'It Is Wildfire': Berklee Alum on How TikTok Is Reshaping the Industry

By 
Kimberly Ashton
December 17, 2020

Justin Sheriff B.M. '16 talks about how "Ashes," a song he recorded, mixed, and mastered, ignited on TikTok and led to a record deal.

Engineer Justin Sheriff B.M. '16
Image courtesy of the artist

It’s hard to overstate how just important Spotify has become in making or breaking songs. A tune’s placement on the streaming service—especially early on—will largely determine its success in all other areas, from uploads to radio play to concert ticket sales.

But with 42,000 songs released on Spotify every day, and with so much hustle behind them, how can an artist get their tune to float into the rarefied heights of Spotify’s Viral 50 lists, especially without major-label money boosting its rise?

Maybe, as Justin Sheriff B.M. ’16 says, by forgetting about Spotify and heading first to TikTok, a social media platform that hosts super-short video clips. 

Sheriff, the head engineer at Cybersound Recording Studio in Boston, saw one of the artists he works with, Stellar, do this with the song “Ashes,” which Sheriff recorded, mixed, and mastered. 

“There is nothing like TikTok right now,” Sheriff says. “It is wildfire...just the virality [with which something] can blow up. Instagram, Snapchat—all that is falling to the wayside now, comparatively to TikTok. It's ridiculous.”

Stellar promoted “Ashes” on TikTok in limited campaigns by offering to pay people to use his song in their videos. The deal was that he’d pay people $10 if their video, with his song, got 100,000 views, $20 for 200,000, and so on up to $100 for videos viewed 1 million times. Stellar, whose real name is Sid Banerjee, says that, to his knowledge, such a promotion had never been offered on TikTok. But he, an experienced YouTuber and student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), said he “basically saw the potential the algorithm had.”

“So he gets a few people with influence to start using the song,” Sheriff says, adding that some videos just showed people pointing at the screen and saying, “‘Hey, this person said they’d pay me to use the song, so I'm testing it out.’ Crazy stuff like that. And [Stellar] starts to pick up some steam...and then, literally all of a sudden, it just starts to take off.” 

It gained momentum quickly in May and June as other artists and influencers started noticing that many of the videos that used “Ashes” got a lot of views. This impression was helped by a post Banerjee made telling people exactly that: “I made a video showing [two examples] where whenever they used my sound they got a lot of views and whenever they didn't, they didn't get views...and literally, everyone started using my sound the next day.” More than 1.7 million videos have used the song.

“What's crazy about the TikTok thing is that it can be a gigantic mountain of a boulder, as opposed to like a tiny snowball, within just a blink of an eye,” Sheriff says. 

That snowball was then heading right toward Spotify’s Viral 50 charts, as people who heard a clip of the song went to Spotify to listen to the full-length tune.

Listen to "Ashes" on YouTube:

“Ashes” first landed on the U.S. Viral 50 chart in late July at no. 8 and then on the Global Viral 50, hitting no. 3. It spent more than two months on both charts. From there, it started registering on Billboard charts. By November, it was in the top 20 on Billboard’s Alternative Rock Sales chart. 

To get this kind of buzz for a song, artists can spend thousands of dollars. Sheriff, who is a musician himself, put it this way, for perspective: “I've hired people to promote my Spotify song on certain playlists. For $400, you could maybe get a very typical service—15,000 to 20,000 streams.” But after paying out everyone who featured his music in their TikTok video, Banerjee spent about $500 and got 10 million streams during the promotion. (Today, “Ashes” is at 42 million streams on Spotify.)

This fall, the major labels started taking notice, and in October Banerjee signed a deal with Arista Records. He says this is “100 percent” the result of his TikTok campaign. “The labels all started reaching out after my sound went viral,” he says. He’s taking a break from WPI and moving to Los Angeles to pursue his career. 

Why TikTok?

Though Banerjee saw outsized success on TikTok, in large part because he thought up a then-novel way to promote his song, standing out on the platform isn’t easy. TikTok has a culture that savvy users are plugged into, and the videos that blow up tend to share some characteristics.

“What I've kind of noticed is...you sort of just need a little bit of your song to just be really catchy. ‘Ashes’ is a catchy, catchy tune; it's something that you can listen to for a small bit and you're vibing to it,” Sheriff says. It’s also a song that lends itself to meme-making, another big trend on the site. 

But isn’t a catchy tune what’s needed to make it on any platform? Maybe. But the barrier to entry can be higher in other arenas, Sheriff says. Take radio, for example. “If you think about the days before TikTok, [your song] probably only got viral if you were lucky enough to be rotated on the radio stations. And that's so, so hard to do in itself. I mean, that's like shoot-the-moon for a lot of artists.” Besides, most musicians who are getting radio rotation are the ones already on labels. 

Also, many younger listeners don’t tune in. “TikTok is like the new radio for kids; they find it on there. They don't listen to the FM radio. They don't listen to Sirius XM,” he says.

TikTok is like the new radio for kids.... They don't listen to the FM radio. They don't listen to Sirius XM.

-Justin Sheriff B.M. '16

Spotify is easier to get onto than radio, but promotion is a challenge. Sheriff says that an artist typically needs to “harass a whole bunch of people and ask them to put your song on their playlist.” And there’s not much opportunity to add value to the offering. “With TikTok,” he says, “you can be creative, you can be an artist, you can take songs and repurpose them in really unique ways.”

As for Facebook and Instagram, for the most part only an artist’s friend group or existing fans will see the content. TikTok, though, is wide open. “And, not to mention, they're adding these cool video effects and it's just so much more fun than any other app right now. And it keeps people hooked,” Sheriff says. 

Engineering a Hit

The success of “Ashes” has also paid dividends for Sheriff, who’s seen an increase in demand for his engineering services as Cybersound clients become aware of the hit song. A dual major in electronic production and design and music production and engineering, Sheriff started working at the studio as an intern eight years ago, while a student at Berklee.

In the time he’s been there, he’s worked with DMX, Run-DMC, Lauv, and others. He also did the sound design intro for Billboard’s Women in Music awards in 2018; voice recognition recording for Amazon’s Alexa; and engineers the highly successful meditation app Ten Percent Happier; among other projects. 

“It’s incredibly high-paced and it’s really demanding,” Sheriff says of his job, “but it’s made me good at my craft.” It’s that level of skill that Banerjee says he was looking for when shopping around for an engineer for “Ashes.” “Justin does a great job—every time. I have never had a problem with him, so that's why I'm continuously going back and working with him.” 

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