Before Bella Poarch released the music video for her debut song, “Build a Bitch,” she teased it for her more than 68 million followers on TikTok.
Poarch is the third-most-followed person on the short-form video app, which has risen in recent years from a lip-syncing app to one of the most culturally dominant social media platforms. And while TikTok has helped boost songs for years — it helped turn Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” into a hit — its stars now look to use their internet stardom to launch music careers.
Poarch is one of three TikTok stars who have released pop singles in recent months, boosted by their sizable followings. Addison Rae, the second-most-followed TikToker, released “Obsessed” in March. Dixie D’Amelio dropped “F—boy” the same day Poarch dropped her song.
“For the music industry, they see these creators, who already have a built-in audience with millions of fans, who are going to make headlines when they do release a song, and their audience is going to tune in and watch that music video and rack up 20 million, 30 million views on YouTube,” said Mae Karwowski, CEO and founder of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency.
Poarch, who rose to fame doing lip syncs and recently signed a deal with Warner Records, has proven the most successful. When she finally released the music video on YouTube and her track on streaming services on Friday, it had been thoroughly primed to be a hit. Poarch used the song in nearly every TikTok video after her teaser, singing along to the catchy chorus and a “one, two, three” callout, perfectly crafted for a TikTok video transition into a new outfit or setting — a trait that can help a song go viral on the app.
In less than a week, the song was viewed 70 million times on YouTube. It had been streamed on Spotify nearly 13 million times, and it sat at number 28 in Spotify’s “Top 50 – USA” chart. About 1 million TikToks have used the song since it was first teased.
Poarch’s entry into the music industry underscores the challenges social media stars face in figuring out how to translate their success into the mainstream. Young people routinely say they hope to become YouTube or TikTok stars, but many social media stars have found it hard to break beyond the platforms.
Music and TikTok may be different. The platform grew out of a music-centric format, with people pretending to sing along to songs, and the evolution of trends and the emergence of TikTok stars have done little to separate the importance of music from the platform.
Now, stars like Poarch have millions of followers ready to jump on a new song, generate their own content with it and share it with friends. Tailoring a song to fit the app can also help ensure its streaming success.
“They are the experts,” said Alessandro Bogliari, CEO and co-founder of the Influencer Marketing Factory, a marketing agency. “They know which lyrics, how to present it, so you can clip it and use a part of it and use it as audio.”
Poarch and her fellow TikTokers still face some hurdles. Their fame relies on a platform creators can’t control, said Jonathan Azu, founder and CEO of Culture Collective, an artist management company and record label, and adjunct professor at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.
Azu said either TikTok’s algorithm or the entire app itself is subject to change at any time.
“You really have to make sure you’re doing things to drive the collection of data … so you can make sure should a [platform like] TikTok go away or trend out that you can still build on your core audience,” Azu said.
The entry into the music industry also has the potential to aggravate racial tensions on the platform. Rae was embroiled in backlash after she appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” to promote her song. Fallon asked her to perform popular TikTok dances that had largely been created by Black TikTokers. Fallon addressed the controversy later, having the creators who originated the dances on his show.
And TikTok has acknowledged its shortcomings as a platform. Last year, TikTok apologized after it was alleged that it caters more to its white creators than its Black and POC creators, and it has introduced a program to support Black talent.
It’s a particularly important issue as influencers continue to move into the mainstream. Karwowski said she expects more pop stars to emerge from platforms like TikTok.
“You have these very large TikTokers who are the new celebrities. … These creators, they’re not going anywhere,” she said. “They’re actually going to have a larger and larger presence as creator culture morphs into mainstream culture.”