Since it first exploded in popularity five years ago, TikTok has evolved into the de facto launching pad for new musicians around the world, playing an instrumental role in turning artists like Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, and Doja Cat into household names.
It now falls on Ole Obermann to make TikTok’s new subscription music streaming service into a success. TikTok Music went live in Brazil and Indonesia last month, and will compete around the world with platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. As global head of music development at TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, Obermann’s job is to negotiate with record labels and leverage the app’s cultural influence into new revenue streams.
Obermann previously held executive positions at Warner Music Group and Sony Music, where he helped close some of the first deals between the industry and platforms like Facebook and Spotify. We talked to him about how TikTok works with artists, the features coming to TikTok Music, and his current favorite song in the edited conversation below.
The View From Ole Obermann
Q: What impact has TikTok had on the music industry?
A: It is the most impactful discovery platform or discovery tool in the history of the music industry. In the past, radio was probably the biggest driver of discovery, and then music television — MTV, VH1 — became a really big driver of discovery, marketing, and promotion as well. TikTok is kind of both of those things, but at an incredible scale. Even more important is the format of music and short-form video on TikTok — it’s a completely personalized feed. That does an incredible job of matching the right song or the right video with the right audience. There’s just never been anything like it.
Q: If TikTok is the most important place for discovery, how does it work with artists, record labels, and music managers? How do you balance those relationships with TikTok’s own interests?
A: There’s a fine balance that we always have to achieve, right? Because the record labels or the managers, the artists — they’re actually pretty accustomed, historically, to having a good amount of control over what gets featured the most. Like in terms of what gets playlisted, what gets pushed on radio, or what gets featured in the iTunes Store or even physical retail.
The beauty of TikTok is that it is completely random. There is no longer the ability to say this is the song, or these are the artists who we are going to keep featuring. The community decides what is going to work. I think the industry has, and is still, working their way through how to deal with that. But they are kind of coming to embrace it more and more. They’re more agile, and can react to something that starts to happen on TikTok, even if it takes them by surprise.
They can quickly jump on board and do the marketing and the promotion and the support on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and the other platforms. It takes a little bit of the control away. But it introduces this beautiful element of surprise, where the most obscure and random song that no one saw coming, or genre of music that no one saw coming, ends up being a massive hit.
Q: It used to be that an artist would start sharing their music on TikTok, and if they were lucky, a record label or manager would find them and launch their professional career. But now TikTok is getting more involved in that process. For example, you launched SoundOn, a platform for music marketing and distribution, and last month, you started Elevate, a program specifically for emerging artists. Why are these initiatives a good idea?
A: It starts with creation. So the creator makes music, then you need discovery, promotion, and marketing to connect that musical creation with an audience that will hopefully fall in love with the song or the artist. Then, you need distribution, and sort of broader artist engagement — that would be a streaming service, like Spotify, or now, TikTok Music. That’s kind of the full journey for the song or for the artist, and we want to play a part in all aspects of that.
Q: Speaking of TikTok Music, you recently launched the new streaming service in Indonesia and Brazil, which are two of TikTok’s biggest markets. Why go to those countries first, rather than the United States, which is arguably still the capital of the global music industry?
A: There’s kind of a slightly complicated matrix of inputs or variables that you look at: What’s the competitive landscape? What’s the licensing landscape? How big is TikTok there? Can we try to draw on an audience that’s already engaged with one of our platforms? How much music engagement do we have in a certain country or geography already, that we’ll be able to hopefully translate directly into a newly launched premium streaming service? Those are probably the big ones, but there are quite a few others that we think about when we make a decision like this. Then we can learn as we go, and expand accordingly into other geographies off the back of that. The goal is to have a much broader, bigger footprint eventually. But we can’t do that all in one shot.
Q: You recently partnered with other streaming platforms, like Apple Music, which are now your competition. How are you thinking about those relationships?
A: Our philosophy goes back to our incredible passion and focus on discovery. When a user on TikTok discovers a song, whatever the easiest way is for that user to listen to the full song — whether that’s Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music — we want to facilitate that. We will be very neutral in terms of where the user wants to listen. If they’re a Spotify subscriber, then great, they should go listen on Spotify. Converting to full-length listening is the first priority.
Obviously, we’re confident and hopeful that we can build a big audience on our own streaming service. And there’s some really fun things we can do, leveraging what we know about user behavior around music on TikTok and how that’s going to translate into a full streaming service. I think we will be able to create some pretty amazing ties and bridges between the two. But we will still remain open for business with these other platforms as well, if that’s where the users want to listen.
Q: Can you say more about what kinds of integration there will be between TikTok and TikTok Music?
A: The music that gets served up to you in terms of recommendations in TikTok Music will be heavily influenced by what we already know about your musical tastes through TikTok. But we also think about how it’s actually a two-way street. You want fans to discover music on TikTok and then listen to it on TikTok Music. But more and more, especially the young fans, they want to engage with the music beyond just listening full-length. So you could also be in TikTok Music with a playlist of your favorite songs, and then, say, go make a video using a particular song as the soundtrack. So this could become a full loop, where you’re going in both directions between TikTok and TikTok Music.
Q: Another thing that TikTok is working on is this app called Ripple, which allows people to create and edit their own music. Are you envisioning a future where people are uploading music to TikTok Music that was produced with TikTok’s own tools?
A: We want to inspire creativity on the short-form video creation side, but also the audio creation side. Maybe you have a really particular kind of mood or vibe that you want to try to create a piece of music around, because that’s going to then be the perfect soundtrack for the video that you want to create. So the idea with Ripple is that — we are very early-stage — but we are going to be able to allow creators to customize the piece of audio or the song that they then want to sync up or soundtrack their video with.
Q: What’s your favorite song that you heard on TikTok recently, or your favorite artist?
A: There’s this song called Ojapiano. It’s an African song, and there’s a dance trend. It’s got a really fun beat and kind of a tribal flute sound to it. As it stands, the song is already doing some really big numbers and having a lot of success. But my bold prediction is that someone’s going to come along and put some [new] lyrics over it, and remix it to make it more of a pop song. Because right now, it’s almost more like an EDM dance song. I’ve got it stuck in my head right now.