STEVE’S TOP TRACKS OF 2022
Here’s my annual essay…
So, the following conversation sums up the state of music in 2022 for me.
Two young women—sisters, in fact—one age 24 and the other age 20, in New York City:
20-year-old: “The only thing I’m getting on my TikTok lately is Noah Kahan’s ‘Stick Season.’ I get TikToks using the track, covers by other Tiktokers. Not that I mind; I like the song.”
24-year-old: “Let me see what you’re talking about. (Looks at 20-year old’s TikTok and hears Noah Kahan’s ‘Stick Season’.) Nope, I have never been served a TikTok using that song. Never heard it before.
2022 was the year TikTok brought fragmentation of the pop audience to a whole new level. Fragmentation has typically been the end destination of platforms that started out new and mass—television, music radio, even Youtube. At first, these platforms establish themselves by aggregating as large an audience as possible, focusing on content with broad appeal. Eventually, in order to maximize advertising revenue, the strategy changes, with hyper-targeting of particular populations taking the place of endeavoring to come up with an offering that will please everyone. In earlier times, this fragmentation went hand in hand with the emergence of increasingly sophisticated audience research, which allowed for greater precision in targeting audience subgroups. These days, with TikTok taking the lead, what was once known as audience research has been replaced by the algorithm.
As it gets ever more sophisticated at serving you what it is pretty sure you want to see/hear, TikTok’s algorithm has obliterated the audience subgroup and has instead focused on hyper-targeting the individual. So, in a few decades media has gone from looking for something that everyone will like, to looking for something that some desired audience slice will like, to looking for something that YOU will like.
No doubt, this state of affairs leads to a highly satisfying experience for some individuals. But when you pull back the lens, what’s missing from the picture is the excitement of a widely shared culture. Perhaps you don’t personally care for the mass, but I’d argue that pop culture is at its most fun when everyone can sing—and dance— along as one big community. In today’s climate, those big pop explosions of the past, from Elvis and the Beatles all the way to Call Me Maybe and Gangnam Style, become ever more elusive. I’ll venture a bet that there will never again be a TikTok-generated phenomenon on the level of Old Town Road, because TikTok itself has gone from being a mass medium to being a hyper-targeted one.
But fear not; if the thrill and creative jolt of mass culture is something you value, there surely will be a new platform somewhere down the line which will emerge to enable that mass culture, at least at first. Pop culture loves the mass, and, like water finding its level, it will always find ways to enable the mass’ resurgence. It’s always the new platform that puts the pieces of the audience back together after they’ve been broken apart. Decades ago, when observers of the culture lamented fragmented FM radio formats making a phenomenon on the order of Beatles a relic of the past, it was cable television—in the form of MTV—that put the pieces of the audience back together again, with the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson emerging almost immediately. Youtube served this unifying function for a brief period a decade ago, with the aforementioned Carly Rae Jepsen and Psy records reaping the immediate benefit. In 2019 it was the then-novel TikTok which coalesced around Lil Nas X’s debut, proving its agenda-setting powers by making “Old Town Road” ubiquitous. But like all platforms before it, TikTok learned it could maximize its own profits by focusing on as narrow a slice of the audience as possible. And for TikTok, the narrowest slice possible is the individual.
For the moment, TikTok rules pop. The music industry has no real choice but to go with the flow, signing new artists who show signs of life on the platform and marketing new music using strategies that acknowledge the fact that without first garnering success on social media (TikTok, Instagram and YouTube Shorts, mainly), it will be a steep challenge for an artist to benefit much from the things a record label can still do—radio, press, TV, advertising, tour support, etc.
As for the artists themselves, they’re left to take on a lot of the hard work of marketing their music themselves, because social media virality can’t really be manufactured by a record label. This is a significant change from the role of artists in previous eras, where the artist provided the creativity and charisma, while the label did the heavy lifting on the marketing front without expecting the artist to have a talent for that part of the process, as well.
To make things even more challenging for artists, the TikTok algorithm disfavors posts by artists that don’t post regularly enough. Thus, if an artist wants to reach as large a chunk of your audience as possible with the post they really want to send, they need to keep stoking the fire by posting regularly, regardless of whether those posts are really what they most care about communicating, or whether that’s how they want to spend their time. Some artists bristle at this, saying “I’m not a content creator, I’m an artist!”. But in that sense, they are no different than the established artists of the early 1980s who didn’t want to make music videos when MTV came along: “I’m no actor, I’m a musician!” But soon enough, most of those artists realized that there was a new game being played, and they needed to get good at it to continue to have hits. It appears we’ve approached a similar junction.
And so, it’s beginning to feel as though artists have entered into a form of benign serfdom on TikTok, consistently creating content for the platform without remuneration, in the hopes that something might go viral, causing commerce to occur on other platforms. But also doing it whether they really want to or not, in order to keep the algorithm smiling upon them so they will not be penalized for not posting by seeing the posts that are important to them not reach as wide an audience due to inactivity. This is where a system in which content is not fed to your followers, but rather, recipients are chosen by TikTok’s own algorithm, has led.
At this point, I should offer full disclosure that as a music industry professional, I have experienced the thrill of having numerous projects with which I’ve been involved win the TikTok lottery, becoming huge hits when they almost certainly would not absent this platform. TikTok can now make things big faster and across greater distances than anything that’s come before. It’s really terrific for everyone involved when that magic happens; I just hope the industry can find ways of bringing the world great new music even when it doesn’t.
In any event, one can hardly blame TikTok if this status quo makes some artists or labels unhappy. TikTok isn’t in the music business any more than it’s in the dance business; music, like dance, is just one of many features that users include in much of the most popular content. And it’s not TikTok’s fault if other industry players, from DSPs to radio chains, are giving overwhelming weight to TikTok metrics to make programming decisions. But that is where things are right now.
Further, and importantly, there’s no doubt some terrific music has emerged from this state of affairs, made by artists who might not have gotten past the gatekeepers in the old system. And this should be celebrated. But I sure hope that we’re not headed irrevocably into a future where great artists and great music never get to be winners in the pop sweepstakes because they’re just not natural born marketers. Or because some kid in New Zealand didn’t come up with a funny dance to a random 30-second snippet from their recording.
As for my list of the 50 Best tracks of 2022, it’s pretty much all over the place.. A fragmented year leads to a plethora of styles represented. A huge range of relative popularity is here, too: Harry Styles’ “As It Was,” with over 1.7 BILLION Spotify streams is present, but so is “Walt Disney” by Jason Bajada, which weighs in with under seven thousand streams.
Fro my best track of the year, I’m going with Sudan Archives’ “Selfish Soul”, although it could just as easily have been the SZA or Drug Dealer songs that are on my list. And as in years past, I don’t include songs from our S-Curve Records label or other songs with which I’ve been professionally involved on my list. But the very best of those songs can be found at the end of the playlist, since artists such as AJR, Andy Grammer, Daisy the Great, Netta, Jabez, and the Moss put out fantastic music in 2022 and deserve to take a bow.
Check out the playlist HERE!
Here’s wishing you a great 2023!