On April 7, Curtis Waters, a 20-year-old musician who lives with his family in Cary, uploaded a video to the social network TikTok. It showed Waters and his brother doing a step-touch dance in their backyard. The soundtrack was Waters’s new single, “Stunnin’,” a groovy beat with a catchy hook. The caption said, “dancing to my song everyday until it goes viral tbh.”

After Waters posted seven more videos, “Stunnin’” started to do just that in May, garnering millions of views from its inclusion in more than 36,000 videos by other users. When Waters officially dropped the single on May 19, it racked up a million Spotify streams in ten days and earned placements in almost a dozen Apple Music playlists. The music video, released on May 22, already has more than 250,000 views on YouTube. Waters’s Instagram following has more than tripled. 

“This is the biggest I’ve done, and it’s definitely because of TikTok,” Waters says.

TikTok, where users create and share 15-to-60-second videos, originated in China and didn’t launch in the U.S. until 2018. Initially seen as a cringeworthy platform for tweens, it has become a game-changing force in the music industry with astonishing speed.

Some of the most popular videos on TikTok involve dances or challenges set to certain songs. When they go viral, the songs make their way across the internet and even onto the Billboard Hot 100, from Doja Cat’s “Say So” to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.” With 800 million users worldwide, including 60 million and counting in the U.S., TikTok’s already considerable influence is still growing.   

What sets TikTok apart from predecessors like Vine—the short-lived but beloved platform for six-second video loops—or even YouTube is its immersive “For You” landing page: an endless feed of recommended videos generated entirely by algorithms.

“TikTok is so powerful, man,” Waters says. “You could have no followers and reach thousands of people if your content is engaging enough.”

It’s a bet that social-media-savvy artists are making to jumpstart their careers. Lil Nas X is the blueprint; his instantly meme-able “Old Town Road” made waves on TikTok before becoming the number-one song in the world in 2019. Shortly after his single blew up, Lil Nas X signed with Columbia Records.

Waters aimed to replicate this formula with “Stunnin’.” When it started gaining traction on TikTok, he says he began fielding calls from major labels. Ultimately, he chose to remain independent for now, searching for a holistic investment in him as an artist rather than as a one-hit-wonder.

“I don’t want to give this impression that I’m a guy that’s just going to make ‘Stunnin’’ over and over,” he says. “I hope people stick around to see what I can do in an album format or with different types of songs. There’s also other music that I make, which is a bit more personal.”

Waters is self-taught and avoids categorizing himself by genre or medium. Punk, hip-hop, folk, and country music are equally likely to inspire him. Already juggling roles—producer, rapper, graphic designer—he hopes to add filmmaking to his repertoire. 

“A creative person is a creative person,” he says. “I don’t think you need to limit it to one thing. It’s just about having fun. I enjoy a lot of things, so I started making everything.”

Originally born in Nepal, with stops in Germany, India, and Canada before his family moved to North Carolina three years ago, Waters started designing album art for musicians online at age 14. He decided he could better showcase his artwork by producing his own music, so he learned how to make beats from YouTube tutorials. After getting frustrated with tailoring his beats to the needs of other artists, he sought more autonomy by adding his own vocals and writing his own music. 

He made his first EP, The Hot Boy Tape, in 2017, followed by his first album, Prom Night, in 2018. Almost entirely self-produced in his bedroom, his earlier work picked up press from the Canadian version of Complex and music blogs like Earmilk and Lyrical Lemonade. In February 2020, he dropped his second album, Pity Party, though he has since removed it from streaming platforms to further develop it and re-rerelease it later this year. 

Chris Anokute is a veteran A&R executive who has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including Katy Perry, Kelly Rowland, and Fifth Harmony. After discovering Waters on Soundcloud about two months ago, Anokute took him on as a client with his artist-development company, Young Forever Inc. 

“I was listening to Curtis Waters’s music like I was listening to Kanye West almost 15 years ago,” Anokute says. “His story was obviously different, but there were a lot of themes in his music that really resonated with me spiritually. He’s probably one of the most hardworking, driven, and creative people I know.” 

Waters embodies a new generation, raised by the internet, that has never known a world without hyper-connectivity and immense possibility. Stubbornly self-sufficient and decidedly multi-hyphenate, these young artists are breaking all the rules and using social media to do so.

“I was never waiting around for a record label or for industry people to notice me. I was just uploading music,” Waters says. “There’s not really a lot of borders or gatekeepers to stop the creativity, which is awesome.”

Whether learning music production from YouTube or recording albums on their iPhones, Gen Z artists are making things happen on their own terms, and the music industry has taken notice.

“Generation Z is the smartest generation on the planet,” Anokute says. “They understand technology better than any other generation, but more importantly, they have the freedom, opportunity, and ability to do it themselves.” 

Waters is thankful for his success on TikTok but has his sights on the future. He has a song coming out soon with his friend and frequent collaborator Felix Wood. With a few more singles, he hopes to generate enough attention to give a proper rollout to Pity Party, perhaps even as a multimedia project with music videos for each track. 

“I think my music so far has really focused on how I feel internally,” Waters says. “For the next album, I’m trying to move past how I feel and into how my community feels. I just want to speak in a broader sense.”

For now, Waters is riding out quarantine with his family and continuing to make music at home. “The only difference now?” he says with a grin. “I’m getting a lot of phone calls all day.” 

YouTube video

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