Ryan Tedder’s hard drive is a repository of some of the biggest hits of the past two decades. But it’s got at least one potential hit song he wrote that, despite getting cut by two different recording artists, will likely never be released.
The OneRepublic frontman and prolific songwriter behind hits for Adele, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift recalls pitching a song to one artist, who recorded the track before teasing the song on TikTok. When it failed to go viral, they scrapped its release. Tedder then found another artist to give the song a shot, and it initially appeared it would be released as a single. But when the second artist googled the song’s title and found the original artist’s TikTok post, they told Tedder they wouldn’t be releasing the song either.
“It immediately killed my cut. I went from having the single to having nothing,” Tedder tells Rolling Stone. “They told me, ‘my fans will know. They’ll see that [the other artist] posted it, and it’s a weird look. It looks like I’m taking other artists’ songs.’”
Despite his status as one of the music industry’s most respected and successful hitmakers, even Tedder isn’t immune to an issue many songwriters have experienced in recent years: songs are tested on TikTok and then left unsalvageable and hard, if not impossible, to pitch elsewhere if they didn’t go viral enough for artists and labels to want to release them.
Usually if an artist passes on a song, a writer can try and get it placed somewhere else. But when a demo goes public, the process becomes much more difficult. As several songwriters tell Rolling Stone, artists don’t want leftovers and risk looking inauthentic to fans. They also may question a song’s potential if someone else teased it first but couldn’t get it to take off. The song is effectively, to use industry parlance, “burnt.”
“If a song that me or any other writer wrote is teased and there’s no deal in place, and it doesn’t get in enough videos and doesn’t instantaneously react the label wants, that song is now 99 percent of the time torched,” Tedder says. “And I can argue both sides of the coin: I own a music company, and it is to my benefit as the label if my artists are testing music out and we’re getting a gauge on what works and what doesn’t. However, it’s a broken system because it is almost unilaterally detrimental to the songwriters.”
Every one of the six songwriters who spoke with Rolling Stone said they’ve had multiple instances where their songs were teased and never released. (Every songwriter, notably, declined to name specific artists or songs out of professional concern.)
But teasing tracks is a particularly sore spot for songwriters, who’ve seen their revenues heavily diminished for years in the streaming era as their profession’s middle class has been decimated. Other than the few most sought after writers in the business, writers typically get no pay up front for working a session and rely mainly on their already dwindling publishing earnings that come after a song’s official release.
James “JHart” Abrahart, who has co-written tracks for Justin Bieber, Sabrina Carpenter and Keith Urban, among others, recalls at least five instances where tracks he wrote were rendered unusable after the song was teased.
“It’s frustrating because these songs will be tested online and be at mercy of the algorithm, which isn’t always a strong indicator of whether a song is a hit,” he says. “There’s so many non-related factors, yet it’s become such a determining factor in whether or not a song gets released. But we’re expected to be okay with just throwing our song out into the universe and hoping that the confluence of algorithmic things [that] need to happen will make it a success. We’re living on a prayer.”
“I’m an artist too,” JHart adds. “So I understand the position a lot of artists are in today to feel the need to play the game.”
Lucas Keller’s Milk and Honey, which manages JHart and whose clients have penned hits for Blink-182, BTS and Cardi B, is one of the largest songwriter/producer management companies in the music business. Keller tells Rolling Stone that his clients are collectively sitting on “hundreds” of songs they now have no use for. “It’s absolutely a problem for us,” Keller says. “The amount of records that get burned that we can’t do anything with is crazy, and nobody pays for that art.”
Keller’s been vocal about fixing the problem for years. In January 2022, he sent a memo to prominent songwriter managers to establish a unified front and publish a collective open letter calling on labels and artists to stop the practice that he called “try-before-you-buy on TikTok.” “We should not be part of the test market burning songs,” Keller wrote to the other managers at the time.
“These songs are at the mercy of the algorithm, which isn’t always a strong indicator of whether a song is a hit.”
James “JHart” Abrahart
Some managers, Keller says, backed him, but others “chickened out,” either over fear of retribution or because they stood to benefit from the practice. With no uniformity, the letter never surfaced, and Keller says the practice hasn’t diminished since.
“Nobody will know where that song could have ended up [if there was better reaction],’ Keller says. “A great song is a great song. We’ve pitched old songs that turn into really big hits. Once you’ve had that experience, then you start to think, ‘we have to treat every song like it could be that.’ And so the song that just gets totally burnt by being tested on TikTok, it’s not fair to the people creating the IP.”
The practice may even be, at times, illegal, particularly when a writer pitches a song to an artist “on spec” when they’re still looking for someone to take the track. Audrey Benoualid, a partner at Myman Greenspan Fox Rosenberg Mobasser Younger & Light LLP, notes that when artists tease demos before setting up a deal with a writer, it could be considered copyright infringement.
But because of the power dynamic between artists and writers, the writers don’t have many options. Benoualid has multiple writers whose songs have been burned online that have asked her what their recourse could be. She usually tells them any action could come with the risk of affecting professional relationships.
“It’s wrong and it needs to stop,” Benoualid says. “They could sue, but it’s more complicated than that because who are you going to sue? The artist and the label? It’s expensive, and do you want that reputation in the industry of being contentious against the artists you’re working with? It’s not easy.”
Keller and Rachel Douglas, a manager at Range Media, both say they’ve implemented kill fees to record labels worth thousands of dollars for clients when their songs can’t get officially released. But they admit those fees are more on principle and to deter artists from teasing without approval.
Neil Jacobson, founder of songwriter management firm Hallwood Media, says that when a song has taken off, he has seized the opportunity to get better deals for his clients.
“Unless you’re the top thousandth of a percent of artists, you’re [teasing songs],” Jacobson says. “I do think it’s wrong. So it’s not wrong to be upset about it; I just think it is really hard to police it. And if you flip it the other way, there’s also a lot you can get out of it. If somebody wants to test a record and then they want a deal now because the record is reacting, guess what? That $25,000 production fee is now $75,000. Or we can get more points. We’ve got leverage, let’s go hammer ‘em.”
While Keller described some cases as artists innocently teasing the songs out of excitement, he pointed the finger more systematically toward record labels, who stand to benefit from testing songs to tell them which tracks have the best shot at going viral and where they should expend resources and capital. “In a conversation with a senior A&R early this year, it was explained to me in no uncertain terms that this was the future of how the labels will likely be working, and that I should just let this happen and not question it,” Keller wrote in his memo.
The amount of records that get burned that we can’t do anything with is crazy, and nobody pays for that art.”
Douglas, whose company represents both artists like Jack Harlow and Lauv along with writers and producers including Wondagurl and Nova Wav, similarly attributed the practice to “downward pressure from the labels to turn out content.”
Several writers, however, don’t think the practice is so organized. Oak Felder, who has written for artists including Demi Lovato, Lizzo and Carly Rae Jepsen, was more skeptical of how directly the labels are calling for artists to tease the songs but that they aren’t discouraging the artists when it happens. “I think that label executives are communicating with the artists and maybe plant these ideas and the artist then goes and does it, or the artist does it themselves and mentions it to their A&R and the A&R decides to take advantage of it,” he says.
As JHart says: “I refuse to believe that people are just purposefully trying to have songwriters not be able to earn a living wage, but I will say that ignorance is used as a sort of safety blanket, and it’s the responsibility of labels and managers to educate artists on how the ecosystem works.”
Regardless of whether it’s label-propagated or not, the strategy is reflective of a music industry focused increasingly on data and metrics that weren’t as readily available years ago, and on using those tools to mitigate risks as best as they can.
“You kind of live and die by overnight virality. That has now created a situation where qualified A&Rs with great ears, who are tenured, who are good with music and passionate about it, can’t really do their job the way they used to,” Tedder says, calling the practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy between artists and labels rather than a bespoke strategy labels are advising on. “The danger of them chiming in and saying, ‘we think this is a hit,’ and the internet says they’re wrong and they’ve got egg on their face, that’s not helping in their career.”
So what becomes a label’s responsibility down this continued path?
“I think they just become banks,” Douglas says. “They’re mitigating all their risks and if you have a song that catches fire, they’ll put their machine behind it, go to radio and do the things they used to do in the first place. They rely on artists to promote and do the lion’s share, and when it’s going, they’ll put the machine behind it.”
As Jacobson adds: “You know what [labels] supposed to do? They make money. What’s the best way to make money? High return, low risk. That’s the goal. I would like to have the least risky way to make as much money as possible.”
Artists, meanwhile, are under significant pressure to get songs to take off at a time where the market has never been more saturated, with over 100,000 songs getting uploaded on Spotify daily. Paul Phamous, a songwriter/producer who co-wrote Frank Ocean’s “Lost,” has had songs tossed from TikTok leaks before. And while he feels songwriters deserve more respect and better rates, he also says writers have never known if their songs would release and that it’s easy to think only of one record.
“Nobody knows anything, everyone’s guessing. It’s pure luck, It’s all lottery tickets. You don’t know when a song is going to take off.”
“If you’re an extremely successful songwriter, maybe 5% of your stuff comes out,” Phamous says. “Getting burned is frustrating, but I’m sympathetic with the artist too. I executive produce artists at major labels where they’re told in meetings with their A&Rs that ‘we love your music but if nothing’s taking off on TikTok, we’re not paying attention to it.’”
While a song going viral on TikTok doesn’t guarantee it will perform well off-platform, it certainly doesn’t hurt a song’s chances. Tedder has seen the strategy work on multiple songs he co-wrote, including Lil Nas X’s “That’s What I Want,” and more recently with Tate Mcrae’s still-unreleased song “Greedy.”
In that latter case, Tedder commended how McRae and her label RCA has handled the rollout. Before teasing the song, he said, RCA label head Peter Edge and Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer decided on a single with McRae, agreeing that “Greedy” was the song they wanted to push. They’d already started hashing out deals with Tedder and the other writers involved, giving them protections, he says.
“Because of that, we were like ‘please go tease the shit out of this thing, Go nuts,” he says. The song has been featured in over 30,000 TikToks. “Whether the song is a hit or not, I couldn’t be happier with how she and the label handled it, and I think that’s a good representation of how it can work.”
The future will most likely see more songs getting burnt and buried until the practice doesn’t yield enough returns to be valuable anymore. “Most of my successful records were passed on by artists and labels,” Tedder says. “Sometimes it’s two, three, or four different artists before they land and then become a hit. Not every song is a smash on every artist, and I think the old phrase ‘a hit is a hits’ doesn’t really hold water.”
“TikTok can be a great tool when used properly, but just putting something on TikTok and hoping it’ll go viral isn’t the answer,” Douglas says. “Nobody knows anything, everyone’s guessing. It’s pure luck, It’s all lottery tickets. You don’t know when a song is going to take off. But this method takes away any chance for a song to be worth anything because the song can’t even come out.”