No one likes the feeling of stagnation. A character reaches his breaking point in David Kushner’s “Miserable Man,” an acoustic ballad from January that’s as sparse as a one-horse town. “Let’s pack our stuff now and run away,” the narrator implores, though in truth it sounds like he can barely muster the energy to get out of bed.
A month later, actress-singer Dove Cameron tried to snap a love interest out of a stagnant relationship with “Boyfriend,” which has the swoony opulence of a James Bond theme song. “I could be a better boyfriend than him,” Cameron sings. “I could do the shit that he never did.” Brass blurts thickly behind her, making this sound as much like a threat as a promise.
Both songs mark breakout moments — “Miserable Man” has amassed nearly 30 million streams on Spotify in less than two months, while “Boyfriend” is Top 20 in the U.S. on Spotify, earning more than 500,000 streams daily. And their commercial success is due, in part, to an increasingly popular TikTok marketing strategy called “the evergreen pre-save.”
TikTok is peerless when it comes to creating viral moments, but these can be fleeting: A snippet of a song could go viral tomorrow, but the finished product might not arrive for two months, at which point everyone may have moved on. The pre-saves used by Kushner and Cameron “allow us to capture all the people who were interested in a record from that first moment” of virality, explains Sam Lockhart, an A&R at Disruptor Records, which signed Cameron. “Some of the records you’re seeing on TikTok, there might even be a trend going on around them, but no one is capturing that [interest].” The evergreen pre-save allows artists to “build demand from the moment the song snippet hits the internet.”
Anyone who’s spent time on TikTok recently has seen artists urge fans not just to watch their latest video, but to take the extra step of clicking a link, logging into their streaming service of choice, and pre-saving a track that’s added to their personal library immediately upon release.
PRE-SAVE Miserable Man IN BIO ❤️ #miserableman
♬ Miserable Man – David Kushner
Since completing that process takes several extra steps, it is widely viewed in the music industry as a valuable sign of fan commitment, the digital equivalent of asking someone out on a second date before the first is even done (but not being clingy about it.) Pre-saves are also seen as a strong signal that an artist is likely to rack up a lot of streams on their next release.
“It’s the ability [of pre-saves] to capture and convert attention into fandom — and dollars via streaming revenue — that’s caused the obsession” with them at labels, says Connor Lawrence, co-founder of the music company Indify, which specializes in helping young artists connect with funding, marketers, and management. “It presents itself as one of the best ways for an artist today to build a fan base, both in the short and long term.”
Pre-saves “are also used as a bargaining chip with partners — in conversations with Spotify and Apple, they show proof [of social engagement] that would help these artists get playlisting and support,” Lockhart adds. “That in turn exposes them to an even larger audience and validates the artist and the song.”
But much of the music industry remains invested in old-school, carefully planned rollouts: Put out a first single, build some buzz, maybe follow that with another track, and eventually cap it off with an album. Because of that, some TikTok pre-save tools required artists to have both a finished song and a planned release date.
Of course, listeners on TikTok couldn’t care less about these requirements. They want to hear music they like, and often that means songs that are still gestating. Much of the platform’s power stems from the way it allows artists to let fans into their process — to test out hooks or verses and invite listeners to edit lines.
bc of all your support i might have to drop this early 😮💨❤️🔥 pre save link in bio 👹
♬ Boyfriend – Dove Cameron
Kushner hadn’t even finished “Miserable Man,” much less had a release date in mind, when he posted a snippet on TikTok. The same goes for acts like Will Paquin, who went viral with a guitar riff well before it was a song, and the rapper Championxiii, who posts unfinished freestyle snippets on TikTok and only bothers to complete the ones that attract interest from his followers.
Music technology needed to be designed with the same flexibility, an understanding that an unfinished song snippet could be every bit as valuable as a fully-produced track. “If people discover music and latch on to a song but it’s not done yet, something has to be done” to encourage their budding fandom, says Jeremy Karelis, who co-manages Kushner with Jack Steindorf.
That’s where music-technology companies like Feature.FM — one of a handful of companies that provides managers and labels with suites of marketing tools — come into play. Feature.FM designed its pre-save function with the idea of helping artists answer a very specific question. “When I’m in between releases, what can I do to drive action?” asks Daniel Sander, the company’s Chief Commercial Officer.
In the old days, artists would wait years between albums and singles and hope that fans would remain faithful in their absence. But many acts today are basically never between releases: They are posting something on TikTok constantly, and then encouraging viewers to engage with them in other ways via the pre-save.
“If you’re trying to break, treating TikTok as a focus group or sounding board is key,” says McClain Portis, founder of Liv2, a group of up-and-coming filmmakers that prides itself on “discovering new artists and telling their stories along the way.” “Once you’re huge,” Portis adds, “you can go back to the traditional methods” for releasing music.
MR. FORGETTABLE PRE-SAVE AVAILABLE WITH THE LINK IN MY BIO!!! MISERABLE MAN WILL RELEASE FIRST BUT NOW YOU’LL BE THE FIRST TO GET IN YOUR PLAYLIST!!!
♬ mr. forgettable – david kushner
Feature.FM built its tool specifically to skirt those “traditional methods” — it doesn’t need to be pegged to any public release date or a finished song. (Music managers say a few other platforms, including ToneDen and LinkFire, also have similar flexibility with pre-saves.) If an artist posts a chorus on TikTok and it goes viral, he or she can start driving curious listeners to pre-save immediately, as Kushner, Cameron, and others have done in recent months.
“When you’re getting these evergreen pre-saves, you’re learning about your audience: email, demographic, hometown location,” Lockhart adds. “It helps you paint a more robust picture of your fanbase, which then informs who to go after in the future [with marketing campaigns].”
Kushner’s management tested the Feature.FM tool in November, and soon he was benefitting from a pair of popular evergreen pre-save campaigns simultaneously. One of them, for a snippet of “Miserable Man,” amassed 146,000 pre-saves before release. (Managers and music marketers are over the moon about more than 100,000 pre-saves; one says anything over 50,000 is “a smash.”) Kushner’s follow-up, “Mr. Forgettable,” has already generated a similarly impressive pre-save count before dropping Friday.
By helping the slow-to-adapt music industry conform to the full-tilt rhythms of TikTok, these pre-save tools are also raising questions about what it means to make a song. The music industry is still invested in the traditional idea of what a popular song has to be — it probably has a verse and a chorus, for example, and lasts longer than 90 seconds. But on TikTok, a 15-second hook is more than enough to snare listeners — and, with an evergreen pre-save, it’s also enough to start collecting fans and marketing to them in a way the music industry understands.
Right now, a song still has to be played for at least 30 seconds to register on streaming platforms and trigger an eventual payout. As the music industry is forced to embrace the flexibility of TikTok, maybe, in the future, the idea of “finishing” a song will become obsolete. One strong hook or one verse might be all an artist needs.