In the fall of 2021, Rebecca Nora heard from a musician friend about SoundOn, a new music distribution service for independent artists from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. Nora, an unsigned artist from the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, describes her music as “chill underground alternative pop,” but without any easy genre category or music label to back her, she was struggling to grow her audience.

Nora took a call with the SoundOn Brazil team, which promised that by signing up she would be able to release her music on TikTok and every major streaming service in Brazil from one shared portal, collect and pay out her streaming earnings, and work with an assigned SoundOn representative to promote her music on TikTok. In October 2021, she signed on.

For the release of her song “Brisa Carioca”, Nora crafted a summer-themed audio trend and, with the promotional help of the SoundOn team, the hashtag #brisacarioca grew to have over 20 million views. Nora told Rest of World that her royalties started climbing. “In a month, I’ve made more than what I’ve made in two years releasing songs. Like a lot, lot more,” Nora said. During the two years she used Ditto, a competing global distribution service, she earned a little over $9 in total. With SoundOn, she earned $82 last month, the majority coming from TikTok.

SoundOn has been operational in Brazil and Indonesia for several months, according to a TikTok spokesperson, and launched in the U.S. and U.K. on March 8. Interviews with Brazilian and Indonesian artists and market researchers indicate the program is helping burgeoning musical acts jump cost barriers and streamline the logistics needed to get their music heard by new audiences. SoundOn has been successful in growing the presence of individual artists on TikTok and Resso, ByteDance’s streaming service in Brazil and Indonesia, though some artists have struggled with technical problems or left SoundOn as it finds its footing. 

Despite the impressive rise of Resso since its launch in 2019, SoundOn is the company’s first foray into music distribution. It is targeting smaller, unsigned artists who are either struggling to manage several streaming services at once or who may be burdened with steep annual fees and profit sharing with competing services. While artists in its beta launch were approached by SoundOn or invited by other artists in the program, it is now open to all applicants.

SoundOn has partnered with TuneCore, one of the world’s largest online music distribution players, to help service the program. Unlike major distribution competitors DistroKid, CD Baby, and Believe, for the first year, SoundOn is an entirely free service. There are no upfront fees or profit sharing, and artists maintain the rights to their masters. Even minimal fees charged by these types of services, sometimes in U.S. dollars, can be steep for small Brazilian and Indonesian artists. ByteDance will give artists a free year-long launch ramp to grow their followings using SoundOn services but will then similarly start collecting a 10% cut of royalties.

“He gets my music and my ideas and is really invested in it,” she said. “That’s something that did not happen before.”

New artists and musical creators are a vibrant community within TikTok, and SoundOn is designed to support them as they take the first steps in their career,” said Ole Obermann, global head of Music at TikTok, in a statement to Rest of World. The company pointed to its rostered artist Fabio Asher, whose song “Bertahan Terluka” reached number four on the Spotify viral charts in Indonesia, as an early example of the program’s success. 

For Nora, joining SoundOn has also meant gaining an advocate for her music. She was assigned a SoundOn representative who helped her develop a marketing and audience engagement strategy for releases. “He gets my music and my ideas and is really invested in it,” she said. “That’s something that did not happen before, and I did not know when it would happen. I guess I would have to be a bigger [artist].” Her SoundOn contact also pitches her songs personally to Spotify playlists and other curators.

Additionally, SoundOn advertises its access to popular TikTok creators who can place the sound clips of artists in their videos. Nora also said that after she released her music, she added the URLs of TikTok videos she posted using the sound into a spreadsheet shared with her SoundOn representative. She said that the videos were subsequently “boosted,” increasing the potential reach of each post on TikTok’s “For You Page” recommendation feed.

Courtesy of Raben

Raben, a mainstay in Jakarta’s underground hip-hop scene, was recruited to join SoundOn back in November 2021. As streaming services took off in Indonesia, he felt overwhelmed by the prospect of operating on these platforms — managing his royalties across several sites, all while being a one-man social media manager. He eventually hired friends with some experience in streaming to run his Spotify and Joox accounts, but some would take up to a 40% share of his earnings. SoundOn, he said, has simplified the process. “I didn’t know how it works, that’s why I wasn’t really involved in any digital music company or anything until SoundOn came in,” he said. “I would say SoundOn is the first one, actually, where I can create money on a digital platform [myself].”

Other artists who spoke with Rest of World said they had frustrating experiences with SoundOn. Triggie, an underground pop and trap artist from Rio de Janeiro, said SoundOn never fully delivered on its promise.

Triggie said that to join the program, she was required to remove her pre-existing songs on TikTok and Resso and re-upload them. When she did, they were caught in approval limbo for nearly two months. When she released a new single, there was no official TikTok sound clip available, making it impossible to fully promote the release to her following. Other artists, including Nora, have also complained of similar lags and unexplained delays in scheduled releases through the service.

Courtesy of Triggie

The SoundOn Brazil team also promised to boost the reach of videos Triggie posted if she shared direct links. But as time went on, she noticed her music was being boosted to communities outside her target audiences. As an openly queer artist, she was especially troubled when her sound clips were taken up by creators supporting Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for homophobic statements and policies. “It was really odd because it was easy to see that people were not using the music because they liked it. It was just because of the boosting by that time,” she said.

Triggie said that participating in SoundOn did not help her reach audiences primed to become fans, and there was little conversion of people that used her sound on TikTok to people that streamed her music on Resso or followed her on TikTok. Several months into her contract, she chose to stop uploading music to SoundOn and sign with a label, an imprint of Warner Music Group in Brazil. 

A TikTok spokesperson responded that SoundOn is expanding its team to address similar issues but acknowledges that the program won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for all artists. “Ultimately,” the spokesperson said, “we want every artist to find success and get the support they need.”

Despite leaving the service, Triggie said that she would still recommend it to other Brazilian artists as one way to sidestep the costly barriers to entry for so many in the music industry. “To choose a sound distribution here, we have to pay in dollars. Sometimes it’s really expensive, and SoundOn is free, so it’s something really important to bring to artists here in Brazil,” she said.