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How LGBTQ + artists have made TikTok a space to share their stories

In honor of Pride Month, MTV News has decided to highlight LGBTQ + artists by creating contemporary anthems that soundtrack queer spaces and bring new frontiers into today’s streaming landscape by helping them do so. As we did last year, we also decided to profile emerging LGBTQ + artists and celebrate established ones that cause a stir. Welcome to Queer Music Week.

By Max Freedman

Once upon a time, Oakland ukulele-pop musician Mxmtoon thought TikTok was an app for, as she tells MTV News, “8-year-olds playing Fortnite.” That changed when her 2019 single “Prom Dress” went viral on the now ubiquitous social media platform. There, the song has amassed 447,600 streams to date, and Mxmtoon’s TikTok channel has 2.8 million followers and 131.9 million likes. Now, the 21-year-old artist is one of many LGBTQ + musicians who use the app to make their music and self heard as she connects more closely with her audience, especially LGBTQ + fans.

In conversations with MTV News, Mxmtoon (who is also called Maia but keeps her last name out of the public for her privacy) and other LGBTQ + musicians claim that they have used TikTok to bring their music to queer listeners more quickly and directly than many mainstream ones. promotional paths such as radio broadcasting. The online communities they created via the app resulted in sold out live shows and major deals, though some have used their TikTok appearances to maintain an unprecedented level of creative autonomy for newly signed artists. Even though the app has admitted to banning the shadow of words like “gay”, “lesbian” and “transgender”, as well as generally pro-LGBTQ + content, TikTok has nonetheless become a space of connection and authenticity for musicians and LGBTQ + listeners alike.

It’s easy to think of TikTok as a COVID-era phenomenon. Sure, during the early block, you fell down a TikTok rabbit hole in a dance challenge or watched too many clips that use the same song. Yet, as Mxmtoon recalls, TikTok was already a big deal before the pandemic. She says that before releasing “Prom Dress” in May 2019, she and her team “participated in that campaign and version with the intention of creating a lot of content on TikTok so that … people could interact with it for a little before us [released] the real whole song. At the time, TikTok had around 271 million monthly active users, a mere fraction of the billion monthly active users it reached in September.

During our conversation, Mxmtoon talks about TikTok with both a keen marketing eye from executives – says “engage” and “consume content” at least once – and continued disbelief at how the platform can help musicians in a unique way. “There was a really important moment [for] “Ball Gown” on TikTok before even shooting the music video, “she says.” It was really interesting to see how massively it took off. “

As her audience grew, Mxmtoon found a space to be more fully herself. “TikTok played a huge role in me expressing my identity as a queer person,” she says. The near-instant conversations the platform facilitates through its video responses to comments make it “very easy to have a conversation about your identity. It’s very easy for me to make a video about being bisexual and reach an audience of people who also understand that experience. and they want to consume content that is representative of their identities “. She regularly replies to comments asking about her sexuality about her. “If I’m open and honest about my homosexuality,” she says, “it also allows other people to be open and honest about theirs.”

TikTok is how British folk-pop musician Cat Burns – who has 1.2 million followers on TikTok along with around 539,000 TikTok streams on the four versions of her folk-pop song “Go” – understood her sexuality. Since TikTok “creates an algorithm for you,” the 22-year-old tells MTV News, “he knew I wasn’t definitive in who I thought I was and would show me particular videos and … show me those same videos over and over, and then I would have liked them all the time, and then it made me think, ‘Oh, am I not straight?’ “

He is now writing music made explicitly for other LGBTQ + people and black women and reaching listeners via social media. “I want people to feel heard and represented in the music I make,” she says. “I want to make people feel seen”. She got both when she released her own song “Free” in 2021, about a year after first gaining a large following on TikTok during the initial block, regularly doing singing challenges and covering songs. “Free,” which she released after signing for a major label, “immediately hit the target group she was supposed to hit and touched the people she was supposed to touch. I don’t think I would be able to hit the [number] of people I hit without TikTok.

Through the platform, both Burns and Mxmtoon have built an audience of LGBTQ + listeners and have used the platform to share their stories with fans. Or, more precisely, further share their stories. If music is storytelling, then on TikTok LGBTQ + musicians are revealing their storytelling to new people and building even deeper connections with longtime listeners.

Glam-pop musician raised in Missouri Jake Wesley Rogers – whom some have called “Elton John of Gen Z” – says the connections TikTok created have led to an unprecedented transfer of power from labels to musicians. Although the 25-year-old singer-songwriter released five music videos in 2021, he tells MTV News: “This year my budgets were reduced for music videos and the explanation was: ‘You’re making TikTok for free and they’re doing a lot more to build your audience over these very expensive music videos. ‘ Which is right! “

Rogers says that musicians “don’t really need the infrastructure, the money and the push behind a label to get out. If you get a following, you get a following and you have power. You own everything. ” In a major ecosystem where musicians, including LGBTQ + singer-songwriter Justin Tranter, who heads Rogers’ label Facet, still speak of an overall lacking queer presence in the industry, the power TikTok can give marginalized musicians to take and keeping control of their stories when formally entering the industry is nothing short of revolutionary.

For Rogers, this power came in handy mostly after, not before, he signed up for a label. Facet had already offered him a deal before he joined TikTok at the very beginning of the pandemic. His following on the platform has since grown to just under 300,000, with just a few million video views on his page, plus the video “Abraham Lincoln was a queer icon” that first went viral in May. 2020. He didn’t need a TikTok megahit like Burns’ “Go” or Mxmtoon’s “Prom Dress” to build a devoted following on the app and beyond.

“TikTok was like that to share my music and find new people that you might have traditionally gotten from tours,” he says. But once the tour resumed, “he saw it translated immediately. I played my first headlining shows last year and I think the reason they sold out was because of TikTok. “His listeners, he says,” come to the shows and believe what I believe in. ” .

Those beliefs include that “authenticity, love and conscience are part of us … and the world is really messed up and there is so much beauty in it”. Also: “We contain multitudes and I think … TikTok rewards him. Rewards a holistic person. … I am an artist first of all, but there are many things and I can show them all”. Rogers says the multiplicity and contradictions encouraged by TikTok are why the platform hosts a thriving community of LGBTQ + musicians and listeners. “I think it’s weird is that, “he says.” The strangeness exists in that fuzzy state of nonconformity.

Thanks to TikTok, majors are less reluctant than ever to embrace and elevate the creativity and identity of their artists, and LGBTQ + musicians and listeners find it easier than ever. The app allows LGBTQ + musicians to introduce themselves directly to like-minded audiences. There, the artists’ personalities are on display alongside their music, and no traditional music marketing approach can accomplish that feat so skillfully. “It was so much fun for me… expressing the facets [myself] on the platform in addition to my songs, “says Mxmtoon of his early days on the platform. Since then, he says, TikTok has” been a great tool to not only promote my music and share my songs, but also to promote who I am. “

Of course, TikTok presents its challenges for musicians, even beyond the potential for censorship. The app has imposed bans in several languages ​​on some LGBTQ + related words. It has also banned queer TikTok content in countries with no recent history of anti-LGBTQ + legislation. For now, these bans haven’t impacted LGBTQ + artists that significantly, though Mxmtoon notes that TikTok’s “story of not necessarily supporting all people and shutting down certain rumors and stories” means they “still have a long way to go.” .

Mxmtoon also mentions that TikTok made music “hard to think about from my professional brain: how do I get a snippet of my song off the ground on TikTok? And on the creative side, I’m like: ‘I don’t want to [snippets] to define why I create this song and how I write it. ‘”Burns says that using TikTok successfully to get your music out there requires keeping up with trends, which adds another chore to a full writing list. , recording, touring, interviews, and just living your life. “As long as you move with the timing of TikTok, it definitely works in your favor,” he says, “but if you keep doing the same content, it doesn’t [goes anywhere]. “

Rogers points to another challenge with using TikTok to promote his music. “If I’m too into likes, comments and virality, I’ll accidentally stop making music,” he says. But he adds that TikTok continues to be worth it: “The people who found it [me] and keep finding [me] they’re investing rather than following me. “They show up at his shows, which means they’re actually funding his music career. And for Mxmtoon, a continued presence on TikTok eliminates the long-standing” artist-audience gap. ” platform excels at creating genuine connections between LGBTQ + musicians and the people who would naturally be most interested in their music: LGBTQ + listeners. Burns says he has “seen so many people” of all sexualities “play [‘Go’] and using it in their videos. After all, she adds: “That’s what music does. It connects people ”.

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