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Songs as cultural moments (and why TikTok trends are so appealing)

Cover image for Songs as cultural moments (and why TikTok trends are so appealing)

Photo: Danny Howe

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

The music industry is racing in two different directions at once. On the one side is the push for more music to be made by more people for less money – underpinning the $500 million valuation of Suno, the generative AI music platform. This feeds into the original streaming and social platform issues of music becoming culturally diluted, it becoming harder than ever to stand out in the sheer volume of tracks, and a gatekeeping algorithm that rewards sounding roughly the same as other stuff that’s already been successful.

On the other side is pressure to address this value gap; to reel back the commodification of music as simply a background add-on, by super-serving fans and re-addressing definitions of artist success to prioritise audience connection, and quality over sheer volume (stay tuned for our white paper on the topic, out on the 10th of June).

Of course, there are players in the industry who want to have their cake and eat it too: to push artists to continue at breakneck volumes of musical and marketing production, cluttering the ecosystem further and ultimately adding to the underlying problems, while also cashing in on superfans. In short, they want increasing margins on a ‘product’ that is, in the eyes of consumers (and, arguably, artists, who now must spend more effort marketing themselves than making music), decreasing in value.

The value of music peaks in the cultural moment 

The right song in the right place, at the right time, creates a moment that becomes more than the sum of its parts. This is true for walking home in the rain while listening to Hozier; a dismal five minutes suddenly becomes an artistic moment of introspection. It is at its most impactful, however, in bigger settings, where thousands of people can stop what they are doing and sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ together at a Green Day concert.

This idea of a song as a cultural moment always involves more than just ‘listening’ to it. The song playing requires rapt attention and participation, like singing along or dancing (think ‘Sweet Caroline’, the ‘Harlem Shake’, the ‘Cha Cha Slide’). More generally, music with cultural value is always more than just music. Older music scenes were almost always rooted in physical spaces, social values, and atmospheric qualities. Camden and punk bars; Brixton and dub, ska, and jungle. They create ‘soundscapes’ to life in these places, communicating the values and messages of the community at home there. Not just a cultural ‘moment’, but an ongoing string of musical moments that build over time into culture itself. 

The loss of the cultural common ground 

Noise laws, the desperate and declining state of grassroots venues, rising costs of living in cities that push young and (low-paid) creative populations further out of centres, and the final nail of the Covid-19 pandemic have gutted the ability to create music culture rooted in physical spaces. This is why digital spaces – namely, TikTok – have become so important. 

For young people, who spend an average of 11+ hours per week on social media, the ‘spaces’ where they talk with friends and interact with much of the wider world have become increasingly digital. Hence, the power of a TikTok sound seems to hold much promise; if the kids now live online, the music that underpins their cultural ‘moments’ should live online too. 

This certainly has some merit. Ludovico Einaudi is now the travel-happy Gen Z sound of awe at epic scenery, and a host of dance challenges have resulted in a generation that knows group choreography to songs.

But there are downsides, too. Algorithms make these ‘moments’ too similar and, simultaneously, too niche to take root more broadly. TikTok becomes the ‘cultural moment’, rather than any one trend on it. The pressure to produce and publish so much so quickly is degrading the ability for artists to really workshop, fine tune, edit, learn, update, or even think about the music they are making – much less have time to leave anything on the cutting-room floor. No ideas are bad ideas in an environment that prioritises quantity and conformity to the algorithm over everything else. There is only content to feed the algorithm, one lucky strike at viral success, and then a fade into comparative obscurity. 

Young people are not particularly big fans of this system, either. They do not live online because they want to; in large part they are simply forced to, because their real-world alternatives have been broadly defunded and discarded in favour of ‘tech solutions’ and four-lane highways. They are pushing back where they can, with ‘dumb phones’ on the rise and a variety of tactics to cut down on their screentime (over 85% of 16-24 year olds have done so in some way or another in February 2024). 

The blinding allure of digital data 

If Gen Z is trying to move offline, then their most important cultural moments will happen there more often. Yet the industry largely still judges musical success by digital metrics such as streams, likes, saves, and shares. This data is rewarding at a quick glance – but it only goes so far.

TikTok virality promises ‘free exposure’ and offers marketer-happy metrics, but rarely does it result in lasting success for anyone other than TikTok. Spotify’s ‘Top’ country or genre lists can show what is ‘trending’, but with listening habits so fragmented, the differences can be very slight and fickle. Moreover, the data does not always apply equally; an artist with a strong following that supports them on platforms like Patreon or Even can make far more money than artists who far outperform them on streaming and social.  

In short: the music industry has a lot of data, but that data does not necessarily measure anything important. If music’s value in the minds of both artists and audiences is rooted in culture, then the industry should be looking to where that culture actually sits. Digital metrics for social and streaming need to be weighted accordingly; there is no one-size-fits-all marker of success. The number of avid fans who buy merchandise and even average listen / view time are far more important than the number of listens / views. A mood-based playlist feature is likely to be a background listen, even if the numbers are higher, whereas a context-heavy play in the right time at the right place, no matter how big, is the golden ticket.Think ‘Running Up That Hill’ featured in a critical moment in Stranger Things or ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ during a rainy election announcement.

Music used to emerge already intertwined with culture. Now, however, it has become isolated through the streaming platforms and algorithmic precision, and these links need to be deliberately reforged. Exploring the launch of music outside of digital is an important part of this; after all, nothing trends so well online as something cool filmed in real life. Young people spend a lot of time in digital spaces, but since this is not necessarily something they want, their envy of the real thing boosts it beyond digital-only trends. Even supporting grassroots music moments in unconventional ways – be it street corner or train station pop-up sets that go viral on YouTube, or a return of the flash mob, can become the best of both worlds.

If ‘conventional’ success isn’t working anymore, redefining it in original, exciting ways is going to be the way forward . Doing so will require A&R teams and marketers alike to take the scary step away from the safety blanket of streaming and social data into the chaotic and largely unmeasured arena that is culture itself.

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Omar Henao
I think there is one angle that no one is talking about: AI companies that train models with music should pay songwriters, that's for sure, but what about the outcome in an app like suno, where there is a song created from a prompt? I mean, that song is a derivative and as such it should pay a license, also. To who? Well, that platform should disclose where it's AI got it's fusion from, which artists did it chose exactly to create the song in that precise outcome. I mean, because that's what that song is after all... a fusion of some kind... So those songwriters and artists chosen by the AI to come up with exactly that song as an outcome of the prompt should be compensated for it, if you know what I mean. Saludos!