Radar Report 2023: Rolling the Dice on the TikTok Algorithm

The one-hit-wonder phenomenon is a silent killer in the industry, and when the attention span of the crowd runs out, your promising career will have the lifespan of a mayfly.

It all seems quite simple: upload a video of yourself making music, people watch it and you get the fame and the career you always dreamt of. Unfortunately, for most aspiring artists out there, this is not the case. Your future as a musician (if you rely on TikTok) lies in the hands of the almighty enigma, the daunting unpredictable monster called the algorithm.

By Lola Deschuytter (OOR Magazine)

TikTok decides via their algorithm which videos are ‘worthy’ of your For You Page, everything as personalised as possible. The Amsterdam-based group Sarah Julia has taken on this beast and came out as a victor. Starting with no tracks released on streaming platforms, and gaining close to 200,000 followers within a year. The sisters talk openly about their online success. 

“We started uploading covers at the beginning of 2023, mainly because a friend urged us to post them. Our main platform for sharing music used to be Instagram, but everything we shared on there stayed within the reach of our own country initially. When we started uploading videos on TikTok, our reach extended. We rolled the dice on the algorithm and not even a year later we got to play shows in London and Los Angeles.” The source of their newfound fame is crystal clear – playing the algorithm to win. Sarah and Julia explain that people sometimes come up to them at gigs and strike up a conversation about TikTok.

“Suddenly the numbers on our screens transform into real people who care about our music.”

But dreamers beware: TikTok fame can have a downside. If you ask the average TikTok user who was behind the song they used in the dance video they just uploaded, a lot of them won’t be able to answer you. The one-hit-wonder phenomenon is a silent killer in the industry, and when the attention span of the crowd runs out, your promising career will have the lifespan of a mayfly. Sarah Julia knows better than that; they go at it from a whole new angle. “When you, as an artist, upload things on TikTok, you’re expected to stick to a certain format. You upload a single, hopefully it goes viral and when it does, you will need to make and release more music as fast as possible to stay relevant. This whole fast-paced process is not really for us, we try to work on projects. When we started uploading covers on TikTok, we had already recorded everything for our upcoming EP. We absolutely didn’t want to rush anything, so we decided to build a fanbase before we shared the first single. Now, a year later, we can finally come out of our musical hibernation and share our song ‘Cairngorms’ with the followers we accumulated over the last year.

When asked about how TikTok fame differs from ‘regular’ fame, Sarah and Julia can’t help but smile a bit. About ten years ago, the sisters appeared on Junior Songfestival, which resulted in them getting a fanbase which mainly consisted of kids and preteens. “We get recognised on the street about the same amount now as ten years ago, but the biggest difference is that nowadays people approach us to talk to us much more often. When you gain popularity on a TV show, it’s quite far from your own reality. TikTok is way more interactive, you feel almost familiar with your fans as they comment on your videos. We try to show as much of ourselves as possible, covering songs that we love so people with the same taste in music gravitate towards us. That way you are able to connect with people you have something in common with.”

Sarah Julia have only recently released their first single and yet they already boast a bold success story. “We can’t really predict if people are going to listen to our songs solely based on how they are reacting to the covers we upload. The best we can hope for is that people remember our name and feel a connection to our project. We aspire to grow, and every person that sticks along with us on this journey is a lovely bonus.” By following the non-conventional path to online stardom, they secured themselves a spot at ESNS24, turning the digital into reality and abstract numbers into tangible people cheering them on. Of course, talent is the first box you need to tick, but Sarah Julia prove there is far more to it than just passion and know-how. In Dutch we have this saying, ‘you can’t always get a six when you roll the dice’. This absolutely rings true, but Sarah Julia played it smarter than just rolling a common dice. By gaining a loving fanbase, they made sure that whatever face the dice lands on, their voices will be heard.