Artists on TikTok create community amidst the pandemic

Artists on TikTok create community amidst the pandemic

Established and emerging artists have flocked to TikTok to build audiences and community.

TikTok is well known as the home of popular dances set to music from the top charts, often spearheaded by Black creators, and a place to find good memes. But the social media app is also a place where people have intentionally created community and helped us survive our hardest moments through shared interests, pep talks and art that reminds us of how connected we all are. Many sub-communities exist across TikTok: #Booktok, where people host conversations around their favorite reads; #Autistiktok, where autistic people find comfort with others who understand us; and a myriad of smaller communities in which artists of all mediums use the app to share snippets of what they’re working on.

Thanks to the short films, original songs and other visual and expressive wonderlands artists share, users on TikTok are not just scrolling and consuming “content” — we’re experiencing art. On the social media app, stars are emerging before our eyes. People who once thought of their art forms as merely hobbies are finding audiences asking for more of their work. In many ways, TikTok is the YouTube of our time. During the early 2000s through 2013 or so, new talent — like Kina Grannis, Julia Nunes, and Hank and John Green — were popping up on YouTube and gaining audiences interested in a wide range of video content. Many of them have even moved over to TikTok.

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A mix between the structures of YouTube and Tumblr, users on TikTok are able to find creators and content they like by searching hashtags, clicking through sounds and scrolling on the “For You Page” — a screen similar to Facebook’s News Feed or Twitter’s and Instagram’s homepages that works like the Related Videos section on YouTube. The app’s algorithm on the For You Page shows users content based on what they’ve engaged with most. When users like and comment on particular videos and audio, spend longer amounts of time on certain videos, and share specific videos via messages, the app chooses similar content that appears for them to sift through. If a user frequently engages with specific hashtags, they’ll be shown videos on the same topics or that use adjacent hashtags. In short, TikTok does a good job of inadvertently creating community by often putting people who care about the same things in the same comment sections.

Using this algorithm to their advantage, artists like 24-year-old musician Olivia Klugman — a queer singer-songwriter in Portland, Ore. — have found not just fans on TikTok but enthusiastic audiences hungry for exactly what they’re creating.

(Photo courtesy Olivia Klugman)

“I started putting my effort into writing songs and putting them on TikTok, and that was a big turning point for me, because I kind of made this decision that, like, ‘Oh, people are responding to my music and this is something that I can take seriously as a career option,’” Klugman said. “It’s had a huge effect on my life.”

After losing a job over winter 2020, Klugman suddenly had a lot more free time and realized there was enough growing interest in their music on TikTok to spend more time on it. The musician first went viral for a song about a queer romance between two women in February this year. “This is what I think an explicitly queer Taylor Swift song would sound like,” they say in the video, promising that they’d release the full song if people helped to make the video go viral. Since being posted, it’s received over 200,000 views and over 60,000 likes. Many of their following videos have gone on to receive millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes as well. Now, nearing the end of 2021, the artist has amassed over 90,000 followers on TikTok.

@olivklugIf u blow this up I’ll set a release date 🤠 #kaylor #swiftie #originalsong #singersongwriter #songwritersoftiktok♬ original sound – Olivia Klugman

While they now have a job to pay the bills, Klugman has made writing short songs and posting them on TikTok a more frequent practice. Their fans consistently suggest songs they think the artist should cover or what they should write about and perform next. They’ve also recorded an EP that’s available on Spotify and Bandcamp, and have been performing live shows. Currently, the hope is that they get picked up by a record label that sees their talent and potential.

Klugman’s large community on the app is a testament to how eager we are for queer representation and music that pushes the boundaries of what currently exists in mainstream pop culture. People weren’t just supportive after the artist’s initial song — they came out in droves, with some of Klugman’s favorite artists following them back. For the musician, it was a turning point that communicated that something they truly care about — writing and performing original songs — is valued by so many.

“It’s never the songs I force that do well. It’s always the really authentic, genuine moments that take off,” they said. “What does well is when I’m being most vulnerable, and … close to the camera and most in touch with my feelings.”

Klugman’s success on TikTok is also a clear reminder that people want to support artists who reach out across the screen — something that isn’t such a one-sided relationship, as is often a fan’s relationship with pop stars and other successful celebrities. Musicians like Jensen McRae and Leith Ross have found similar success on the platform posting their original music and garnering community. As stressful as it is while they wait for labels to reach out or someone with a bigger career to help them get their foot in the door of their industry, for now, these artists have fans and friends they’ve found through the platform to remind them of their value and talent.

In an adjacent arts industry, dancers like Sofia el Iraki, Zaya Sosho and Kelsey Lyna Richardson have attracted communities of people interested in their short-form showcases. Richardson, a professional dancer and artist represented by Clear Talent Group, posts two-sided comparison videos showcasing what TikTok dances look like versus how professional dancers move.

@kelseylynaThis was fun! 🤍 Which do you prefer? & Should I do more? #BreakfastChallenge #Versus #professionaldancersoftiktok♬ Dougie x Breakfast x Chosen – Kuya Magik

The dancer, who already had representation prior to using the platform, said she started actively using TikTok after she got COVID-19 and was stuck in the house. Since going viral for her dance videos, she said she’s received attention from choreographers she’d love to work with in the future and feels like the visibility has ultimately been good for her career.

“TikTok is a great place to grow your audience,” Richardson said. “People that probably would never come across me on Instagram are engaged on TikTok because of the layout and how interactive it is.”

But Richardson noted the cons to the platform, as well — like how, for dance specifically, there’s less appreciation for anything but trends, in addition to the lack of representation within those who achieve success.

“TikTok is more about the quantity of copied viral dances or trends that you post,” she said. “I’ve noticed that since posting my most popular video, people follow to see that same type of content repeatedly.”

She continued: “Not everything has to be serious or a competition. However, it would be nice to see more appreciation for professional dancing, deep expressions of art and African American creators. TikTok has a lot of work to do when it comes to giving credit to Black creators and not suppressing our voice on issues that matter.”

(Photo courtesy Kelsey Lyna Richardson)

Still, the dancer said she “genuinely appreciates the support.” While TikTok does not necessarily result in career success, creative freedoms or anything monetary for many, the community aspect has allowed plenty of artists to realize how much their work is valued — by people who otherwise might not have found it, no less.

TikTok has allowed for unconventional and genre-bending art forms to find audiences, too, in the form of yarn art, mimes, street art performances and more. Maggie Karlin, a 28-year-old circus artist who performs as a living statue in Chicago and is known on the internet as Real Live Statue, started posting about their work on TikTok in June this year and has since gone viral and gained nearly 40,000 followers.

@real.live.statue-its a real person!.#l#ivingstatue #a#rt #s#treetperformer #b#usking #t#utorial #h#owto #s#trangejobs #c#hicago #f#yp #n#ewsies #c#ostume #p#rank #i#tsalive #f#un♬ original sound – Maggie B. Karlin

Though Karlin’s craft may not be what many would see as a form of deeper creative expression, when looked at closely, there’s no doubt that it’s actually the epitome of it. Creating a costume and getting a crowd going is in many ways exactly what it means to make art — to engage others in work that makes us feel more present. Since they began sharing their shows and silver-drenched, behind-the-scenes videos with the internet, they’ve given many an inside look at street performances they may miss if they’re not in big cities or otherwise take for granted.

Karlin first began posting TikToks of their hobbies like yarn spinning and dying, then decided to make a video of the process of rehabilitating their costume when they decided to go back to street performing once it felt safer amidst the pandemic. When that video took off, they gained 15,000 followers “out of nowhere” in a month.

“There have been people all summer recognizing me from TikTok in person, which is always fun, and they may not have stopped or noticed me if they hadn’t seen me online,” they said. “I have my username on a sign in front of me, and a lot of younger kids and teens get excited when they see that I’m on the app, and they follow me as well.”

(Photo by Glenna Broderick)

As Richardson pointed out, there are many pros and cons to the platform, and like many with large followings, Karlin gets anxious about harassment online and in person. Still, they’re drawn to the benefits and opportunities the app brings. “As a performer, it’s important to me that my art be accessible to people,” they said. “That’s why street performing has always appealed to me. Anyone who wants to can come engage with me, and if they want, they can pay me. And they do. It’s incredibly fulfilling.”

Creating TikToks allows Karlin to bring that unexpected joy to even more people. In essence, the platform is the perfect home for unconventional forms of art that might not otherwise be celebrated in traditional arts institutions like museums and other venues. TikTok also creates opportunities to embrace audiences that wouldn’t or couldn’t frequent those arts institutions, or stands as a place to begin working on free-form art without seeing it out in the world first.

“I hate gatekeeping in the performance art community, and it feels like the only way someone gets into what I do is by knowing someone,” Karlin said. “I would love to inspire other people in my city to try busking, as a statue or anything else, and my online presence is a way to do that.”

The poetry community, too, is flourishing on the social media app and harkens back to the early days of YouTube and Tumblr’s spoken word and poetry content. Many other platforms might be welcoming of poetry and writing, but leave something to be desired with how users can interact with and share words in someone’s own voice and stride. TikTok’s poetry community is rife with artists using the app to share sincere spoken word content. For example, Daniella, a 25-year-old queer writer and model from Brooklyn, posts video montages from her daily walks around the city with voiceovers of her poems about grief, loss, growth, identity and finding one’s place in the world.

@fartsmcbutts69420Pride prose braindump. #fyp #poemtok #poetry #pride2021🏳️‍🌈 #comingout #lgbtcouples #poetrytiktok #nyc #pridemonth2021 #queertiktok♬ original sound – Daniella

And Donovan Beck, a photographer, filmmaker and self-described “human being who likes to make things” from California, posts short poems and motivational speeches for those going through hard times — a necessary kind of connection for many of us struggling through the ongoing pandemic. Where we might otherwise speed through scrolling on social media apps, slow and intentional art like poetry and spoken word beckons us to slow down, breaking from convention through feeling.

@themindofsolplease just come as you are☀️💛 #poetrytiktok #spokenword #authorsoftiktok #poetry #fypシ #mentalhealth #artists♬ original sound – Donovan Beck

And, while other platforms like Instagram and Twitter have been useful for visual artists in the way YouTube and Tumblr were helpful for poets and writers, TikTok differs in that its videos give the space for visual art to transcend boundaries. Visual artists can get especially creative in how they showcase their work, instead of just posting a picture. Focusing both on memes and fun content as well as art, Ashe Walker, a 29-year-old visual artist and creator living in Montana, once used YouTube and Tumblr to post their paintings and other work. Since early 2020, they’ve been actively using TikTok to share their art and have since gained nearly 30,000 followers. There, they post both videos that feature themself painting ethereal, vibrant landscapes that depict the internal experience of being human, as well as scenery of the outdoors that makes us feel more human.

(Photo courtesy Ashe Walker)

“[TikTok has] opened my mind to new ways of showcasing art; it’s a unique challenge to bring my art over to this platform,” Walker said. “I feel like a big pro is that it allows art to be seen in new ways. It [also] allows a space for art to find people who otherwise maybe wouldn’t be in galleries or even following artists in similar ways on other platforms. The way the algorithm allows art to reach people at times is something magnificent.”

TikTok helps to bridge some crucial gaps. That is, it is a space where we can go to feel connected with others who love what we love. It gives access to what we care about without having to pay for a concert ticket, find accommodations to get to a museum and jump over the myriad of hurdles that exist when trying to engage with and enjoy art. It does not require a subscription to Spotify and Apple Music on top of having paid for your phone and your laptop. It does not require you to live in a big city to feel catered to.

@marsupialpuddingsorry for my shaky hands filming this, but wow gold leaf is a whole experience. ##art ##painter ##foryou♬ original sound – kayla

Ashe’s strongest case for using TikTok to share their art and consume others’ work is that it is a tool that can help artists find the audiences that get what they’re trying to do.

“When I was on YouTube, artists followed and talked to artists mostly, and then you had the people who liked to watch Art YouTube, and that was your community,” they said. The TikTok algorithm has enabled them to develop a community that is full of many kinds of people.

“Maybe they don’t make art, and maybe they’re not even used to thinking about art, or looking at it, but sometimes they find you and there’s a connection that gets created in a way that still feels organic to me,” they said. “I feel like behind every TikTok, I find people, in the same way that early YouTube felt. TikTok is still fresh enough to not be an industry more than it’s social media, and to me, the community that social media provides is missing in most platforms that began with that very goal.”