Passing 10 million TikTok followers was a monumental accomplishment for Johnny Orlando, so he celebrated by plowing his face into a frosted cake.
In a goofy clip made for his account, the 18-year-old pop singer from Mississauga, Ont., drew from many ingredients of a successful TikTok moment. The soundtrack layered two of his catchiest songs and the video peaked with a grand finale that was instantly rewatchable: Orlando’s face emerged from the sugary dessert with remnants of “million” stuck to his forehead in red icing.
“It’s a bit of a tradition,” Orlando said of his faceplant, which has racked up 1.6 million views and counting on TikTok.
“I did that for one million followers like four years ago.”
Orlando’s TikTok wizardry is the stuff of legend at his record label Universal Music Canada. Long before Shania Twain, Nickelback and the Tragically Hip planted their flag on the platform, he was making waves with cute pet videos, the occasional thirst trap and lots of singing.
But as the Juno Awards roll around this weekend, TikTok’s outsized influence on Canadian musicians is on full display.
No less than three Juno contenders for breakthrough artist rose from TikTok’s algorithms to global popularity over the past year.
Calgary native Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First” became a Generation Z anthem when TikTok users embraced it for their tearful breakup videos. So far, it’s turned up in more than 900,000 TikTok clips and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Vancouver-born musician Powfu’s sombre “Death Bed (Coffee for Your Head)” became an even bigger TikTok success as the theme of a trend where teens attempted to lay a kiss on their secret crush. It’s been used in more than five million videos and hit No. 23 on Billboard’s main chart.
And Napali-Canadian artist Curtis Waters, who spent part of his youth in Alberta and British Columbia, saw TikTok fashionistas adopt the hook of “Stunnin’” for their bedroom runways. It’s appeared in more than one million TikTok videos.
Orlando — a Junos breakthrough artist nominee in 2019 — heads to the awards on Sunday with a pop album of the year nomination for “It’s Never Really Over.” And he understands that his next single’s success could be determined by however it strikes audiences on TikTok.
“It’s a really good idea to have a TikTok strategy,” he said.
“If a song does well on (there), it does well everywhere else. And that’s the reality these days.”
Not everyone in Canada’s music industry is so savvy with the platform. Even some musicians who found success there were downright unwilling to use it for the longest time.
Before the release of “Stunnin,’” Curtis Waters shunned TikTok as a gimmick for preteens, but when he saw how Lil Nas X used TikTok dance crazes to launch “Old Town Road” into the cultural zeitgeist, his opinion started to evolve.
“I’d ask my female friends, ‘Hey can you make a TikTok with my song?’” remembered the 21-year-old musician, born Abhinav Bastakoti.
TikTok’s popularity spiked around the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, which gave Bastakoti a few ideas. He said he began scouring the internet for dance tutorials in hopes of building “Stunnin’” around some irresistibly viral choreography. The problem was, he couldn’t dance to save himself.
He did have one trick up his sleeve: an alter ego named Dancer Dan who he often brought out at drunken college parties. The character moves to his own sleepy stoner beat, complete with a few simple arm waves and handclaps.
In one of his earliest TikTok videos, he vibed to “Stunnin’” with Dancer Dan’s moves in full effect. Viewers swarmed the clip demanding he unleash the full song.
By summertime, “Stunnin’” was spreading all over TikTok and gaining prime real estate on popular streaming playlists. Bastakoti describes his success as mostly an effect of the pandemic.
“It was just good timing for me ‘cause everybody was already home on TikTok,” he said.
“I just happened to be caught in the middle of that.”
Isaiah Faber, who records under the name Powfu, said he was completely surprised when the popularity of “Death Bed” made him one of TikTok’s biggest success stories. He said he’d been uploading music to various platforms for two years steady before this song took off. He now ranks among Spotify’s Top 500 most played artists in the world.
“It was a giant leap forward,” he said of his TikTok popularity.
“I felt a lot more comfortable knowing that my songs after that (one) are going to do a lot better as well.”
Having one TikTok hit makes it hard not to want another, he acknowledged, and sometimes his creativity has been influenced by the platform.
In the wake of “Death Bed,” Powfu issued “Mindurmanners,” a song he wrote with TikTok in mind. The lyrics include the line “We be sipping Kool-Aid jammers,” which he imagined might inspire some TikTok users to mimic the action with a dance.
“It didn’t really catch on,” he said with a chuckle.
And yet he still feels pressure to keep feeding TikTok with new videos, which he admitted isn’t always so easy.
“I don’t really know how to come up with ideas because I’m not really a performer or actor,” he said.
“I write music, you know, so it is weird trying to make TikToks all the time.”
Eric Reprid, a Vancouver indie rapper, said the power of the platform still overshadows whatever creative challenges it might present. He jumped on TikTok last year after friends suggested it would draw unparalleled attention to his music.
By September, he launched his single “Cold World” with a TikTok campaign that encouraged people to help him reach one million streams on Spotify.
The song crushed that goal, racking up 24 million plays and counting. “Cold World” is now among the contenders for rap recording of the year at the Junos.
“No label could do what TikTok has helped us achieve,” he said. “The exposure it gets us is unmatched.”
While countless Canadian musicians are worshipping at the altar of TikTok this year, many acknowledge they’re beholden to the mysterious inner workings of the platform, which inexplicably elevate some clips and not others.
The views on Orlando’s cake video, for instance, are dwarfed by the 14 million views he got on one posted a week earlier where he lip-synchs to a British rapper.
But numbers are only part of the puzzle, he suggested, as a successful TikTok strategy blends interaction, authenticity and “gauges the state of the union” with fans.
Beyond his verified account, he recently opened up a second TikTok that houses what he described as less “polished” clips. He’s attracted fewer than 200,000 followers so far, but he only opened it in January to offer a more personal side of his public face.
“It’s good to have both to give a more accurate picture,” he added.
The 50th annual Juno Awards will air Sunday on CBC-TV and its digital platforms.
—David Friend, The Canadian Press