Make This Go Viral: Building Musical Careers through Accidental Virality on TikTok
D. Bondy Valdovinos Kaye / Queensland University of Technology
Over the past two years, TikTok has made headlines as the breakout international short video platform disrupting international entertainment industries, such as the music recording industry. Going viral on TikTok has launched or spurred on the careers of numerous recording artists such as Lil Nas X, Arizona Zervas, Doja Cat, and many more. However, building a music career on TikTok is challenging because the platform has several issues with authorship and attribution (Kaye et al., forthcoming). Users can easily upload videos that miscredit or misattribute artists, though in some rare instances that can work in the artists’ favor. This essay, drawing primarily on qualitative interview data with a viral TikTok musical artist conducted in May 2020, examines how misattribution on TikTok can still unexpectedly lead to new music career opportunities through accidental virality on TikTok.
Virality is a commonly understood concept in internet and platform studies referring to the process by which content circulates rapidly and “spill[s] over into other social platforms and mainstream media,” (van Dijck, 2013, p. 77). On digital platforms, viral content is often associated with memes, cultural information that quickly passes from person to person scaling into larger social phenomena (Shifman, 2013, p. 365). Marketing and advertising experts are fixated on strategies to help content become memes and go viral (i.e. Berger, 2013) but in many cases memes are created organically, unexpectedly, or accidentally (Katz & Shifman, 2017). Emerging social media influencers can benefit from memetic content going accidentally viral when caught on camera and uploaded to digital platforms becoming “eyewitness viral stars” overnight (Abidin, 2018, p. 38). TikTok is a prime platform to explore accidental virality given the bite-sized nature of content between 15 and 60 seconds long and the ease with which TikTok allows users to create new videos based on elements of the video they were just watching (Kaye, Chen, & Zeng, 2020). When a TikTok video goes accidentally viral, it can have sweeping repercussions for the professional careers of TikTok creators.
Sophie Fraser, otherwise known by as Inoxia or @inoxiasounds on TikTok, is a young Australian songwriter and vocalist who went accidentally viral on TikTok in November 2019. Fraser had been steadily building her music career busking on the streets of Melbourne when, in November 2019, a random passerby happened to record a video of her cover performance of the popular song ‘Dance Monkey’ by breakout Australian recording artist ‘Tones and I’ and posted it on TikTok. The video, which did not credit Fraser as the performing artist or Tones and I as the original recording artist, went viral. At the time, Fraser was not a TikTok creator or user and admitted she “had no idea what the app was” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). The video has already accumulated over two million views by the time Fraser created her own TikTok account to post her first short video showing a visceral emotional reaction to the viral success of the anonymously uploaded video of her performance.
After creating her own TikTok account, Fraser uploaded a longer and higher quality version of her Dance Monkey cover that also credited the original artist. In the accompanying video text, Fraser implored TikTok to “make her video go more viral than the video that uploaded without crediting her.” Her call was heeded by millions and, indeed, her video went far more viral than the original uncredited video uploaded by the original TikTok user unexpectedly catapulting Fraser’s professional music career forward. “It sparked interest among all the major labels. I got flown over to LA and I met all these celebrities, music executives, and was taken to all these fancy dinners” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). At the time of writing, Fraser’s reupload video has over 110M views.
Compared to other digital platforms such massive organic growth is often unprecedented. A key draw of TikTok for creators is how easy the platform makes creating, publishing, and growing videos as opposed to other digital platforms. Fraser explained that she prefers TikTok to other digital video platforms, “YouTube is slower growth. They are longer videos and my watch time is pretty low. People don’t stay too interested. TikTok I’ve had to learn is that the shorter videos do better. Posting on TikTok is really easy. TikTok is fast and steady” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication).
Creators can find success posting silly videos or dance challenges on TikTok, but for Fraser the platform has become a professional calling card, “Because I have such a big following on my TikTok I feel like I have to be professional I have to upload strictly singing videos… Like a portfolio for labels” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). This contrasts with her profile on other platforms that still function as “normal” social media for the young artist, such as Instagram, “I let my personality show through a lot more on my Instagram than on my TikTok,” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). Even so, Fraser commented that TikTok has now become the primary vehicle for boosting her musical career.
Fraser’s meteoric TikTok rise was cut short by the global COVID-19 pandemic that required her to shelter in place at home. To maintain her viral digital profile, her manager encouraged her to become a TikTok “content creator” meaning she should engage with other logics of TikTok such as dance challenges, memes, and other trending content. According to Fraser (2020, personal communication), “I didn’t know if that would benefit at all me because I’m a musician first. I never thought I would be a content creator or be in this position. My mindset is all about singing, writing, and performing.” Fraser posted several videos while in COVID lockdown, but explained that she was more interested in biding her time before she could get back to the streets and return to busking.
Fraser’s rapid growth flips the “traditional” professional music career trajectory on its head, “I thought I would release some songs, people would like it, and I’d grow from there… It’s not linear at all,” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). The nebulous TikTok recommendation algorithm facilitates virality in unexpected ways. In Fraser’s case, she reflected that her success came from “a young girl who took a quick five second video of a busker on the street. It was so random. Nobody could have expected this happening” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication). Fraser explained that she owed her newfound success to an anonymous passerby whom, to this day, Fraser has been unable to locate and thank. “I was practically begging her to follow me back so I could thank her. I wanted to say you’ve literally kickstarted something for me and fast-tracked my music career. She did so much for me, and I haven’t ever been able to even tell her my real name” (Fraser, 2020, personal communication).
Fraser’s case study is featured in a recent study on TikTok attributional platform practices, or the additional efforts that creators make to properly attribute content on digital platforms (Kaye et al., 2020). TikTok employs an automatic attribution system to credit original creators whose sounds or videos are reused by other creators. Like previous findings on other digital creative platforms (Monroy-Hernandez et al., 2011), TikTok’s automatic attribution system is imperfect and can lead to creators being misattributed by others accidentally or intentionally. In these instances, creators may use additional practices to reinforce their connection to their own original content. In Fraser’s case, the original misattribution was overcome by the artist uploading her own video to boost visibility and directly asking audiences to properly acknowledge and credit her work. This underscores the tensions between encouraging creativity by facilitating reuse on the one hand and properly acknowledging creative labor on the other. This case study illustrates how accidental virality can influence digital identities, professionalization, and build fame overnight for talented creators like Sophie Fraser.
- Artist Sophie Fraser’s TikTok video of her performance of Tones and I’s “Dance Monkey”
- Fraser’s first TikTok expressing gratitude for the support she had received
- An example of Fraser’s COVID lockdown content.
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