TikTok’s Sara Madani thinks the video platform is changing the music industry

Sara Madani poses on the campus of University of California, Berkeley, for her graduation in 2020. (Sara Madani)

By Molly Tucker
Medill Reports

Can the TikTok algorithm be a force for good, helping marginalized creators to become powerful and popular? Yes, said Sara Madani. The 23-year-old works on the company’s artist partnerships and music relations team, where she advises artists and their managers on best practices. Madani, who self-identifies as an instrumentalist, a first-generation American and a Gen Z cynic, discusses the video platform’s role in changing the music industry and increasing representation, building community and eliminating barriers to success for a diverse array of talented musicians.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

​​Did you always know you wanted to work in the music industry, or did you stumble into it?

​​I knew that I wanted to go straight into music after college, but I’ve always been turned off by the more traditional side of the industry. I want to work in music to help increase representation for marginalized identities. I figured music tech could be a cool place to be. (TikTok) democratized the space and eradicated barriers to entry. If you have good content and good music, there’s such a higher chance for your music to be exposed to audiences than ever before.

Do you share guidelines for how often or what type of videos creators should  post?

There are so many hard-and-fast rules for all the other social platforms. I tell artists to throw those away when they’re looking at TikTok. It’s meant to be an outlet for you to show facets of yourself that you don’t have the opportunity to show anywhere else. So, yes, you’re an artist. But if you also really like biking, or you really like knitting, I can guarantee you there is a community on TikTok who share that same obscure, niche interest.

Do you see a trend in the way that music is being created because artists want to be viral on TikTok?

You don’t have to create a TikTok song to go viral. That’s a misconception. Honestly, most of the songs that trend weren’t made for TikTok. Fleetwood Mac has trended, right? TikTok has created a global communication network that is exposing audiences to sounds and genres that they’ve never had the opportunity to even dabble in, because it was a handful of gatekeepers informing music culture. I don’t necessarily think a gimmick or hook is needed. A good song will trend regardless of language, age or who the artist is. We have people in the rural South listening to Arabic music, which would have never happened if it wasn’t for a democratized platform that’s exposing Western audiences to songs that they probably would have always liked but they would have never been able to hear.

Can you talk about how TikTok gives leverage to artists?  

Finding artists on TikTok is now reactive, as opposed to proactive. Once an artist breaks on TikTok, it’s their choice who they want to go to because they can go to anyone. So it’s given artists a lot of power in terms of cutting more fair deals.

Which artists use the platform really well?

I love Lizzo’s content. She hit the nail on the head. How cool is it to see an A-lister shaking ass in their own room and trying random foods? She understands that this is a platform to showcase yourself as a musician — but also every other part of yourself because we’re all multifaceted individuals. Kehlani is another great example. She just makes a bunch of funny, really gay content, which I think is awesome, because that’s also a huge community on TikTok. Any artist who records their identity in a way that normalizes other people’s experience is what I appreciate about music and this platform.

Do you think that there’s unnecessary pressure on artists to become content creators on top of their jobs as musicians?

There are misconceptions about how TikTok exists in an artist’s general ecosystem, so I can see how that could come across as pressure from a label. But it’s just the general direction in which the music industry is moving. And if it wasn’t making TikToks, it would be going around at radio stations and doing radio interviews. 

How do you feel about artists who don’t want to use the app?

I respect when someone doesn’t want to be on social media, period. I don’t want to be a famous person. I don’t want people watching me. But a lot of (artists), especially minorities and poor people who don’t have access to studios, don’t have that privilege. You can’t invalidate that experience. It minimizes all the good that TikTok has done for artists who wouldn’t get attention otherwise.

Molly Tucker is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @mollydtucker.