TikTok is starting to look more and more like SoundCloud

MBW Reacts is a series of analytical commentaries from Music Business Worldwide written in response to major recent entertainment events or news stories. Only MBW+ subscribers have unlimited access to these articles.

At various times over the past year, it appeared that TikTok and its parent company ByteDance were slowly morphing into something that resembled a record label.

We made this observation a few months after TikTok publicly launched its ‘SoundOn’ marketing and distribution service, and once again following our discovery that ByteDance was hiring for label-style A&R roles.

A year later, and the argument can be made that, rather than a record company, TikTok is actually starting to look more and more like SoundCloud.

Some important recent context: Earlier this month, The Information reported: “TikTok has been pursuing dozens of artists to exclusively distribute their work through its one-year-old service, SoundOn”.

According to the report, citing two people with “direct knowledge of its efforts”,  The Information states that TikTok’s “custom deals” with indie artists “are more typical of major record labels”.

TikTok’s Global Head of Music Ole Obermann is quoted in the article rejecting the suggestion that TikTok wants to be a record label – or sign deals like a record label.

“Being a music label is a big, complicated, expensive endeavour and it just doesn’t fit into our strategy,” said Obermann.

So if being a rival to the major labels isn’t part of TikTok’s music strategy, then what is?

Last week, TikTok launched its #NewMusic Search Hub, a “dedicated space for artists around the world to showcase their new songs and for fans to discover their next favorite track”.

According to TikTok, “the #NewMusic hub will act as a destination for new music, highlighting new releases and making it easier for fans to discover the latest tracks from both new and established artists”.

The term ‘New Music’, searched via the #NewMusic had already amassed over 18 billion views on the platform prior to the launch of this official new music hub on TikTok

The platform claims: “Music discovery is what makes TikTok tick.”

Music discovery, music distribution, artist services and exclusive deals with indie artists… all under one roof?

That’s starting to sound a lot like SoundCloud’s business model.

MBW has noted many times that SoundCloud, which has been evolving to become more of an ‘artist services’ business in recent years, has two distinct sides to its current model.

  • (i) A user-facing streaming service, which offers both ad-supported and subscription (SoundCloud Go+) income streams; and
  • (ii) An artist services business, under which indie artists can not only upload their music direct to SoundCloud, but also distribute their tracks to rival services like Spotify.

I would argue that TikTok’s model can be split up in a similar way:

  • (i) A user-facing short-form video streaming service, which is free and ad-supported, but doesn’t offer a premium tier; and
  • (ii) An artist services business (SoundOn), via which indie artists can not only upload their music direct to TikTok, but also distribute their tracks to rival services like Spotify 

SoundCloud also launched a top-tier of artist service offerings, known as “Roster” last year.

Under these “Roster” deals, particularly successful independent artists ‘sign’ direct to SoundCloud, with the company paying advances, investing in artist marketing etc. just as a traditional record label might.

Reports of TikTok testing out exclusive deals with indie artists sound very similar to this.

SoundCloud and TikTok comparisons don’t stop there, either.

In March, SoundCloud was reported to be testing out an AI-powered TikTok-like music discovery feed on its platform, adding to the growing TikTok-ification trend in the music and social apps space.

Was the test of this feature a preemptive measure to counter a looming threat from TikTok?

As evidenced by the launch of SoundCloud’s recent ‘Fans’ direct messaging tool and accompanying blog post from Tracy Chan, SVP of Creator at SoundCloud, the platform wants to be seen as the artist’s platform of choice, and a key discovery platform for music fans.

This is becoming increasingly challenging in an industry where TikTok has proven itself to be artist kingmaker, hit breaker and development funnel into the majors – with a renewed push into music discovery and artist services.

In addition to TikTok’s new music hub and pursuit of exclusive deals with indie artists, a recent new music-related hiring spree suggests that TikTok’s music plans could be moving up a gear.

MBW has now spotted that the company is hiring for a ‘Data Science Lead – TikTok Global Music’ and a ‘Senior Data Scientist – TikTok Global Music’ in San Jose.

According to the ads, both successful candidates will “will be working on exciting projects to provide the best user experiences to create, consume and enjoy content on [TikTok’s] Music app or TikTok”.

TikTok’s Global Music Data Science team is described as being “responsible for all data science work in the music business. Including product optimization, user growth, monetization, content strategy, etc”.

The roles add: “Our team is committed to using data science and analytics to help the music business grow faster. In fact, we have driven multiple product and monetization strategies to help the business achieve user retention growth and ROI improvement.”Music Business Worldwide

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