Going into 2022, there was no denying that TikTok had changed the music scene irrevocably. It has arguably become the most prominent way for new artists to emerge — and this year proved to be the most fruitful one yet.
Several of the songs on Billboard’s year-end charts started as viral sensations on TikTok, including Nicky Youre’s “Sunroof” and Em Beihold’s “Numb Little Bug.” And as of press time, Jax’s “Victoria’s Secret” is at No. 2 on the Adult Pop Airplay chart, right under Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero.”
Youre, Beihold and Jax are just three of the many singer/songwriters who have turned TikTok virality into chart success and label deals, and three examples of how 2022 has unofficially become the year of the self-made superstar.
In country singer Alexandra Kay’s case, Tim McGraw caught wind of her video covering his song “Don’t Take The Girl” and invited her to be the opening act on his summer tour. As she argues, the biggest reason TikTok is a key tool for aspiring artists is simple: they hold the power.
“We now have the opportunity to bring our music directly to our audience, hear their thoughts, and then create a marketing plan tailored to those fans based on what they have shared with us,” Alexandra Kay tells GRAMMY.com. “The time for independent artists is now.”
Below, get to know 12 singer/songwriters who have successfully utilized TikTok as part of their marketing strategy to help kickstart their careers as artists — and solidified themselves as hit-making stars.
Em Beihold was working toward her big break long before social media existed. The 23-year-old has been playing piano since she was 6, and, despite being an All-American fencing champion, she ultimately pursued music.
Beihold’s emotive piano-driven pop first caught attention during the pandemic with relatable tracks like “City of Angels” and “Groundhog Day.” The TikTok traction set her up for a breakthrough hit with her major-label debut single “Numb Little Bug.” The bouncy track — which has a juxtaposing narrative based on the singer’s experience with antidepressants — was first teased in 2021, but became a radio smash in 2022 after its official release in January.
“Numb Little Bug” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40 chart in August, nearly a full year after it went viral on TikTok. The song took on a life of its own (also reaching the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100), helping Beihold achieve her goal of solidifying herself as an artist beyond an app.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” she told Variety of TikTok earlier this year. “There’s definitely a pressure, but it also provides opportunities, so I don’t know. I kind of see it as both ways, but I’ve also met like so many friends through literally just scrolling on my For You page.”
One of those friends is Stephen Sanchez, who recruited her for a remix of “Until I Found You” in April (more on him later). Beihold released her second EP, Egg In the Backseat, that same month, and is currently gearing up for her North American tour starting in October.
A career in music is nothing new for Ethan Bornick, who has been playing piano since he was 3 and headlining his own tours since he was 9. He admits he “overlooked” TikTok and the power of social media until he noticed other musicians using the platform to share their music. Now, Bortnick feels he has an entirely different career.
“TikTok has pretty much given me the reset that I’ve always wanted,” he says. “I was able to completely rebuild and find my audience, my people… TikTok has not only opened so many doors for me as an artist, but has been so fulfilling to see people resonate with the music so deeply. I’ve found my foundation for a career that’ll hopefully be around for a long time.”
Bortnick first made waves in October 2021 with his song “cut my fingers off,” which led him to signing with Columbia Records and, as he quips, “finding people that actually wanted to see my crazy piano playing and depressing-a— lyrics.” His impressive piano skills and unwavering lyrics are certainly part of his appeal, as further proven by his 2022 release “engravings” — especially the countless videos of fans reacting to his fast-paced piano abilities.
The rising star took his career to another new height on Oct. 15, when he played his first show as a singer/songwriter in his native Florida. He released two more singles before the end of the year, “arsonists” and “happy “f<em></em>*ing birthday” — both of which, of course, he teased plenty on TikTok. “I am constantly in front of new eyeballs,” he adds. “It excites me and inspires me to make art that stands out and that showcases what I and only I can bring to the table.”
Those who utilized TikTok for artist discovery during the pandemic likely came across one of Jax’s many clever parody covers, from Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” to Olivia Rodrigo’s “driver’s license.” But even those who have never used the app likely heard Jax’s name — or at least her voice — this year, thanks to her original song “Victoria’s Secret.”
The track calls out the lingerie brand for creating body issues through their products and marketing, and hilariously uses their name against them: “I know Victoria’s Secret/ She was made up by a dude.” Its message has helped Jax achieve global acclaim and earned the singer/songwriter her first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 and Pop Airplay charts. But perhaps most notably, the song even caught the attention of Victoria’s Secret CEO Amy Hauk, who sent Jax a letter praising her for addressing “important issues.”
It’s the kind of impact Jax (whose birth name is Jackie Miskanic) has been working toward for years, as she used to write songs for artists like Paris HIlton and co-wrote with Natasha Bedingfield before making waves as an artist in her own right. As she admitted to Variety, she didn’t understand “how organic and natural” TikTok could be when she first started using it. Now, with nearly 13 million followers, more than 212 million likes and an Atlantic Records label deal, it seems she figured it out.
Similar to a few of the artists on this list, pop singer/songwriter Leah Kate first found viral TikTok fame during the pandemic, when her song “F— Up The Friendship” caught the attention of millions. However, her punk-leaning hit “10 Things I Hate About You” took her popularity to the mainstream, becoming her first song to chart globally.
The breakup song’s relatability is certainly part of its appeal — especially because it’s based on a true story. A self-proclaimed “big list maker,” Kate used a real-life “10 things” to inspire the track. “It was like someone pushed a button and I immediately felt better,” she recalled to Rolling Stone about the writing session. “I’m not saying this song is a self-help guide, but I know when I realized that my song made me feel better that it might help other people get over a relationship too.”
Kate spent the summer touring with Chase Atlantic — which resulted in more virality for the singer thanks to her witty response to some haters — and recently wrapped a headlining UK/Europe trek. She is currently embarking on her first-ever Australian tour, including a performance at Tik Tok’s “For You” festival. “10 Things I Hate About You” recently hit 1 million videos using the sound on Tik Tok, bolstering Kate to drop the deluxe version of her EP “Alive and Unwell” on Dec. 16.
Alexandra Kay first gained traction on TikTok with covers, which especially caught buzz because of her vocal likeness to Dolly Parton (her “Jolene” cover is one of her most popular videos to date). But 2022 proved to be Kay’s year, particularly after Tim McGraw noticed her talent when she covered his ’90s hit “Don’t Take The Girl” — which earned Kay an invite to open on McGraw’s summer tour from the country star himself.
Kay spent the remainder of the year headlining shows across the U.S. and released a single called “Skip This Part,” which she said has “the most Taylor Swift inspired bridge of all time.” After releasing her latest single, “Backroad Therapy,” Kay made her debut at Nashville’s famed Grand Ole Opry in November and headlined another stretch of shows.
Despite her global success, Kay is determined to stay an independent artist, and one who writes and produces her own music.
“I am so incredibly proud of the genuine connection I have built with my audience over the past six years of utilizing social media,” she tells GRAMMY.com. “I have so much more confidence in my releases knowing I was able to take their thoughts into consideration as well as have the freedom as an indie artist to release when I feel the time is right.”
Before Rosa Linn had her own TikTok hit with “Snap,” the song was already wildly popular overseas thanks to Eurovision. The second-highest charting song from this year’s competition, “Snap” became a Top 40 hit in the U.K. — and promptly made its way to TikTok.
“Snap” has since soundtracked more than 1 million clips, notably a Northern Ireland couple’s engagement video that has amassed nearly 17 million views. The track also helped Linn land a record deal with Columbia in August, and topped Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Airplay chart in October.
“You never know what will go viral on TikTok,” Linn told BBC News. “I’m checking my numbers on Spotify every day and I see them grow and I just can’t believe it… As a child I’d dream about this.”
She’s not exaggerating: Growing up in Vanadzor, Armenia, Linn started playing piano at age 6, and began songwriting in her pre-teen years. Her career has even already come full circle, as she first competed in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2013.
Linn used her follow-up single to “Snap” to pay homage to her Eurovision roots by collaborating with fellow contestant Duncan Laurence on “WDIA (Would Do It Again).” As she preps her debut studio album, she told Wonderland that she’s continually amazed by what “Snap” has done for her career. “I am a big dreamer and a good manifester,” Linn said. “I always knew that one day the universe would reward all the hard work and dedication I put into my music.”
J. Maya had just recently quit law school when she began posting on TikTok in 2020. Maya decided to opt out of Law school to follow a more untraditional path from her Indian American culture: music.
She saw success on the app after posting an acoustic version of her future single “Achilles Heel,” which quickly gained over a million views on TikTok in 2020, going on to be released on New Years Day on Spotify as Maya’s first official single of 2021. “The music community on TikTok is as smart as it is powerful,” she asserts.
One of Maya’s 2022 releases she initially teased on TikTok, “Golden Age,” highlights “underrepresented women of history,” which inspired many videos dedicated to underrated female figures. One line references a Hindu goddess named Sita, whose story resonated wider than Maya expected.
“As a South Asian American woman myself, it was uplifting to see people from that community celebrate that line in particular, especially given the underrepresentation of South Asians in American media,” she says. “It truly boggles my mind that a line like that, written from my bedroom, could reach the ears of millions of people through an app like TikTok.”
Maya released her debut EP, Poetic License, on Dec. 2. One of the standouts is “Prophecies,” which addresses how her chosen path reflects her upbringing. “All the prophecies they came true/ I’m living in the world you wanted me to/ Even if it doesn’t look that way to you.”
Avid TikTokers may have known about Stephen Sanchez since 2020, thanks to his cover of Cage the Elephant‘s “Cigarette Daydreams” or his original track “Lady By The Sea” — the latter of which helped him earn a record deal with Republic Records. But in 2022, Sanchez took his career from social media to the mainstream, as his crooning love song “Until I Found You” has become an anthem for millions.
The ’50s- and ’60s-inspired sound of “Until I Found You” has plunged fans into a world of nostalgia, using the song to pay homage to their own loved ones — or simply, love in general. The song has resonated so widely that it has charted around the world and is still growing on the charts, sitting at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart as of press time.
“[TikTok] launched me into this crazy position that I had no place being in, and so it was amazing and it just set the stage,” Sanchez told Affinity Magazine earlier this year. “It’s a hard thing to try and navigate, especially when your career is almost reliant on the validation of other people and the engagement of other people through social media… [but] as difficult as TikTok can be, I’m extremely grateful for what it does for breaking out brand new art.”
The latter half of the year proved just as fruitful for Sanchez: He released his latest EP, Easy On My Eyes (which features “Until I Found You”) in August, released a new duet with Ashe (“Missing You”) in November, and announced a headlining tour for 2023 on Dec. 8.
Lauren Spencer Smith
Lauren Spencer Smith went viral on TikTok by accident. The singer/songwriter, who hails from Vancouver Island, already had a following from participating in the 2020 season of American Idol — but when she teased just 15 seconds of her original single “Fingers Crossed,” she shot to stardom.
Spencer Smith posted the snippet of the diaristic breakup song to simply share progress with her fans, but ended up releasing it independently in January of 2022 when, by that point, the original TikTok video had amassed over 23 million views. It shot to 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 1 in the charts in Ireland and Norway, and Spencer Smith had her pick of labels to work with.
“I definitely was in a panic, because everybody’s attention spans are so short,” Spencer Smith explained to Billboard earlier this year. “You have to pay attention to your audience and watch. If the comments are like, ‘This is taking too long, I’m so annoyed,’ you need to announce a release date. But if the comments are still excited, you can keep building on that.'”
Now, Lauren has more than 4 million TikTok followers and more than 7 million monthly Spotify listeners — with the single itself having passed over 277 million Spotify streams as of press time — and she’s signed a partnership with major record labels Island Records and Republic Records. She closed out 2022 with a performance at the People’s Choice Awards, a run of appearances at iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball tour, and a new holiday single called “Single on the 25th.”
Five years into his career, rapper Armani White is now often associated with another big name in the music industry: Billie Eilish. Well, sort of. The pop superstar inspired White’s breakout single, aptly titled “BIllie Eilish,” specifically her signature big t-shirt style. “Billie Eilish’s style is what the song’s about, but it’s also the character that Billie Eilish’s music portrays,” White told The Post. “I feel like it’s kind of identical to what I like to portray in my own music.”
The song started as a snippet of White messing around in the studio, but blew up overnight on Tik Tok. The rapper had to go through several hoops — including clearing Pharell’s beat from N.O.R.E’s “Nothin'” sampled in the track and getting permission from Eilish herself — and White was concerned that the hype would die down. However, the song kept viral momentum, inspiring it’s own trend on Tik Tok of transitions from baggy “Billie Eilish” clothing to their “stylish” versions, inspired by lyrics of the song.
Now, “Billie Eilish” has over 180 million streams on Spotify, and White has signed a partnership with Def Jam Records, home to the likes of LL Cool J to Jay-Z. He shows no signs of slowing down, with rumors of the rapper gearing up to release his first EP abounding. Next up, White will release his latest single, “GOAT,” featuring boxing legend Floyd Mayweather, in January.
As for praise from Eilish herself? White joked to Billboard, “I’m still waiting on the FaceTime or Duet video.”
Nicky Youre is no stranger to TikTok. He’s been on the app since it first arrived in 2017, but as he explains himself, “I never posted on it, I just used it for fun at the time.” Five years later, he’s one of TikTok’s biggest 2022 musical sensations.
His hit song “Sunroof” was not just inescapable on the app, but pretty much anywhere — as proven by its multiple-week runs at No. 1 on Billboard’s Pop Airplay and Adult Pop Airplay charts, and its No. 4 peak on the all-genre Hot 100. To date, the song has garnered more than 650 million global streams.
On TikTok alone, more than 9 million people have used his song as a Sound for their own videos, even including pop superstar Ed Sheeran. “Sunroof” and its irresistibly positive melody inspired countless “summer vibes” videos, from dogs enjoying a car ride to people with, yes, their head out the sunroof.
“I think it’s great that each video you post gets shown to a brand new group of people,” Youre says of TikTok. “This can help artists connect with new listeners and build their brand quicker than ever before.”
Five remixes of Sunroof have since been released, featuring big names such as country hitmaker Thomas Rhett and Latin star Manuel Turizo. The artist is continuing on his high, releasing another infectious track called “Eyes On You” and performing at nine of the 11 iHeartRadio Jingle Ball tour dates.
Emerging artist Maddie Zahm released “Fat Funny Friend” in February of this year. Recounting her experience with weight, the song details Zahm’s insecurities that have stemmed from her size. “I’ve done every diet to make me look thinner,” she sings, “So why do I still feel so g— inferior?”
Her super-vulnerable lyrics quickly resonated with TikTokers, inspiring more than 15,000 users to share their own stories. Many include recounting years of not feeling good enough because of their weight, and their recent journey of learning to love themselves.
“Seeing the reaction to ‘Fat Funny Friend’ has helped me acknowledge how much of a need there is for these types of conversations,” Zahm says. “I really wasn’t going to be an artist until TikTok convinced me that I wasn’t supposed to do anything else.”
Zahm dropped her debut EP You Might Not Like Her in August. The five-song project furthers her emotive storytelling, particularly the title track, which touches on coming to terms with LGBTQ+ identity later in life.
The singer/songwriter closed out the year with the announcement of her first-ever headlining tour, which sold out several cities in the presale. Like many of her fellow TikTok artists, Zahm is most grateful for the community the app has created.
“I owe a lot to the platform,” she adds. “[I’m] so glad it’s given me a way to connect with so many through music and shared experiences.”
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