Tate McRae has gone viral on TikTok not by particular accident or coincidence — but because the 17-year-old Calgary native worked to do it. Her recent track “You Broke Me First” has been lodged firmly on Rolling Stone’s songs chart for three months now, currently sitting between the likes of Harry Styles and BTS. On TikTok, the official audio alone has been used in nearly a million videos.
McRae consistently puts out new records every month or so. She’ll tease unfinished music on TikTok, asking fans to weigh in on what they want her to release and when. She also uses the platform to chat casually with other artists and reveal collaborations. “Hey Tate! Heard you were looking for a feature on this song,” singer Ali Gatie said in one TikTok video that McRae then responded to with own video, writing back: “Imma send u the track… wanna write a verse to it?”
“TikTok is an integral part of her overall campaign,” Steph Pensa, a digital marketing director at McRae’s label RCA Records, tells Rolling Stone. “Tate’s really good at using the platform as a teen in her own time, but she’s also great at using it as a snapshot into a world for fans.”
RCA, which is home to A-listers like Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus, offered McRae a record deal last year. At the time, she had a solid YouTube following but no TikTok account and a small fraction of the streaming fans she has today. Now, she’s at 24 million monthly Spotify listeners — up 734% since signing to RCA — and her name’s been used in TikTok hashtags more than 35 million times. TikTok fans seek out her YouTube page and make comments like “TikTok brought me here”; then, YouTube fans find her on TikTok and the cycle continues. (She’s gained nearly 400m YouTube views in the last year.) Her consistent and sincere use of TikTok while hitting career milestones — like doing her first late-night TV gig on Jimmy Kimmel, being nominated for a MTV VMA, and going Top 30 at pop radio this summer — created what Pensa refers to as “a perfect storm.”
McRae direct-messages fans, too. “Tate uses her TikTok kind of like how fans use their community hotlines,” explains Pensa. “She’s not just pushing content out. She responds to fans.” And McRae pays close attention to what her followers are doing: When user-generated “original sounds” start getting popular — audio that, for instance, unofficially remixes her song with another one or slows the tempo down — McRae jumps on those with her own videos as well. RCA also encourages her to work with the accounts that created these edited audio snippets.
Pensa adds that McRae doesn’t just use the platform to promote her own material: She’s an influencer, a general user, and an artist all in one. “I think a lot of other artists just use it because they know of the power behind it, so they’ll start dance trends and things like that — but Tate also uses it to share very intimate moments,” she says. “When she posted a video of her mom telling her she was getting her first billboard, she just happened to be recording in her bedroom. She caught that moment, and she posted it. Not a lot of other artists are using the platform in that way. She uses it as a teen.”
McRae and RCA also work together to figure out which types of videos are most successful. Pensa says the label started noticing activity surges when McRae, who is still a high-school student, would just act like your normal neighborhood friend and fan. (She’s not creating dance challenges, but she’ll sure as hell join in on them.)
The first two to three months of TikTok activity around “You Broke Me First” were completely organic, according to RCA. But shortly after, RCA kicked off an influencer-marketing campaign, working with an agency that represents top TikTok creators to get them to use McRae’s music; it also launched a Smule campaign, using the karaoke-style singalong app to signal-boost the song to young people. That’s when the song started popping up on major music charts. RCA declined to share the song’s marketing budget, but Pensa notes that a single TikTok campaign can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.
Views surged even more when RCA got McRae banner placement the app’s homepage. Next up, RCA is looking to do a live event within TikTok.
Pensa says that RCA started looking seriously at TikTok as a marketing player around the same time that the label signed McRae — and that they’re still in a learning curve from older viral-video apps Musical.ly and Vine. “Everyone’s like, ‘How do we make this viral? Let’s put it on TikTok,’” she says. “For artists like Tate, fans know that’s the first place they’re going to hear something new or get an inside look at her life… and TikTok is now a big part of rollout plans. Influencer campaigns and TikTok are the hot button.”