, but it's no longer you go off in a room and write and then everyone listens later on.
Right. Yeah. So, so I think most of those things were ancillary to the songwriting process. I'll say, like I was, you know, like all of the things that happened as far as challenges, people remixing it. And people were like- like there was like a Latin version of "Billie Eilish." That that happened at one point. And like, there's a lot of these things happened after the song already came out.
But did you freak out and say, hey, that's my song, don't mess with it?
No, no, no, no, no. I think, so there was this there's this guy named Bob Lefsetz. I used to I used to be a part of his newsletter that used to get sent to my email every Monday. And one of the things he's talking about was how Prince used to fight the music industry so much his entire career. He fought the music industry. And one of the things that happened, like in the Napster era, in the early Internet era, he just fought to have his music off of the Internet.
Right. And and I remember this because this is a period where Prince he changed his name and he also had a mark on his face and sometimes would write slave on his face because he felt beholden to the record companies. But you're right. When music started to be free, he was not down with that.
The Internet, because of downloading and things like that is kind of like a black hole. And it's not that it's just about the money, but it's about justice and fairness. And they'll probably edit all of this out. But...
Right. And so, but as a result of which, there's a big piece of our generation that is not as familiar with Prince as we are Michael Jackson as we are James Brown as we are a lot of these other predecessors that, you know, their music was free. So when I look at that and I learn from that, I'm like, there's no reason for me to battle and fight against people taking the music and doing doing their own creative thing for I put it out in the world for it to belong to the world, you know.
Fundamentally has the TikTok-ification of music helped or hurt the industry? Or helped or hurt you as songwriters?
I think I think it's done a bit of both. I think it helps in a sense where, great, that's a new way to get eyes and ears on the records that you create, which turns into more money essentially. But it also sometimes waters down the songwriting process because now you're pigeonholed into like, okay, it has to go viral, so I have to make this sound like this or, you know, shorten the words or, you know, do things that you don't normally do when just writing a song to write a song, you know, Now you have to keep all these other things in mind in order to hit hard on TikTok or that's that's how it feels as a songwriter going into it.
I'll say I'll say it helped me in a few different ways. One of the one of the main things was I think it created identity. So like, I have I don't I don't know the numbers offhand, but it's like 200,000 followers on Instagram, a million on TikTok and 300,000 on YouTube. Like, like just like really big numbers that I could never sit down and say, Who are all these people? What do they all look like? And why do they all like me? Like what's the thing that really gravitates? What about this song do you even like? I don't make music for TikTok. I'm not in that crowd. I'm on the other side. But it helped me better with articulating myself in a way that other people can understand and connect with me. That was like, Let me use these elements of writing my music that makes me project myself and articulate myself better when I'm explaining how I feel.
Can I step in? I just want to say that even even if songs have the ability to go viral and you feel like you have to keep up that momentum or that type of style of writing, there's so many human emotions that we go through.
We're not always trying to have fun. Sometimes we're looking for music that we can cry to. Sometimes we're looking for, you know, those just different moods that we can relate to. So I don't feel like that would pigeonhole anyone. I just feel like people think, oh, this is going to work, so I have to keep doing it. And that's not really the case.
Yeah, I think TikTok didn't make me try and make more viral songs, but it did help me with articulating myself as a writer because I had to watch other people listen to other music and see how they loved it for me to write better music. That's all I want to do is just write really good music.
Yeah, I think. I think too, like when you release a fun song like that and you engage a listener, now they want to know about you. They want to know who you are. So they're going to go deep into your catalog and they're going to, like, try and figure out who you are.
So, you know, having those different moments or showing that you have more records with substance just kind of, you know, they can gauge who you are a little bit better.
Which locks in core followers. Some great music comes from just substance and experiences that we've gone through. And that's how you relate to, you know, the audience, the demographic that listens to you being able to do that and also, you know, make music that's fun and brings people's moods up, I think is a magical experience.
That was Kaydence, a songwriter based in Los Angeles and rapper Armani White. His newest EP is called Casablanco. That's it for this episode of The Assignment. If you liked it, recommend it to your friends. If you love it, leave us a good review. And if you have an assignment for us, give us a call and leave a voicemail. The number is 2028548802. You can also record a voice memo. Email that to us at the assignment at CNN.com, all lowercase. Now, the assignment is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Jennifer Lai and Madeleine Thompson. Our producers are Carla Javier, Lori Galaretta and Dan Bloom. Our associate producer is Isoke Samuel. Our senior producer is Matt Martinez. Mixing and Sound Design by David Schulman. Dan Dzula is our technical director. The executive producer is Steve Lickteig. Special thanks to Katie Hinman. I'm Audie Cornish. And thank you for listening.