Screaming into the void: TikTok, COVID and Penelope Scott

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 - 2:53pm

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For as long as the modern music industry has been around, the idea of scenes has been critical to understanding how the artform evolves. Geographic regions and even individual cities are often tied to a certain subgenre, from the east coast vs. west coast era of hip-hop to the incredibly influential Chicago house scene. It’s no surprise, then, that in the digital era, new music scenes are popping up on different websites and apps. The mid-late 2010s were, after all, dominated by the lo-fi trap sounds of “SoundCloud rap.” 

Despite SoundCloud’s work in establishing the internet as a viable place to develop new innovative sounds, few people saw TikTok’s rise to dominance over the music industry coming. TikTok is a social media app, primarily aimed at Gen Z kids, that succeeded Musical.ly as the number one source for short videos of people dancing. It is wildly successful, ranking alongside giants like Twitter and Instagram as one of the most popular social media platforms. But don’t let TikTok’s surface appearance as an inconsequential trend platform, like Vine before it, trick you. TikTok is much more than just dancing videos, and has clearly made an impact in everything from politics (TikTok was where thousands of teens organized to reserve seats at a high profile Trump rally, contributing to the embarrassingly low turnout) to the music industry itself (“Old Town Road,” one of the biggest pop songs of all time, started as a TikTok song). 

TikTok is scarily good at personalizing content for the user. The almighty algorithm is nearly mythical in the way it is revered by users, allowing anyone who regularly uses the platform to end up in incredibly specific niche areas. It is within these many sides of TikTok that indie musicians can thrive. It’s hard to overstate how much one viral TikTok can change a musician’s career. “Vices,” a single by Mothica, hit number two on the iTunes chart off nothing but TikTok hype, materializing a music career for Mothica out of nowhere. Previously obscure Swedish indie musician Girl In Red’s lo-fi sapphic love songs have become so well known in the LGBTQ+ corner of the app that “listening to Girl In Red” has become synonymous with being a lesbian. 

After seeing the influence TikTok has had over the music industry, many may ask questions like “Does TikTok music have a specific sound, like SoundCloud before it?”, “What is it like for those who make it big off of a minute-long viral video?” and of course, “How much staying power do these musicians really have?”

Well, ask no longer, because I sat down over Zoom with college student, amateur musician and overnight success story Penelope Scott to get her take on the TikTok effect. Scott gained rapid popularity on TikTok under the username @worsethanithot after her song Born to Run went viral.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

The Michigan Daily: My first question for you is: what was your original motivation to join TikTok? When did you join it? Did you join it intending to post music content on there, or did you just join it as a social media and end up doing music later on? 

Penelope Scott: I definitely did not join it expecting to post music. I joined it mostly to see content. I thought the jokes were funny and I wanted to see the memes. And I also wanted to see what my friends were doing. And some of them were on tiktok. So I thought that was a good thing to be in touch with … I posted a lot of videos of my friends, and then I posted a few of music. And when it started to become a music account, I took all the videos of people that maybe didn’t want to be part of my brand off of it and kind of transformed it into that account. But that’s definitely not how it started. 

TMD:  So what was your original motivation to start posting music related videos? What was the first thing you posted? Why’d you post it? 

PS: Oh, I think it must have been some of the homework projects I was making for my music class at the time ... I go to a school that has some music equipment. And when COVID happened a lot of the students had to go online. We had to switch to a free software that everyone could use. And so we used LMMS 1.2.1 And it’s like just the free open source software. I like it a lot. And I have a lot of other software that I use to edit audio that I used to edit my voice. But all of the beats on the new, like the backdrops on the new songs are in LMMS. 

TMD: Really? 

PS: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s what a lot of the first ones were because I was doing homework regularly so I would turn in like a piece. And then I would extend that into a song and put it on the Internet. 

TMD: Yeah, I will definitely get into that when we talk about the album. So generally, can you give me an overview, a summary of how your career has changed or even come to be if you didn’t really have one before? Like, how has in the past ... like you said, you started during COVID, so in the past couple months of making music and putting it on tiktok, how has your career changed?

PS: I guess it’s just been a crazy trajectory up of people knowing about the songs that I make. And I guess it would have started — so Sweet Hibiscus Tea, the video, blew up in late May. And Born to Run blew up around the same time. But it travels very differently online because the audio got banned. So that’s a lot more people spreading it without it being attached to me and finding out later like where it comes from. And then sweet hibiscus tea is pretty straightforward. So from that point on, it’s just been like this rapid growth of numbers and the amount of people that I’m interacting with. I used to be able to answer everybody’s comments and questions and kind of be very personal with people. And now it takes a lot longer to get to the bottom of the DMs. So that’s definitely a big change. Yeah. It’s been a pretty steady, very stable upward trend on Spotify, which I think is a good sign. 

TMD: So to provide some perspective for people who are not as familiar with online culture things, who know the more traditional music industry ... have you seen any success with that? Has anybody, like, tried to reach out to you for like record deals or stuff? Have you gotten any more traditional music career things? 

PS: Yeah. So I have had a few record labels reach out to me. Not necessarily ... I think, I think making a deal is more ... That’s a little in the past at this point. They kind of just want to trade contact information and keep you kind of in their orbit so that if you have a request, you can make it. And then you’ll settle on a deal. I haven’t settled on a deal with a record label because I use a distributor called Distro Kid, which works for me. And they just put all the things that I make onto Spotify and Apple, and they do it for about thirty dollars a year, which is pretty cool. 

TMD: So that’s how your career changed. How has like ... And obviously, you don’t need to go near too many personal details if you don’t want to. How has your life changed? How has your personal life been affected by this sudden growth? 

PS: Well, it’s weird because because it’s so online, my day to day life isn’t that much different. I’m still going to school, still studying politics, still doing all the normal things I was going to do. But it is, like, a significant part of my day, checking social media. And when I was putting out the album, that would take hours out of the day to just kind of set up my little recording area in the room, knock out a song, edit it. And it’s also interesting to have people who have not seen me or talk to me in a while realize that they recognized my voice on one of the songs that they’ve heard somewhere else and kind of like circle back and be like, Hey, are you doing music now? And I’m like, I am. And it’s weird that you know that. But thank you.

TMD: So, you’ve obviously been in the music world or at least aware of what’s going on in music for a few years, even if you’ve not been super successful and active in making music that whole time. How do you think the music industry itself has changed the past couple years with things like TikTok and especially recently with COVID, which you’ll have more experience with that ... 

PS: Well, I definitely think that it’s a lot more artist friendly and a lot more user friendly. I think artist friendly platforms like Bandcamp are a big deal. The idea that things are pretty straightforward and you can kind of just do this on the side and not have it take up a lot of your day. And then if it starts to pick up, then you can choose to allocate more time. But I also think that TikTok especially is a really interesting one, because it kind of paves the way for other platforms that might link audio. And like, you can trace a meme back through a song. That’s really interesting to me. I think it has a huge impact on tying various pieces of art that relate to one song together. And that’s pretty cool. It’s definitely helped me get in touch with people who are, in the future, going to do my album art, because someone does a drawing or something to your song and then you have the ability to reach out to them and say, hey, this is my song, and you drew a picture to it and I like it. We can work together. So very connected. 

TMD: That entire scene of TikTok music, of all these individual songs and sometimes artists in general just making huge success. I know there are some stylistic trends that seem to be more popular on TikTok. And it makes me think about a phenomenon of the mid to late last decade of SoundCloud and SoundCloud rap and that scene. Do you think that would be a fair comparison between TikTok and SoundCloud? 

PS:  I think it’s a fair comparison ... I’ve heard TikTok described as ultimately user friendly. And then I would say SoundCloud is probably more artist friendly because it's easier to put something out than it is to find the content you're looking for. But both of them are very centered around the people who are actually using the app … it's not like the company TikTok doesn’t have its hands in all of the content, but they’re not who it’s geared towards, which is an important distinction. I think SoundCloud, Bandcamp are kind of one phase and then TikTok and other social media apps are kind of the next phase. 

TMD: So I’d say that if SoundCloud, if the SoundCloud like rap scene, if that big movement, you know, was like defined by a lo-fi emo rap, trap influence, dark content ... that weird genre fusion? How would you try to describe the genre of TikTok music? If there even is such a thing. 

PS: I would say that it’s very intense... Because it’s such a short span of time, you really try to get as much content per like moment as possible... It’s why 100 Gecs blows up on TikTok and not on SoundCloud. Like, there’s a reason that the user base really gravitates towards very high energy, intense, short, fast and also very glitchy music on TikTok and not other places.

TMD: Yeah, I guess my last main question in regards to your career is, do you think that without TikTok, you would have been as successful now or that you would have been able to reach this level of success? 

PS: I mean, maybe ever, because I have a lot of things that set me up for being able to do this on the side and not as a career ... I think I probably could have, if I put my mind to it, gotten here later in my life, because there are a lot of things that prime me to be able to do music on the side and wait for it to pick up without needing to depend on it to, like, be alive or do school or whatever. But I definitely don’t think I would have gotten in contact with the specific audience that I have. And it definitely would not have happened so fast. It wouldn’t have happened so fast without TikTok and probably without COVID either. I think people being in their homes and looking for political, like rage against the system, content really happened to mix in my favor here. 

The interview continued for a while longer, and we talked about her new album “Public Void.” We were discussing the sound of her music and how it related to TikTok, and she described it as “screaming into the void energy.” I thought that was an incredibly apt way to describe the sound of her music and the state of mind that millions of us are in, and it explained why she was able to blow up so fast. In the midst of lockdowns and social unrest and political instability, a generation feels voiceless, and has found a way to connect with others who feel the same way. We are all collectively screaming into the void, through Twitter rants, late night texts to friends and, yes, TikTok dances.

 

Daily Arts Writer Claire Arp can be reached at clarp@umich.edu.


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