From Penn student to record deal: How a 15-second TikTok video changed my life
TikTok launched my career and, in the process, revealed its flaws.
A 15-second video completely changed the direction of my life.
“Yo, have you seen this?? 50k views on your TikTok??”
“Ha ha. Very funny. April Fools!”
“Bruh I’m not kidding you go look.”
My co-songwriter Jonah was not kidding. It was the morning of April 1, 2022, and something strange was happening to the TikTok I had posted at 2 a.m.
That spring marked my first not-super-hard semester at Penn, and I had decided to revisit my roots in music. I studied classical piano throughout childhood, and spent my high school years in choirs, jazz bands, and a capella groups. I would get on stage to sing whenever I had the opportunity; I was drawn to the microphone. I loved nothing more than music, yet I had never thought about it as anything other than a hobby.
I made a TikTok account after I got COVID-19 for the third time in January 2022, when bingeing on TV shows lost its appeal. I had recently started writing sappy songs about old relationships, and TikTok was one way of sharing my thoughts and staying social. My TikTok was an intimate space with about 57 followers (all of whom I knew) and an average of about 12 likes per post.
It was unbelievable when that video hit 50,000 views, then 100,000, then 500,000, 1 million, and closed the day at 2.4 million views. I checked my phone every 15 minutes during ECON 234 to see how much bigger the number was getting, feeling overwhelming excitement and no small amount of insecurity. It’s clear from my unbrushed hair and pajama T-shirt that I did not intend for millions of people to see that video.
Before the video went viral, I had one dream and one dream only: to be a boss-babe female CEO. All the way from Istanbul, Turkey, I’d squeezed my way into studying finance at Wharton and had a shiny, NYC corporate job lined up for after graduation. I had accepted that a career in music was near-impossible, even though I am the happiest version of myself on stage. My dream was buried under layers and layers of risk aversion. I had never even dared to say the words “I want to be a musician” out loud.
The months that followed were filled with miracle-level events, almost all tied to this one TikTok video. I, a girl with no Spotify profile or any songs out, was being taken out to fancy dinners around New York with top label executives, all of whom promised me the same thing: I’m going to make you a global pop star. (If you give me the rights to your music forever, for cheap.)
At that point, my understanding of the music industry was at the level of a dog’s ability to speak English. I skipped class to jump from call to call to learn about the industry. If there was one thing business school taught me, it was how to conduct market research. I reached out to anyone I could find who had something to do with music and bombard them with questions: “What does a record label do? What does sync licensing mean? How do I make money from streaming services? What are the advantages of signing vs. staying an independent artist? What the heck do I do?”
One thing kept coming up in every call: “Get a lawyer.”
Long story short, I slowly figured out the industry, got myself a lawyer, and engaged in many heated conversations with my parents about my future. My mom is still not completely on board.
This year, my life is drastically more exciting but not so different. I’ve put out two singles that were successful by my definition, my first one being the “internet sensation” GASLIGHT. I signed a record deal with a really cool partner and am preparing to go on tour before I graduate.
I still wake up early in my sorority house and drag myself to ECON 350, sit in my room in the afternoons, and write my songs. I’ve waved goodbye to my corporate job to chase this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hilariously, I’ve tucked away the business-casual half of my closet in my sorority-house basement and have bought an entire closet of what my mom describes as “weird stuff I shouldn’t be spending money on.”
My story is not unique. The music industry has been completely revolutionized with the abundance of exposure social media, when an algorithm picks what content to play for you instead of you actively following accounts. The music industry was on the verge of disruption anyways, but with the digitalization of everything, artists have been realizing they are a lot less dependent on their labels.
You don’t need someone to pay to rent a studio, print your CDs, or put your face on billboards anymore. You can record music in your bedroom with your college friends, distribute it to streaming services for a very small fee, and promote yourself to millions of people on their phones.
That’s where the all-hail-TikTok mentality came from. It’s the first time that you can be heard by millions of people in a single day without spending a dime. Cherry on top: If people interact with your music (and use it in their own videos) you’ll see free, exponential marketing.
While TikTok’s domination of the industry had massively democratized music, it’s not without its flaws. The skills one needs to be an artist are perhaps shifting away from “make great music that people like and perform it well” to “promote yourself successfully on apps.” Music executives can hold back music unless it goes viral on TikTok, which is an unpredictable and un-forceable phenomenon. Artists who aren’t naturally also good content creators can feel demoralized.
And then there’s the slew of psychological effects that TikTok and social media have on users — especially when those platforms become a crucial part of your career. The “success” of your music often depends on an inexplicable algorithm. There’s really no understanding why one video goes viral and another doesn’t.
Imagine getting quantitative feedback every day about your performance at work, along with extremely harsh comments from people you’ve never met. That person thinks “I make the worst music in the world,” and that person just begged me to shut up.
While in theory I agree that those comments and view counts don’t matter, it took me a while to learn to not let it get to me. Slowly, I realized that negative comments are just the consequence of doing something interesting, something worth watching.
Negative comments are just the consequence of doing something interesting, something worth watching.
Anytime I convince myself that TikTok doesn’t matter and relax for a second (this usually takes a good, long meditation) I’m still faced with the fact that the music industry is my best friend when I go viral, but I can’t get a text back from my label if I’m not being watched that day.
On social media, I’ve learned that I’ve got to take the good and leave the bad. TikTok completely changed the course of my life, hopefully for the better. The app empowered me to chase after my dreams, and I’m very grateful for that. I cannot control my heartbeat thinking about the future I might have, doing what I absolutely love for a living.
If my story resonates with you even slightly — if you have a hobby or talent you want to share with the world, a meaningful project you’ve been meaning to start, or a business venture you want to embark on — just take my word and do it. Do something you care about, and put it out there. I truly believe that life paths that seemed unlikely are so much more attainable in the age we live in.
From a business perspective, algorithmic social media is free exposure, and exposure is one of the most valuable currencies of our age.