Can a viral hit guarantee a successful music career?

Image Credit: Maurice Garlet

Sea Shanty star Nathan Evans’ debut single narrowly missed Number One this week, but will going viral with ‘Wellerman’ be enough for the future?

Nathan Evans is the reason that sailor songs have been everywhere on the internet over the past month – there’s even a sea shanty about the recent GameStop drama. Evans’ cover of sea shanty ‘Wellerman’ came in at number 3 on the UK official Top 40 last week. Released as an EDM remix by 220 Kid and Billen Ted, it charted behind Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ and ‘Without You’ by Kid Laroi, another TikTok sensation.

The outpouring of love for his sea shanty rendition earned Evans a record deal with Polydor and prompted him to quit his job as a postman to focus on music full time – but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the continuation of the success he’s seen so far.

What’s TikTok got to do with the music business?

TikTok’s influence on the music charts is undeniable. Since the free short-video social networking app launched in 2017, the integration of music on the platform has led to organic success for original artists. Featured songs on the app are sought out on YouTube, then rack up the streams on services like Spotify and emerging into the charts.

TikTok is now bleeding into every part of the music industry. A&R reps scour TikTok to find the next big thing, especially whilst they can’t be stood at the back of a sweaty gig, and the music business is rushing to sculpt TikTok-ready tracks – with short, danceable beats and music videos featuring dances that just so happen to be the perfect length to be copied by users in their posts.

Why do songs blow up on TikTok?

Some lucky artists see their music become a soundtrack for millions on the app, and not always intentionally. Some music serendipitously becomes popular on TikTok through a cover version or random use for a dance, and the original musician then scrambles to capitalise on the sudden popularity.

Take Jason Derulo’s ‘Savage Love’ for instance – Derulo has been on a mission to be the emperor of TikTok ever since it became clear that the app was the next big thing in social media, and was named ‘Best Celeb on TikTok’ in the app’s 2021 year round up. ‘Savage Love’ however was originally a YouTube beat by New Zealand teenager Jawsh 685, uploaded to TikTok by a different user, which Derulo sampled for his own release without permission. It was Derulo’s version that blew up in the mainstream, and only subsequently did Jawsh 685 get a feature credit. The 17-year-old was quickly signed to Columbia Records and is now in a similar position as Evans of making his first moves in the industry without TikTok to prop him up.

Evans however is fortunate to be the face of the #ShantyTok trend. The collaborations that spawned from the original post featuring TikTokers laying their own song parts over his original cover are an obvious trail that leads back to his initial post.

Is viral success sustainable?

Lil Nas X is one of the biggest breakout stars from TikTok, leading from February 2019 when ‘Old Town Road’ sparked a massive meme of users drinking Yee Yee Juice and changing into old western attire just in time for the song’s drop. His career since then has been geared toward the app, with ‘Holiday’ featuring a TikTok-friendly music video.

It’s probably too early to predict the career arc of TikTok viral successes. It’s different to the ancient breed of MySpace breakout stars like Arctic Monkeys who focused solely on music and didn’t have to contend with the sensory barrage and tiny attention span TikTok encourages. Sea shanties are a niche surely unsustainable past a few months, by which time the fickle internet will have forgotten why it was so obsessed with the sailor songs.

Should musicians be chasing TikTok success?

It’s definitely something to bear in mind when it comes to marketing a release, as it’s smart to have a foot in many platforms to ensure as many ears and eyes are reached as possible, but anchoring an entire image around one platform would be a mistake if a long music career is the ultimate dream.

TikTok is an artist marketing platform, not one for users to consume music. Musicians should be wary of the bubble bursting; for one thing, post-pandemic the public won’t have as much time on their hands to gaze at the endless TikTok algorithm.

Will sea shanty fame be different?

Nathan Evans has said he’s always been a songwriter, as well as sea shanty lover, and that interest in writing original songs should serve him well if his team are savvy enough to market him as a rounded artist rather than a TikTok star. But the public will still need to be reminded of why he gained fame in the first place.

The #ShantyTok fad has been music-led unlike other TikTok visual trends, with musicians playing together over Evans – just look at the version that’s in the charts, a remix taking creative inspiration from the original cover. As long as the music is kept central to his next moves, the viral momentum should carry over to the long term.

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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