TikTok isn’t where ‘stars get started’. Stars start themselves.

Credit: Music Venue Trust

MBW Views is a series of op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Mark Davyd (pictured), the CEO of Music Venue Trust – a UK Registered Charity which acts to protect, secure and improve UK grassroots music venues. This piece originally appeared on Davyd’s Substack.

I’ve spent the past week in Liverpool, a city that has thrown itself behind Eurovision with the sort of enthusiasm you usually see at an eight-year-old Mexican’s birthday party around about when they start hitting the pinata.

It could all potentially be a bit much, with music literally pouring out of every door, window, bar, restaurant and library. But somehow this city has managed to pull off the trick of delivering something genuinely heart-warming, inclusive, and truly representative of the whole history of music that has made Liverpool a world-leading city for music, while still keeping the Eurovision fans happy. Honestly, the whole place is thumping with music and it’s just an incredible time to be there and be part of it.

But. You knew there was going to be a ‘but’, right?

Slap bang in the middle of this joyous festival of music sits a huge billboard featuring Sam Ryder, he of the hair and the space suit.

Now, it might surprise you to learn I have a bit of a soft spot for Sam. What you might not know is that prior to the pandemic, Sam was working himself towards early baldness by trying every route available to him to build himself a career as a musician.

  • Sam made his debut as a singer and guitarist at age 16 when he co-founded the band The Morning After, releasing two albums.
  • Following The Morning After’s split, he joined the Canadian Rock band Blessed by a Broken Heart and contributed to their album Feel the Power. He parted ways with the band in 2013, auditioned to become the new lead vocalist for the American Rock band Close Your Eyes, and contributed to their album Line in the Sand.
  • In 2016, Sam recorded an album with producer Bryan Wilson in Nashville, Tennessee, although it was never released.
  • By 2019 he was working as a wedding singer.

That was his route so far; by the age of 30, having tried just about everything, Sam was singing for his supper while brides got carried off by grooms. Then the pandemic came along, and everything changed for him.

If you know that full story, then you know that someone like Sam doesn’t just happen overnight. He’s not an instant internet sensation. He’s someone who has worked incredibly hard to get where he is and has earned, and deserves, the success he has found.

Which leaves me to question why there is a 60-foot-high poster in the centre of Liverpool with the Tik Tok logo proudly proclaiming “Where Stars Get Started” featuring Sam Ryder.

I thought about reporting it to the advertising standards agency, but they are bored of my phone calls about tech platforms passing themselves off as music companies.

There’s going to need to be a re-calibration of all the ludicrous claims being made about how we supposedly ‘create’ artists on these platforms.

Because TikTok didn’t build Sam’s playing skills. TikTok didn’t teach Sam to write great songs. TikTok didn’t teach him how to enthrall and manage an audience of people. TikTok didn’t even help style him.

TikTok delivered a platform for him to get exposure – in Sam’s case specifically during the pandemic when his talent really had a chance to shine on the platform TikTok provide. I bet Sam is super grateful for that, and probably got paid really well for the supersized use of his image.

But that doesn’t make the claim that TikTok is “Where Sam Ryder Got Started” any less misleading or deceptive.

Companies like TikTok are reliant, just like every other part of the music industry – and increasingly the tech exploiters of that industry (I’m looking at you Spotify) – on one simple activity that none of them seem prepared to invest in as part of their business.

At the age of 11, Sam Ryder was inspired to pursue a career in music after seeing the Canadian rock band Sum 41 in concert. In the simplest of cultural terms, he had the opportunity to see it and he decided to be it.

There are thousands of young people in the UK right now who could be TikTok’s next Sam Ryder. But they aren’t going to be. Because their local venue, the place where they might have seen it and decided to ‘try to be it’, closed this week. And we could have stopped it from closing with 10% of the money that TikTok spent on a poster in the middle of Liverpool pretending they create artists.

Or 0.001% of the money Spotify gave FC Barcelona to put their names on the players’ shirts.

Something is going to have to give in this façade. We can’t go on pretending that everything is going to be fine for the live music industry by letting TikTok, or Spotify, or YouTube, tell us that success on their platforms equates to long-term successful artists with fan bases that can sustain the live music sector.

It’s a fool’s game to put all our eggs in the basket of these unproven platforms hoping that artists will spring miraculously from them and start headlining Glastonbury.

Live music is a data game. Anyone who books an unproven artist to headline a major festival, an artist who has yet to prove themselves with ticket sales, not clicks, is taking a massive risk with their wallet.

No amount of clicks ‘created’ Sam Ryder. He created himself. With hundreds of gigs, years of hard graft, with the support of an infrastructure that is collapsing around us while tech platforms sit there chanting ‘this is all fine’.

We need to start demanding that money that should be invested into the future of music isn’t wasted on poster campaigns that tell the public a shamefully misleading story about how artists are ‘created’.Music Business Worldwide

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