Near the end of September, Sam Levine, who manages the rising act Tom the Mail Man, noticed an unexpected bump in the singer-rapper’s streaming numbers.
After some internet sleuthing, Levine traced the rise back to the source: a post by MostleyMusic, a TikTok account that functions like an early 2010’s music blog, introducing listeners to new acts while also serving up bite-sized summaries of news events like Chance the Rapper’s legal skirmish with his former manager. On September 23rd, MostleyMusic had recommended a track from Tom the Mail Man, applauding his “really catchy melodies.” The singer’s streams jumped by around 10,000 a day for three consecutive days.
“Typically what marks success on a TikTok campaign is replication,” says Levine, who also works for a digital marketing company, Contrabrand. “This was a one-off post that spoke to the power of Mostley’s platform.”
MostleyMusic is part of a group of TikTok accounts, including Loveinamovie and Hahakcoolgottagobye, that have flourished during quarantine by helping TikTok’s massive, youthful user base sift through the endless stream of music that is uploaded daily to streaming services.
“There aren’t that many ways that Gen Z kids are getting new music other than playlists that Spotify makes or word of mouth,” says Ari Elkins, whose high-energy TikTok recommendation videos, which also include dancing and sing-alongs, have spiked his following from 500 to 500,000 in the last eight months. There’s “a void in terms of Gen Z music curation,” and he’s happy to fill it.
“That influencer-ish, Vlog-ish style of music journalism might be the future,” Levine adds.
This is due in part to the blind spots of more traditional media: Mainstream music journalism is largely uninterested in promoting discovery, focusing instead on blanket coverage of superstars and seemingly endless traffic-grabbing lists — which may buoy an existing reader base, but often fails to capture newer, younger music fans. Enter the upstart music blogs of TikTok.
“When I’m looking at these artists’ interviews, a fair amount of them are like 50-year-old radio hosts from Kansas City who are asking questions,” says Max Motley, the man behind MostleyMusic. “No slight to them, but a lot of these are Gen Z artists, and I’m Gen Z, so I have a different perspective and get to ask them questions that people my age are curious about.”
Motley worked for three years at his college radio station and interned at the talent agency Paradigm; he was planning to battle for an entry-level job in the music industry once he graduated. Instead, Covid hit, forcing Motley to improvise.
“Not having my radio show, I missed sharing music,” he says. But “there’s not really a point in creating a website or writing articles when people can consume everything they need on social media, and it doesn’t take an hour or two to draft and edit and post [stories] and maintain the website.” Motley hopped on TikTok, reasoning that “video is more digestible.”
Loveinamovie has a similar origin story. Like Motley, founder Ananmay Sharan was a fan of the blogs that reigned during 2013 and 2014, especially Pigeons & Planes; also like Motley, he was bored during quarantine.
“I decided to do the music blog thing, but no one really reads music blogs anymore unfortunately,” explains Sharan, a college sophomore majoring in geography and computer science. “No one my age is like, let me go log on to my favorite music blog and find an artist. So I decided to go with TikTok — that’s what all my friends were using.”
Sharan lip-syncs each of his music picks with conviction, using performance to add weight to his recommendation, and frequently touts the fact that a song has just tens of thousands of plays on Spotify. “Everybody can go to the biggest playlists and find whoever is popping,” he says. “I would rather highlight someone who’s independent or unsigned.”
In October, Loveinamovie posted a clip praising Oscar Welch’s “Sixteen,” Gaff’s “Last Night!,” and Dvr’s “Am Sleep” that earned over a million views on TikTok. The video performed particularly well with users in the Philippines: Welch’s track debuted at Number Six on Spotify’s Viral 50 in the Philippines not long after Loveinamovie’s video — a spike that is, in scope and speed, well beyond what an article from a traditional media outlet can usually accomplish.
This also highlights a key difference between a more old-fashioned outlet that publishes stories on the internet and a TikTok blog: The latter is embedded in a system designed to engineer virality. “If there’s a blog, there’s a limited amount of people you can reach,” Sharan says. “This has an algorithm feeding it to people who can listen directly off that.”
TikTok users can hear a song in a Loveinamovie post and make their own videos with it on the spot, spreading it to their own followers with zero friction. In addition, Motley and his peers drive traffic from TikTok to their personal Spotify playlists, which enhances their ability to trigger streaming activity — Elkins has more than 300,000 followers spread across various Spotify collections, while close to 200,000 people followed playlists by Hahakcoolgottagobye in 2020 alone.
It’s no surprise, then, that the music industry is already circling this sector of TikTok, pitching these accounts on artists to cover and looking for opportunities to collaborate on promotion. Motley says Atlantic Records pitched him on several of their young acts, while Justin Lubliner, who signed Billie Eilish, messaged Motley last week, and Spotify’s Lizzy Szabo, who works on buzzy playlists like Pollen and Lorem, reached out via Instagram and sent some merch.
These connections might provide a solution to one problem that even TikTok’s vaunted algorithm hasn’t solved: Bloggers struggle to get paid. Motley says he’s starting to think about monetization — he mentions trying to find sponsors for his Rising Artist series, or charging for “promot[ing] artists extra that I already believe in”— but nothing is “fully fleshed out.”
The need to make money could eventually force these TikTok accounts to become glorified marketers, muddying their own preferences, which earned them fans in the first place, with the mercenary priorities of major labels. But if these TikTokers end up succumbing to this pressure, it could just link them more with traditional music journalism, which has never been free of influence.
Today, publications often play nice in profiles to ensure access to Big Names, and some labels and streaming services own their own media outlets. Most music coverage remains shackled to the album cycle — despite the fact that it has little impact on many young people’s listening habits — in large part because that schedule serves artists’ and labels’ promotional demands. The speed at which everything moves on social media means that some TikTok bloggers who were unknown a few months ago are already having to figure out how to respond to similar pressures, and they’re doing so without institutional backing or guidance from traditional journalism.
But right now, many of the kids behind these accounts are just trying to pass their finals. Sharan is also working on an e-zine with other music fans while trying to get used to his burgeoning internet fame. “Yesterday Dominic Fike commented on a video of mine,” he says, still in disbelief. “That’s insane.”