On TikTok Live, musician Omari Dillard performs for hundreds of fans from his living room in Tampa, Florida. Standing under dim lights in his tank top, the 42-year-old plays soothing soul, R&B and gospel music on his violin, as impressed viewers reward the artist with virtual roses, mini speakers, and crowns. Very rarely, a roaring lion or a sports car pops up on the screen, exciting everyone in the livestream. These icons represent monetary tips from viewers, with the lion costing about $400, half of which goes to the streamer. “Oh man, it is amazing,” Dillard told Rest of World, recalling the first time he received the lion. “It really goes to show you that somebody appreciates what you are doing.”
Being able to receive tips, in the form of those virtual gifts, was why the musician quit Facebook Live to join TikTok in May. He wasn’t working alone: a California-based talent agency, Thundrr, advised him on how to promote upcoming live sessions, engage with fans, and create little challenges to encourage them to tip. On a Monday evening, Dillard called on all his fans to send over virtual “hanging lights,” costing around $2 each. Dozens of fans participated, triggering a series of animations on the screen. “Special thank you to everybody who just purchased those, gifted those hanging lights,” Dillard said, in between his performances. “I love you forever.”
TikTok has grown into a social media sensation, with a billion monthly active users globally, thanks to its algorithm-powered short-video feed. Following on from what worked in China, its parent company, ByteDance, tried to turn the app into an e-commerce platform, with mixed results. It’s also trying to introduce another trend from China to the rest of the world: livestreaming entertainment. TikTok is partnering with influencer agencies around the world, hoping to build a robust live community with a culture of gifting that can become the app’s next revenue stream. Rest of World spoke to agents based in China, the Middle East, the U.S., and the U.K. — all of whom confirmed that they’re working with TikTok to train their community in the best way to gain an audience, and solicit gifts.
Dillard’s agent, Andrew Andrawes, for example, has recruited about 140 livestreamers in the U.S. since his agency partnered with TikTok Live in May. Creators are required to go live for at least 20 hours a month, across ten different days, by the agency. In return, they get advice on how to gain money and followers, with the top performers making more than $8,000 a month, according to Andrawes. “I think it is the future, and we’re hoping to create some of the biggest live creators,” he told Rest of World.
In China, similar agencies, often dubbed “livestreaming guilds,” are key partners of social media companies, making sure people livestream in a way that generates the most income for everyone involved. For TikTok’s sister app, Douyin, agencies have developed complicated playbooks on everything from choosing the right beauty filters to tactfully flirting with viewers to woo them into buying expensive gifts.
Since 2021, ByteDance has invited some of these agencies to coach overseas livestreamers as well, offering some a commission of between 10% to 30%. Creators get 50% of the gifting revenue. “The overseas livestreaming industry is three to four years behind us,” said Zhang Zhong, head of Haimu Technology, a TikTok-focused talent agency in China’s eastern province of Shandong, to Rest of World. “We are more mature players, since we have tried all these in our country.”
Agencies like Zhang’s have deployed a mass recruitment tactic, signing on as many people as they can and waiting for the stars to emerge. The strategy has proved most lucrative in the Gulf countries, where, according to the agents, generous tippers splurge on virtual gifts. Zhang said his agency had recruited more than 4,000 mostly Middle Eastern creators since October 2021, and they generated about $1.2 million in revenue for the agency every month.
When asked by Rest of World about the agency program, a TikTok spokesperson said the platform works with a diverse pool of creators directly, and through digital and influencer agencies, to educate creators about TikTok Live and help them improve the content.
Currently, most of TikTok’s revenue comes from advertising. Livestreamed entertainment could potentially generate billions of dollars more every year for the platform as it competes with Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitch. To help creators, and itself, monetize, TikTok also recently adopted a subscription feature popular on Amazon’s livestreaming giant, Twitch, granting fans special badges and exclusive chats in exchange for a monthly fee. Creators split revenue with TikTok 50/50, the same rate as virtual tips.
Compared to the Chinese livestream market, TikTok Live is still at an early stage. Agents say they are teaching creators the most basic techniques, such as using a ring light, looking directly at the camera, greeting the viewers by their screen names, and avoiding driving while on livestreams, which could trigger a suspension. Agents also help pair creators up for live battles, during which livestreamers compete head-to-head to get as many tips as they can during a set period of time. The game, dubbed “PK” in China, generates large revenues by pitting fan groups against each other.
Daniel Li, an agent based in China’s Henan province, told Rest of World that, in the past year, his company had recruited about 7,000 livestreamers from the Middle East. Through Arabic interpreters, his company helped the creators build online personas around singing, gaming, and cooking. “We are gradually turning them professional like the way it is in China,” Li said.
Rest of World was not able to verify the numbers provided by the Chinese agents. A former Egyptian employee of a Chinese agency told Rest of World that only the top few creators could earn significant incomes on TikTok, while the smaller players were often ignored by their agents.
But, in higher-income countries, TikTok isn’t lucrative enough yet to persuade creators into going live as consistently as their peers in ByteDance’s home market, where many Chinese hosts livestream as a full-time job, for up to eight hours a day. A TikTok partner agent in the U.K., who declined to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the media, told Rest of World she was still unsure how far TikTok Live would go in the country. “The gifting culture is not there yet,” she said. “Creators could earn more from doing any other ordinary gig.”
At the end of his three-and-a-half-hour livestream from Florida, musician Dillard thanked his top three gifters, each of whom had spent around $40-$50 in virtual gifts and TikTok coins. He played The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” for a fan called victory71771, who sent him a $10 virtual galaxy to request a song. He also asked fans to buy CDs and concert tickets from his personal website.
Dillard now makes a few thousand dollars a month from TikTok, a small fraction of what he makes from offline performances and music lessons. His goal is to eventually convert his online followers into people who’d attend a live show. “I think that it would be very difficult to replace that feeling of doing something live as opposed to through the phone,” he said.