How one musician cracked the code to making a Top 40 hit by using TikTok : Planet Money Thanks to TikTok, Tai Verdes went from struggling musician to Top 40 hitmaker. But first, he had to crack the algorithm of how to go viral. | Come see Planet Money Live in NYC on May 10th! One night only. Tickets on sale here.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Look, up on the stage - it's a podcast.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's a musical.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's PLANET MONEY live.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Yes. For one night only, PLANET MONEY will be staging a live podcast taping and world premiere of a superhero economics musical. That's May 10 in Brooklyn. You can get your tickets at nprpresents.org.

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:

A few years ago, Tai Verdes was in his early 20s, working a day job at a Verizon store in Los Angeles and dreaming of becoming a pop star. But he wasn't having much luck through the traditional routes to musical fame.

TAI VERDES: I would, like, write a song and then go to these auditions. I'd wait whatever it is - like, 9 hours - just to sing for 2 minutes. And then they'd - no one would say anything. They would just be like, all right. And then you'd go home.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But then, of course, the world shut down. Like a lot of us, Tai had to shelter in place at home. And also like a lot of us, he started spending more and more time on TikTok - this social media app that has exploded since the pandemic started.

CHARLIE HARDING: If you aren't totally addicted yet, TikTok is made up of these short, punchy videos of people doing little dance moves or cooking videos or hair and beauty routines - little trends often set to very particular songs. So Tai was stuck in his apartment, working on his music, when he started thinking about how he might be able to tap into these enormous audiences.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And over the next year of tinkering and testing out different strategies, Tai managed to kind of crack the TikTok formula. He used the app to get his songs into the ears of millions of people around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: (Singing) Living in this big blue world with my head up in outer space.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

HARDING: And I'm Charlie Harding.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Charlie, you are one of the hosts of the "Switched On Pop" podcast, which is all about the making and the meaning of popular music. And you've come here today to give us a little glimpse into how TikTok is transforming the way the music industry works, which songs become popular, and even the structure and style of songs themselves.

HARDING: That's right. Today on the show - the story of Tai Verdes who figured out how to ride the TikTok algorithm going from a salesclerk at Verizon to an internet phenom to a top 40 pop star in just about a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: (Singing) A-O, A-O-K. I'm gone be A-O-K. You gone be A-O-K. We gone be A-O-K. Sugar, sugar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARDING: When Tai Verdes started using TikTok, he thought of it like a little musical sandbox where he could try out different strategies for building an audience with almost instant feedback and very low stakes for failure.

VERDES: If you're a nobody, you have to do something wild to get things started in these ripe spaces where no one's going to remember - like, in these new spaces of social media where no one's going to remember anything. Like, do they remember Justin Bieber from YouTube? No.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "JUSTIN SINGING BECAUSE OF YOU BY NE-YO")

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) I got a problem, and I don't know what to do about it. Even if I did, I don't...

VERDES: Do they remember Shawn Mendes going on and playing 6 seconds of a song just trying to show that he's riffing, you know what I'm saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SHAWN MENDES: (Singing) Hold on tight, and please don't let me go.

VERDES: That's when you can be experimental and, like, kind of do that sellout stuff where you're like, hey, let's amp this up a little bit so that we can get this platform going.

HARDING: One of the first things he tried to get the viral snowball rolling was actually paying people to use his songs in their videos - for example, his song "Skin Routine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKIN ROUTINE")

VERDES: (Rapping) She put me on a skin routine. Now I'm looking so fresh and lean.

HARDING: Could you tell me about that song and how you go about it?

VERDES: When I made "Skin Routine," I had TikTok, and I was like, OK. I can do this whole campaign where I'm like, people can show me their skin routine. That'll be the trend. But yeah, I started paying people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

VERDES: Now you're probably thinking, what about the money? 'Cause money is important. I like money. The first 100 people to make a TikTok of themselves doing their skin routine to my song, dancing to my song or doing anything to my song, they're going to get paid out based on these brackets.

Like, 10 bucks, 20 bucks to use my song in their videos.

HARDING: What happens?

VERDES: Nothing. Nothing happens. I think that maybe it gets a couple thousand streams. But, like, in reality, I pay these people. They use the song, but no one really gravitates to it. So I was like, you know what? Next song. Let's try again.

HARDING: Tai tries his hand in recording some songs and plays them back for his brother.

VERDES: I don't think he likes any of my music. And then my brother told me, you have to hook people in the first two lines. And that's what I live by now. It's like, your premise has to be so good that you need to know what's next. So then I was going through a toxic relationship, right? And I was just, like, listening to YouTube beats 'cause that's how I find my music, right? A lot of the album is YouTube beats.

HARDING: Yeah. Explain what that means.

VERDES: So that means a producer is trying to sell his beats. He'll sell them for, like, 10 bucks to use, like, a MP3. The whole vibe of the internet is a lot of rap beats, a lot of trap beats.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VERDES: It's a lot of lo-fi beats. But there's not a lot of, like, instrumental indie stuff that's just floating around. I'm on the seventh level of hell of YouTube every single night. I'm going on YouTube searching, like, Harry Styles-type beat or something like that. And then after going around, I found this beat that had, like, a thousand views, which is so small. Usually a lot of these beats have, like, 50,000 to 100,000, maybe a million views on them because they're so good, and people, like, rap over them, try to do their songs over them. I knew that I had to have something that wasn't viewed a lot because I needed it to be mine. I had to buy it eventually. So I found this beat, this guy named redMOSK in France. And I loved it, just that bass in the beginning that (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF BASS)

HARDING: You're a musician. You play piano. You play guitar. You sing.

VERDES: Yeah.

HARDING: But you kind of find this cheat code of, like, I'm going to find fully produced songs and use my best talent, which is the storytelling lyric melody. How do you come upon that way of working?

VERDES: Because I see how everybody else was doing it. I can make leaps and bounds if I have a guitar player who's played guitar for years and get the feel and be like, that's what you should play, compared to me learning hours and hours of guitar and piano and learning how to play into a - because I can play it, but I've never played - I've never tried to track something to a loop before. I could probably learn how to do it, but I'm not - that's not my goal. My goal was to be a singer, and I knew that with my skills right now that on guitar and piano, ukulele, it wasn't going to sound authentic.

HARDING: Does it change your relationship to the music knowing that, hey, this is coming off of YouTube as opposed to it's a thing that you did in the studio?

VERDES: No, because it's about the feel of the song. It doesn't matter where it comes from. I have the whole song written out, and then I have the YouTube beat, and then now I need to structure it to make it have a pre-chorus, chorus and whatever. I structured it to match the lyrics and whatever. I go and track it. It takes a day. There were some issues with it, then I go back in, like, a week and a half, and then I fix it. And then on my drive back...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

VERDES: (Singing) Stuck in the middle...

...That was the first time I had listened to my own music, back on the highway, and enjoyed it to the point where I was, like, smiling, windows down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

VERDES: (Singing) 'Cause I'm doing the same to you.

And it was amazing.

HARDING: So you're vibing to it in the car. It's working for you. What happens?

VERDES: I was vibing, and I was having a good time. But it wasn't - it's not like I got out of that car thinking, this is the best song. This song is going to go gold. You know what I'm saying? Like, I did not think that. I thought, all right, this is good enough. That was my entire mindset. This is good enough. Put it on TikTok.

HARDING: And just like his brother had told him, Tai started the song with a catchy opening line, something that might have sounded a bit racy on the radio but turned out to be pretty well-suited to the irreverent tone of TikTok.

VERDES: And then that's when the story starts. That's where you can see it all on TikTok. I go in my car, open the door, set up my phone, play this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

VERDES: (Singing) She said, you're a player, aren't you? And I bet you got hoes. I said, you don't know me like that. I just go with the flow.

And I was like, hey, (laughter) if this gets a thousand likes, I'm going to put it on Spotify. I was going to put it on Spotify anyway, but...

HARDING: (Laughter).

VERDES: ...Like, I was going to put on all of it. I was going to put everything everywhere. Right when I put it up, 10,000 plays, and I never - that never happened to me before.

HARDING: What's happening in your mind as you're watching this happen?

VERDES: To be honest, it was so gradual. It was so gradual. I was like, 10,000, this is cool - 'cause I knew 100,000 views wasn't a lot. I've seen people get 5 million views. I've seen people get 10 million views on TikTok. I was like, OK, this is a start. I can start with this. And then I post another video the next day of, like, the pre-chorus, and then it gets another 100,000 views. And I'm like, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

VERDES: All right, people. This is another part of my new song called "Stuck In The Middle." All right. This is the chorus. (Singing) 'Cause we're stuck in the middle of lovers and friends...

My song was never a song that went crazy out of the gate. It didn't have a trend. There was nothing attached to it, which I think was a blessing 'cause trends die.

HARDING: Why is it connecting?

VERDES: I think because they're going through the same thing. And some people probably swiped past my video as well, but then some people saw me in their car, and they were like, you're a player, aren't you? And I bet you got hoes - dang. Someone said that to me. Oh, I actually said that to someone, like a - and then now they're like, now I need to go find this song. And in the video, I have a comment saying, like, this song is live. You can go search it. My name is Tai Verdes. You can go search it right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

VERDES: I just have so much passion for this.

(Singing) I know you want to be friends.

But I just released this song "Stuck In The Middle" on Apple Music, and it would mean the world to me if you guys would listen to it. One of my goals is to have one of my singles hit the Billboard charts this summer.

And then it just leads, bleeds into the music. It's crazy because right when I put it on Spotify, you could see people going from TikTok to Spotify.

HARDING: People seem to also really connect with the fact that you've got, like, a day job at the same time.

VERDES: Exactly. And working at the Verizon store. How could I forget the Verizon store?

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

VERDES: What if I told you that this random college dropout that you're seeing on your screen right now started a Spotify page two months ago, and in that two months, he's gotten 2.5 million streams, been featured on Rolling Stone, been No. 1 on the U.S. viral charts, had a piece written on him on Lyrical Lemonade and has multiple record deals, and he still works at mother******* Verizon? That would be pretty [expletive] crazy, right?

I had, like, all the heads of all these companies calling me at Verizon during my work break. You know, I was, like, on with, like, the CEO of Capitol Records, you know, for 15 minutes. And I'd tell him, yeah, sorry, we got to reschedule because I have to sell these phones. You know what I'm saying? Like, I told people that I worked. Everybody works. And that's something that people relate to. You know, when you see, like, a Justin Bieber, a Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, it's hard to imagine them at Subway. (Laughter) You know what I'm saying? But it was easy to imagine me at Subway because I showed you me at Verizon, you know, working. So now that people have this baseline of, like, oh, this is a regular guy that had a job - in reality, I kind of wasn't a regular guy. I had a lot of social media experience. I had a - I had musical background. I had, like, parents that allowed me to go - have music. I had a lot of advantages that I'm super thankful for. But yeah, I think a lot of people love that type of, like, underdog story.

HARDING: The song has yet more of a life. Like, you're telling your story.

VERDES: Yeah.

HARDING: People are connecting with it. They're following you more on TikTok.

VERDES: Yeah. So then I keep going. I keep saying - I keep, like, doing, like, maybe little parody, little dances. I keep talking about the song reaching different accolades. I meet my managers, Ryan and Brandon, and I showed them the rest of my demos. At this time, while the song was blowing up, it had been, like, two or three months. I had made more songs. And one of the first producers that they introduced me to was Adam Friedman. And then that's how I started making, you know, more of the album was after I met Adam Friedman.

HARDING: What's different in the approach that you all bring to writing?

VERDES: Yeah. Adam Friedman is this producer who has worked with Mike Posner, the Black Eyed Peas. And I had so many questions because I had been just thrust in the label conversation. So I was asking Adam because Adam had also been an artist who had some success. First session, all we did was talk. We talked for, like, 6 hours about, like, every question I had. He tells me about all the label stuff, all the music stuff, how songs should be made, what feels good, feel in general. And then the next time we meet up, we make a song, and it's trash. It's so bad. But because of the back-and-forth we built up, the next song that we made was "DRUGS."

(SOUNDBITE OF TAI VERDES SONG, "DRUGS")

VERDES: He comes into the studio. We start talking again for the third time. I'm kind of disheveled because I'm like, God, this guy, we made a terrible song. I don't even want to go back, to be honest. But you never know. You always got to give people a second try. And then we start talking. He says, you know what? I had to actually go take a walk to go to Target when I was at my parents' house recently, and then I smoked some weed on the way because, you know, yeah, I had to relax. And he smokes weed, you know? And I was like, why don't you just write the song about that? And I was like, yeah, sometimes you do drugs. Why don't you tell your mom sometimes you do drugs? And then I was like, oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUGS")

VERDES: (Singing) Sometimes I do drugs, not hard ones, just ones that change my mind up. Drugs...

Sometimes I do drugs, not hard ones, just ones that change my mind up. That, for me, was so easy and so real that it was, like, the first time I was with somebody else that I was - and we were, like, jumping up and down in a studio, freaking out because we had made something that we thought was just super original, sounded good and felt good.

HARDING: OK, so what happens after these sessions?

VERDES: So after the sessions, I'm super relaxed, but I'm also not. When "Stuck In The Middle" kind of is, like, tapering off, it's grown to 100,000, 200,000, 300- and then kind of stays - it became, like, a trending song on TikTok. But then it's been six months. Like, I want to be an artist.

HARDING: Not a trend.

VERDES: Yeah, not a trend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARDING: The hardest thing about building a career on social media isn't creating a viral song; it's creating the second one and the third one. Yet, Tai Verdes' persistence pays off for him, and his next song, "DRUGS," is a hit.

VERDES: I decide in October to put "DRUGS" out, and immediately, we go viral again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUGS")

VERDES: (Singing) I don't want to tell my mom I smoked this weed. I don't want to tell my dad. He'll call me weak.

And we sing "DRUGS," and we get a million views on that video. And then we sing it again, and we get, like, 5 million views on a video. And because of the subject matter, you know, we had conversations of putting it on radio, but they - no one would take it.

HARDING: At this point, Tai's viral success had earned him enough to get his own place. He quit his job at Verizon live on TikTok. His boss even congratulated him. It was very sweet. But obviously, Tai had much bigger ambitions. His songs had been playlisted (ph) on Spotify, but he still wanted to make a song that would break into Top 40 radio. So one day, Tai's working with his producer.

VERDES: Adam shows me this guitar loop, the "A-O-K" guitar loop, and I'm like, I'm using that. Like, the guitar, like, it just feels good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: Doesn't this guitar sound so good?

Like, I don't know somebody who can listen to that song and be like, nah, that doesn't feel good to me, unless they don't want to be happy. If you don't want to be happy, the song is not for you. It's probably kind of annoying if you don't want to be happy.

HARDING: (Laughter).

VERDES: But if you do want to - if you do want to just, like, be a listener and you hear that guitar, it's going to feel good.

HARDING: So you feel...

VERDES: Yeah.

HARDING: ...This thing. You're feeling good.

VERDES: Yeah, I'm feeling good. So I hear the guitar loop. This is one of the songs that was, like, kind of, like, puzzle piece together. He had worked on the song for, like, four years, and then Adam went in, redid the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAI VERDES SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: And redid the feel of the chorus and tuned up the vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: (Singing) Living in this big blue world...

And now, it sounds like a different type of record. But the thing is, the vocal wasn't there yet. I go in and then I hear the song. I'm like, this is OK, but it didn't hit with me right away. But I did love the guitar lick in the beginning. I didn't know what it was yet, but I'm using it. And I would listen to it, and I was like, this song sounds weird. I don't know why I don't like it. Why don't you move the chorus in the front? Because it didn't used to have (singing) living in this big blue world. It didn't used to start at the front. It used to be some verse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: (Singing) Living in this big blue world with my head up in outer space, I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K. When I see trouble come my way...

So that's what I'm saying about feel is that I, like, would structure the beat to make it feel the best that I thought possible. Now, I go in, and I'm like, what can make this song just better? And the hook was so good. I was like, let's just put the hook in the - I didn't like any of the verses. I didn't really like the bridge. Let's just go in, put the hook in the beginning and then start there. We go in and cut it. Now, I go in, write a quick verse. First verse, I wrote that in, like, I don't know, 30 minutes, and then I go in and write the bridge. Just the entire vibe of the song changed after all those elements - all those tiny little elements were changed. It became my song. Now when the chorus hit in the front and I put that on TikTok, that was kind of, like, the closing moment of this - like, why I'm here right now is because that video has, like, 20 million views.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

VERDES: I just want to make you feel 2% better when you listen to this song. That's it, just two. Ready? (Singing) Living in this big blue world with my head up in outer space...

That was the first time that something that I put on the internet went viral on meme pages, on TikTok, or that transcended social media, where I got on the radio. I got on TV. I did late night because of "A-O-K" - me going in the car and singing living in this big blue world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A-O-K")

VERDES: (Singing) With my head up in outer space, I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I'll be A-O, A-O-K. A-O-K, yeah. A-O-K, yes. A-O, A-O-K. A-O-K.

HARDING: You had said earlier that you knew it was safe to experiment early on, things people are going to forget or aren't that important to...

VERDES: Yeah.

HARDING: ...Who you're going to be. How do you feel about relating so closely to the platform of TikTok and what do you hope to do with that?

VERDES: Nothing, man. It's going to be gone. I don't really know what's going to happen next, but I do know this - that you can go on TikTok right now and put a song on TikTok, and the algorithm will put you in front of an audience that you haven't been before, who have never seen you, who will give you their attention.

HARDING: Tai says, you can't count on any one particular social media platform. Things are moving way too quickly to know what the music industry will look like in the next few years. What you can do is meet people where they are, one 20-second video at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAI VERDES SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Have you hacked an algorithm, unleashing millions of new followers? Tell us about it. We're at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on all the socials media, including TikTok, @planetmoney.

HARDING: The original "Switched On Pop" episode was produced by Nate Sloan and me, Charlie Harding, edited by Jolie Myers and engineered by Brandon McFarland, executive produced by Hanna Rosin and Nishat Kurwa.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This adaptation was produced by Audrey Dilling and edited by Jess Jiang, mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

HARDING: I'm Charlie Harding.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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