The first time I saw Medium Build play I thought of David Letterman. There’s this famous 2014 performance by the band Future Islands on Letterman’s Late Show. The lead singer belts the song “Seasons” while dancing, staring down the camera, and beating his chest. He alternates between smooth crooning and guttural wails.
At the end of the song, Letterman is thrilled by the strange, captivating performance.
“Come on!” Letterman says, walking on stage, just as the music stops. “How about that? I’ll take all of that you got.”
I remember first watching Medium Build, whose real name is Nick Carpenter, wail emotionally raw lyrics under one of those portable canopies. It looked like a DIY show on a campground somewhere. The camera was staring up at him. He wore a bandana, his nose ring noticeable — and he was strumming a guitar, screaming about fucking up, and I thought to myself, “I’ll take all of that you got.”
But I didn’t discover him at some basement show or even on late night TV. I found Medium Build on TikTok.
There’s endless discussion and handwringing over TikTok’s effect on the music industry. The platform has sparked a new wave of songs that follow the “TikTok formula,” tailor-made to go viral — think cheesy earworms like Gayle’s “abcdefu,” which scored her a coveted Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. Even established pop artists — looking at you, Meghan Trainor — use the platform to rocket their songs up the charts.
But there are scores of indie acts carving out a living on TikTok that often get overlooked. Through the platform’s famously accurate algorithm and its widespread popularity, smaller musicians are able to find fans who’d otherwise never know they existed. Even me, far from TikTok’s primary Gen Z audience, found Medium Build while mindlessly scrolling past cooking videos and dog-training posts.
It’s like Zoomer MySpace… It’s so sincere and real and fun.
Amid all of the other nonsense on my FYP, I found this earnest indie music. That’s the beauty of TikTok. Carpenter, 30, told me in a phone call that the Medium Build TikTok account started taking off once he realized it could be a platform that supports vulnerability.
“It’s like Zoomer MySpace,” he said. “It’s so sincere and real and fun… As soon as I started posting my own songs our followers like tripled. And then it just kept growing.”
Carpenter said that he could see the impact almost immediately on Medium Build’s Spotify streams.
Another artist, Spilly Cave, has a more esoteric approach to TikTok. Real name Billy Cave, he mixes light absurdism with relaxing, vibey music. You might know his videos as the young guy in super small sunglasses, jamming on an electric guitar. The 25-year-old lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and decided to give a music career one last, serious push before falling off his parents’ health insurance at 26. It worked, in large part due to TikTok. Before he started the account he estimated he had 10 monthly listeners on Spotify. Now he’s up to nearly 40,000.
“It’s been, for me, kind of my backdoor I fell in, into the system,” Cave said. “It’s strange, in this modern climate, as far as talking to labels, or management, or any type of person, if you don’t have social media clout, you’re just not going to get entertained [by these companies].”
That’s where TikTok is revolutionizing how artists breakthrough to industry gatekeepers. It’s like an open mic for indie musicians, where they can explore what works and build what amounts to the modern version of a local following. It’s just that now that small group of fans can be truly global. All of the indie musicians I spoke with described a bit of despair when they first started posting on the platform, and the response was middling. But once they saw people liking their music, it was invigorating.
“I don’t think, you know, 30 years ago, what I’m doing now, still being in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, would ever catch on or have any chance of success,” Cave said. “There is a beauty to having the autonomy, like start something on your own and have it pop off.”
That’s the independent spirit musicians have championed for decades. Of course, TikTok isn’t a perfect app. There are privacy concerns, harmful trends that have real psychological effects, and content moderation concerns. But it’s impossible to ignore the impact it’s had on the music industry. For smaller acts, especially, it’s become a tool that democratizes the discovery process for indie artists.
There’s maybe no better example of this than the band Durry. Siblings Austin and Taryn Durry went from noodling around in their parents house to having their song, “Who’s Laughing Now,” rack up more than 3 million plays on Spotify, almost entirely instigated by its TikTok virality.
The song is all about feeling like a failure, or at least coming up shorty of peoples’ expectations, and loving the life you have regardless. It’s the story of the band, and a lot of people identified with it on social media. TikTok isn’t perfectly curated like Instagram; there’s room for the messiness and vulnerability that indie music often leans on.
“This [band] kind of just started with like an experiment in authenticity and just trying to write great songs about reality,” 30-year-old Austin Durry said.
It was, initially, a hobby band with a TikTok account that had roughly 100 followers. Then they posted the first verse and chorus of “Who’s Laughing Now,” and everything took off.
“We ended up racing into the studio and recording and releasing [the full song] in like three days,” Durry said. “[It was] a crazy time-crunch, just like holding on to that viral moment, hoping that it sticks.”
It did. The band’s since gone on tour and has been steadily putting out music for an audience a lot more substantial than 100 people. For instance, I found the band on TikTok thanks to my algorithm. My FYP typically surfaces a lot of lo-fi, angsty, emotional music. That can be hard rock or acoustic folks, but if it’s got that ethos and good lyrics, it’s typically something I enjoy.
Sure, some artists on TikTok are super polished and targeting a more mainstream crowd, but any creator with a phone and point-of-view can catch on. Durry credits that desire for authenticity online for their band finding a passionate audience.
“The whole pop culture zeitgeist right now, everyone’s just sick of the fake, plastic people,” he said. “We’re just doing our best with what we have.”
It’s the exact opposite of making songs designed to go viral. That TikTok song “abcdefu,” for instance, has a whopping 185 million views on YouTube, while “Who’s Laughing Now” has a modest 278K. But that song and TikTok basically built the band’s entire existence; there wasn’t a label making marketing decisions for them.
The whole pop culture zeitgeist right now, everyone’s just sick of the fake, plastic people… We’re just doing our best with what we have.
And it’s not like indie artists are immune to the desire to go viral on TikTok, especially when that’s the platform where they found and grew their audience.
“We were finishing [a new song] and I was like, ‘Ohh, I bet this would TikTok well,” Carpenter said. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a weird thought.'”
A catchy hook or a funky melody is often the recipe for success on the app. The indie artists on the platform are learning how to package their music for TikTok, playing around to see what works.
“I am hook-centric already, which I think TikTok rewards,” Carpenter said. “You say some really fucked up, weird shit in the first five seconds of your video, [and] people will stick around.”
The coolest thing for the artists is seeing those likes and views turn into a real fandom. Durry described the thrill of selling out a room versus, you know, going viral. When I caught up with Cave, he was headed to Los Angeles to play a few shows before putting out a full tour next year. Carpenter is still amazed to see young people follow his music off a platform none of his 30-something friends even use.
But at the end of the day, the internet is still the internet, and entertaining a fandom takes a lot of patience and a good sense of humor.
“The comment sections are fucking hilarious,” Carpenter said. “These kids, that stan culture, like, ‘Step on me, spit on me, King’, [that] obsession shit. It makes the app fun and terrifying.”