9 min read

on tiktok + content creation being framed as journalism

on tiktok + content creation being framed as journalism

Everybody’s favorite, totally relevant and cool music publication Rolling Stone put out an article recently about TikTok creators who do music reviews. It’s mostly a profile on a few different young people that do it and that’s great. I think music focused content is great and connecting with younger audiences like this makes a ton of sense. The creators had a lot of really interesting, valid points about people their age not reading music writing. However, the article is framed as like “Is This The Future Of Music Journalism ? !” even though it doesn’t try to ask any real interesting questions about how that could be true outside of “well the kids engage with this and not us and TikTok is currently valued by the music industry!” which is classic music journalism. No hate to the person who wrote the article as it is an entertaining read as far as highlighting these creators who are genuinely interesting, I just don’t vibe with the heavy focus on how TikTok has been such a good thing for marketing when relating it to whether it could be “the future” of journalism. Conflating curation and recommendation with journalism is rampant and consistently outs the writer as any mix of insecure about their own work, not knowledgeable about what content creators do, and hoping to get some discourse going on Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, TikTok is undoubtedly a force in the music industry. For new artists, legacy artists, and those anywhere in between, blowing up on TikTok is a quick way to boost those streaming numbers. It’s mostly random and you’ll never know what’s gonna hit, but when it does it really has an impact. For the most part, it’s closer to an audiovisual sync than a review. TikTok dances, the left over lip-syncing from TikTok’s roots as Musical.ly, using lines in songs as a prompt format.. All that is not what we’re talking about, however, that is (I expect) what the industry is valuing most. Virality which sparks loads of content using their song as a soundtrack so people go over and stream the song on Spotify.

What that article was about was TikTok music reviewers/curators being “The Future of Music Journalism” which.. probably not. Not in a snide way, as I unequivocally support human curated music suggestions which this does incredibly well, but when we talk about how journalism is dying we’re talking about the jobs going away, right? The eviscerating of the media landscape through poor management and turning to freelance, right?

The article addresses the payment thing a bit, but the only answer on TikTok seems to be sponsorship. The creator in the article specifically references getting paid by working with artists and labels which is advertising, not journalism. Which is fine, that is usually how content creators make money. Content creators are (typically) not journalists and you’d never consider someone doing a video about Raid Shadow Legends while sponsored by Raid Shadow Legends as doing journalism. They’re doing an ad.

What I was interested in, really, was that I know TikTok has an internal monetization thing called the TikTok Creator Fund. I also know it’s a pittance based on what YouTuber’s I’ve watched have said. When I started looking into it more, though, I wasn’t prepared to see just how vague the guidelines for the Creator Fund are.

How are my funds calculated?  The funds that each creator can earn are worked out by a combination of factors; including the number of views and the authenticity of those views, the level of engagement on the content, as well as making sure content is in line with our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service.   No two creators or videos are the same, and there is no limit to the different kinds of content we will support with the fund.   The Creator Fund total varies daily and is dependent on the amount of videos published by our community that day - so this will fluctuate based on the amount of content being published.
taken from TikTok’s community page on the fund

The creator fund is, importantly, NOT revenue share which separates it from YouTube or Twitch (to a much smaller degree— live stream donations is where all the money is on Twitch) where an ad plays and you get some of that revenue from the ad. YouTube calculates how much money you get based upon some bizarre internal calculation of your content and demographics matching ads of differing quality on certain types of videos, but it at least tells you how much money you make per 1,000 views.

Musical.ly used to have a sister app called Live.ly in which creators could live stream themselves usually just chatting where users could buy little badges, shout outs, and digital “gifts” for their favorite creators. This became extremely problematic as big creators with mostly child audiences that don’t understand how money and credit cards work began to essentially scam their audiences. Commentary YouTuber Danny Gonzalez made a good video about that whole situation a couple years ago. In essence, though, it’s different than a site like Twitch or Streamlabs or even becoming a member of a channel on YouTube or Patreon where when you donate you really are faced clearly with the fact you are giving money to a creator you like because you like the content. Maybe you’ll get a shout out or something on stream, but it’s clear that it is a donation to these people. That is not a scam.

Live.ly made it look and feel like a game to get creators higher on the leaderboard or to make your chats a different color or give them little icon things as “gifts” which cost real money. The creators also just kinda sat there and begged you to donate and like the stream. It wasn’t really content. It was scamming a child audience for money. Musical.ly was not monetizable from what I can tell outside of using Live.ly and if you’ve got a ton of fans and no real way to monetize.. I’m not saying it was moral to scam your child audience but even bad content takes work and it sucks to work without being paid.

So we return to TikTok and what makes the Creator Fund so goddamn weird. What is it? Why is it? Where is the money coming from? According to the post about it and what I’ve read from creators, what we know is:

  • it has $200M in it
  • is “expected to grow”
  • you have to be 18 (sorry Charli D’Amelio)
  • have a minimum subscriber base of 10K with 10K views in the last month

Though since the rollout users have alleged a negative correlation between joining the service and engagement as well as citing it as not being anything you can make real money through. A YouTuber I know of who has over 4 Million subscribers showed his TikTok creator fund earnings off his active, nearly million follower account with millions of views as being just about £27. Of course this will fluctuate depending on engagement and everything, but that is shameful. This newsletter with (shockingly, I know) way less than a million subscribers makes more than that.

The thing about TikTok that is so perfect for virality of music is the ability to 1. play the song 2. have others share and build off that original video or with that same sound. Copyrighted music is typically entirely off limits on user driven video websites. TikTok isn’t even perfect as far as licensing and entirely avoiding a copyright takedown, but it is better.

YouTube is notoriously strict on usage of copyrighted material and tends to lean in favor of copyright owners over creators on their website. YouTube has made DMCA takedown notices easy through built in communication forms and software that can identify copyrighted materials automatically, both for YouTube creators via Copyright Match and for rights management organizations via Content ID. They have also implemented options for copyright owners to decide whether to make the video unavailable, claim the video to take the advertising revenue, or go as far as to strike a channel. Three copyright strikes in a 90 day period result in permanent account termination. Creators repeatedly report abuse of the system, specifically regarding the claiming of videos made on other creators in which clips from the original video are used for commentary purposes. When copyrighted music is used within a video there is typically an information panel at the bottom of the description which outlines the song, rights owners, etc. that looks like this:

taken from AJayII’s video “Melanie Martinez - K-12 Album |REACTION|”

Amazon owned Twitch is equally strict, but implements their protections proactively as opposed to YouTube’s reactive model. Their policies regarding music go so far as outright banning of “Radio-Style Music Listening Shows” among other specific styles of content which have a high risk of including copyrighted material within the Twitch Terms of Service.

Review channels and reaction channels on YouTube either risk constant copyright infringement notices, potentially endangering their channels, or decide not to play the songs at all which is 1. less engaging and 2. not going to have an immediate streaming spike effect the same way a TikTok video showcasing a song would. That said, because their followings are much more focused on their personalities and it’s longer form, spoken content and the audiences are a bit older, I expect, it is likely a bit easier to translate into community driven monetization formats like Patreon.

It has been proven time and time again that it’s hard to translate content on TikTok, or any previous intentionally short form video app, to success on other mediums.

Vine fully died because it was so unprofitable and most of those creators ended up either on Instagram taking sponsorships to do, uh, racially and sexually charged “comedy” for children or they went to YouTube and became mostly commentary channels or Gabby Hanna, I guess. Most of them had a hard time transferring to the new medium without relying exclusively on becoming children’s content focused. Even the big YouTubers now who came out of vine, like Cody Ko who has over 5 million subscribers now, have really rough early YouTube videos trying to figure out how to make people who like you for less than a minute still like you when it’s only profitable to make content 10x as long.

You might be asking why that matters here for this specific sect of TikTok creators, but payment is eventually incredibly important and if your options are:

  1. Take sponsorships from labels and artists, potentially jeopardizing your credibility and relatability with your audience
  2. Create enough content everyday to stay in the algorithm for almost free
  3. ???? Bang Energy ad ????
  4. Leave the platform you have your entire audience on to try to do this somewhere else where you can make more money and just hope the audience follows

Well, that sucks.

And what happens if TikTok falls out of favor with the labels or they want more money to license their songs and suddenly you can’t make content with anything falling under UMG? Sure, it’s the hot thing now but there’s no guarantee it’ll stay that way. And as it is, it’s clear you can only use certain songs anyway.

Emo Social Club @xemosocialclubxFriends: why don't you make a tiktok with non single emo/pop punk songs? Me: *does it* Tiktok" *flags the more "obscure" songs as copyrighted* So thats why we mainly hear the "mainstream/singles" in tiktok, folx!

January 4th 20211 Like

As internet built artists get launched into massive artists on the back of TikTok, they’re being snapped up by labels and rights management corporations. The US government just passed a new bill, the CASE Act, which means individual users infringing on rights could be held liable for infringement with fines up to $30,000. Anybody framing the CASE act as good for smaller artists is a liar or naïve.

As we move toward the ever more financialized music industry where copyright is wielded as an investment asset there is no guarantee the suits will want to continue to allow anybody to make unregulated content reliant on their intellectual property. The name of the game is exploitation and money, just as it always has been.

TikTok creators benefit greatly from the music industry seeing value in the app. That’s not guaranteed to stay.

When Rolling Stone asks “is this the future of music journalism?” they’re really asking if marketing and promotion is the future of journalism because content creation which is done for free cannot be “the future” and content sponsored by the industry it’s discussing is not journalism. The music journalists are always asking if their jobs are obsolete— if journalism is obsolete.

Now, that’s a different conversation, but I reject the notion that people just don’t want to read. People don’t want to read your 50 best albums of the year on a barely usable, ugly site. People probably don’t want to read the same regurgitated press release as a “premiere” or the same interview with Conor Oberst over and over. But it’s not because they blanketly don’t want anything outside of recommendation and curation. The future of music journalism is gonna have to be a lot more creative and done by people with a lot more drive and passion than is possessed by anybody who thinks TikTok creators with big Spotify playlists are an adequate replacement.

If you view music journalism as solely a tool for promotion then maybe you should let that 19 year old with an iPhone and vague sense of rhythm replace you. They’re already doing a better job.


Miranda Reinert is a zine maker, music adjacent writer, and law student based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like an internal debate on good and bad animals: @mirandareinert. I also opened up a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! If you’re interested in supporting me financially on a one time basis, you can also donate to my Ko-Fi. But as always, thanks for reading!