Musicians from L to R: Joji, ZaeHD, Supa Dupa Humble, CEO, Lil Nas X, Ava Max
Tiktok: Courtesy Rich Morgan (3), @dominictoliver, @staurenglaggie, @fluffyface_enzo, @dobretwins, @ash_lay; Phones: Getty Images; Joji, Lil Nas X, Ava Max: Getty Images; Supa Dupa Humble: Tommy T; ZaeHD & CEO: @desmondphotagraphy
By Andrew R. Chow
Updated: May 31, 2019 12:57 PM ET | Originally published: May 23, 2019

In 2017, a little-known rapper named Supa Dupa Humble released his song “Steppin‘” to a muted response. He moved on to other projects, but a year and a half later, he noticed a surge in the song’s view count on YouTube. As he scrolled through the comments, he kept seeing one word over and over again: “Who came here from TikTok?” “TikTok brought me here.” “Greetings from TikTok but this song is fire.”

“I’m like, What is TikTok?” the rapper, who is 27 and lives in Brooklyn, recalls.

Some quick research led him to the app TikTok, which he promptly downloaded and began to explore. The app allows users to post short videos of themselves lip-synching to music, doing makeup tutorials, performing synchronized dances or acting out comedic skits. There he found that people were creating skits lip-synching to the first 15 seconds of his song.

As he kept coming back to the app, the number of videos kept ballooning: his music had formed the soundtrack to a viral meme. And as TikTok users tried to find the song in its entirety, his numbers on Spotify and other streaming platforms were shooting up too.

“I was so hype,” he says. “It was unbelievable.”

TikTok is the latest breakout platform to house these types of short-form videos, following Vine, which shut down in early 2017, Dubsmash and TikTok’s previous iteration Musical.ly. In November 2017, the $75 billion Chinese media company ByteDance bought Musical.ly with the intent of folding its 60 million users in the U.S. and Europe into its own successful video app, TikTok (known as Douyin in China). Its new global TikTok app took off in 2018, rising to the top of Apple’s App Store and racking up a record 3.8 million first-time downloads in October. Teenagers in particular drove its success in the U.S., and its most popular videos began to spill onto other platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. While some users view it as another silly online diversion, it does for artists like Supa Dupa Humble what other online platforms have done in recent years: allow them to get their music in front of potential fans while bypassing the traditional gatekeepers.

“TikTok empowers artists by being an avenue for visual output and creativity,” Mary Rahmani, TikTok’s director of music content and artist relations, said in an email. “We offer a platform that is creative, collaborative, global and unique.”

Its ascension, however, comes at a fraught moment for the music industry, in which streaming revenue has surpassed physical sales but overall revenue remains soft, in large part because of how much music is available free online. Most musicians must rely on touring, merchandise and even side hustles to make a living, and the meager revenue generated by streaming has contributed to an ongoing battle over how much artists should be paid across different platforms.

It seems inevitable that TikTok will soon be part of this battle. As the company has grown, with ByteDance being called the world’s most valuable startup, TikTok has increasingly found itself in the spotlight, and not always in ways it might like. It faced allegations about its handling of user data as well as questions about what type of content it will allow on its platform. In the case of the artists who have seen their songs take off in ways they never expected, the question is whether giving them a platform is enough. Given the amount of money at stake, how long will exposure be sufficient as currency?

When you open TikTok, it looks a bit like Instagram: you scroll down a vertical feed of videos that you can like, comment on or share. But unlike Instagram and Facebook, in which you choose to follow friends or organizations, TikTok gives you content based solely on an algorithm powered by artificial intelligence, often displaying the most viral and fun videos that have recently emerged on the platform.

TikTok, of course, did not invent the lip-sync comedy that’s so popular with its users–Jerry Lewis mimed a big band in 1961, and Wayne and Garth of Wayne’s World headbanged to “Bohemian Rhapsody” three decades later. It also isn’t introducing participatory memes to the world–think the EDM craze “Harlem Shake.” But perhaps never before has such a large platform made it so simple to both consume and take part in these art forms. TikTok has a huge database of songs; if you see a song you like in a video, you can click on it and use it right away. The ability to easily find an audience, combined with the platform’s lack of pretension, has made TikTok highly addictive for a younger generation.

And as the app has grown, it’s become clear that virality can run in two directions. While popular songs have birthed memes–as in the case of Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag” or Metro Station’s “Shake It”–memes have also turned minor songs into omnipresent smashes.

Ava Max, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, is proof of the latter. Her song “Not Your Barbie Girl” flew under the radar for about six months before it picked up steam on TikTok. Suddenly women were singing along to her lyrics while either dressing up as Barbie or flouting the strict confines of the doll’s image. “I noticed that and freaked out,” Max says. Several months later, her song “Sweet but Psycho” exploded to an even greater degree on the app, which helped the song accrue more than 550 million streams on Spotify. “It helped because it reached a wider audience and a younger generation that are mostly on their phone, as I am,” she says.

TikTok’s greatest success story is indisputably Lil Nas X. The 20-year-old Atlanta artist was a college dropout sleeping on his sister’s floor when, playing off the renewed popularity of cowboy culture online, he started promoting his country-trap song “Old Town Road” through memes on Twitter and Instagram. After several months, it broke out on TikTok, with creators using it in their videos as they transformed themselves into cowboys and cowgirls.

Record labels took notice, and after a fierce bidding war, Lil Nas X signed with Columbia Records in March. When Billboard removed the song from its country charts later that month–classifying it as hip-hop as opposed to country–it got even more attention amid the controversy. The song has become inescapable, and a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus sits at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“I should maybe be paying TikTok,” Lil Nas X says. “They really boosted the song.”

But not all TikTok stars have seen the same success outside the app. Songs are often posted on the platform without being labeled correctly, and it can take weeks or even months for musicians to get proper credit.

Such is the case for ZaeHD & CEO, two rappers out of Little Rock, Ark. Like Lil Nas X, they hoped to engineer viral success by recording songs specifically designed to be consumed as bite-size memes. Weeks before they released the full version of their song “All In,” they posted short videos of themselves and others dancing to snippets on Instagram, making it a minor sensation before it was even out.

Their social-media push worked: a portion of the song has been featured in 2.3 million videos on TikTok. But there’s one issue: that sample was put into TikTok’s system by another user, who labeled it “Em Em Dance,” by Keezy. The hashtag #ememdance has now been viewed over 32 million times with no reference to the song’s creators. “I have been looking for this song for the longest [time] I kept typing in mmm mmm mmm but nothing recognized it,” one YouTube comment reads.

Sleuthing fans like that one did find the song on other platforms, like Spotify and YouTube, which pay artists per stream. But as of publication time, the song is still labeled incorrectly–despite the fact that ZaeHD says his team has talked to TikTok about changing it–and the song’s stream count on Spotify is comparatively much lower, around 5 million.

TikTok has little motivation to change its identification system. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) puts the onus on users rather than tech companies to report copyright violations. So an artist like ZaeHD has two main options: try to work with TikTok, which is making its way through similar requests, or send a DMCA takedown notice, which would wipe the song from the platform and slow its momentum.

ZaeHD, 20, isn’t particularly bothered by the lack of recognition, because he says the song’s success is unprecedented for his community. “Where we’re from, this don’t happen,” he says. “Three million views is not seen where we stay.”

But this dynamic–of the world’s most valuable startup profiting off rising musicians who are just grateful for the exposure–has some music legal experts worried. “Unfortunately, a lot of the digital services resist paying for the music that makes their platforms successful, and it’s not right,” says Erin Jacobson, a music attorney who advises clients on intellectual property.

TikTok secures licensing deals with different rights holders in the industry–from labels to publishing platforms like TuneCore–and pays to use their catalogs. The money then theoretically gets distributed back to the songwriters in the form of royalties. But the lack of a formalized and consistent structure favors established artists on major labels. Supa Dupa Humble, for example, said it was only after he reached out to TikTok that “Steppin'” was formally recognized in its database. Meanwhile, Joji’s “Slow Dancing in the Dark” provided the background music to one of the platform’s biggest memes–#microwavechallenge, which had even Ryan Seacrest spinning around on the floor like food heating up in a microwave. And while a representative for his label, 88rising, said he was not paid by TikTok for the song’s inclusion in the meme, he will be receiving royalties for streams through a licensing deal between Warner, which distributes his music, and TikTok (TikTok does not pay artists directly). The song was also boosted outside the app, and became Joji’s biggest hit to date when it made the Billboard Hot 100 in March.

Asked about a potential imbalance of power, a TikTok spokesperson responded, “TikTok is an exciting way for songs and emerging artists to gain exposure and break through with a wide and varied audience. We work closely with rights holders to build and protect a library of sound on the platform which is available for users to infuse in their own short videos.”

TikTok has also hit some significant bumps in the road. In February it agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle federal allegations that it illegally collected personal information from kids under 13. In April, India temporarily halted downloads of the app, citing concerns for children’s safety. And the company has come under fire for being slow to tamp down hate speech. (“We continue to enhance our existing measures and roll out further protections as we work to minimize the opportunity for misuse,” a TikTok spokesperson told HuffPost in April. “There is absolutely no place for discrimination, including hate speech, on this platform.”)

If artists do challenge TikTok over their compensation, they will hardly be the first to take on a platform over the issue. Metallica sued Napster in 2000 for putting its music online for free, and Taylor Swift yanked her music off Spotify in 2014. (She returned in 2017.)

Last year, Congress passed the Music Modernization Act, which made it easier for artists to be paid for streams. But because TikTok isn’t a streaming service, the act doesn’t apply, and in part because of TikTok’s relative newness, the music industry has yet to come together to tackle its monetization issues.

But Richard Busch, an attorney who has handled prominent cases relating to copyright infringement–including the landmark “Blurred Lines” case, in which he won a multimillion-dollar judgment against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke–says TikTok is too big not to have serious implications for the industry.

“Songwriters, music publishers and owners of recorded music are having their music basically stolen with no incentive for the TikToks of the world to do anything about it,” he says. “You are destroying the value of that music.”

These issues are only becoming more pressing. The top of Spotify’s United States Viral 50 charts is littered with TikTok-driven songs, and the potential revenue streams are increasing.

TikTok recently started testing ads, something brands had been waiting for since its launch. In April the company kicked off an audition contest in South Korea and Japan that places videos of independent singers and dancers hoping to be signed in front of industry insiders. And Busch said there are active licensing talks between TikTok and the National Music Publishers Association, an organization that fights for copyright protection and compensation for songwriters, though he notes that it represents a tiny fraction of music publishers.

For now, the artists driving TikTok’s first year of success are mostly ecstatic about the way it has boosted their careers. Supa Dupa Humble’s monthly YouTube views have more than doubled. He’s watched “Steppin'” memes spread around the world and welcomed a fan base of TikTok users who have stuck around to explore his other music. “People are saying, ‘I came from a meme, but I’m staying because this is fire,'” he says. “It’s dope to see the record actually grow legs on its own.”

Correction, May 31

A previous correction to this story misstated the financial relationship between Joji, his label 88rising, and TikTok. 88Rising is distributed by Warner, which has a licensing deal with TikTok. While Joji was not paid by TikTok for his involvement in the #MicrowaveChallenge at first, he is in the process of receiving royalties for his involvement in that phenomenon.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the June 03, 2019 issue of TIME.

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