How TikTok led Canadian R&B performers Shawn Desman and Jully Black to a new generation of fans
Older artists are finding new audiences on the short-form video platform
Maybe you haven't heard the name Shawn Desman in a while.
The 40-year-old R&B crooner behind hits like Electric, Shook and Get Ready — known to some as Canada's answer to Justin Timberlake in the early and mid-2000s, an energetic performer and dancer with a smooth, sexy sound — hasn't released an album since 2013.
His life and luck changed this summer when his label urged him to download TikTok. He'd been riding the high of performing at Drake's OVO All Canadian North Stars show in July, a reunion concert in Toronto that featured the most popular artists from the heyday of Canadian R&B and hip-hop.
Over 64,000 followers later, Desman is making music again, performing to sold-out crowds — and he's found a new generation of fans to sing with.
"Let's just call it 2010, when I put out Night Like This, Shiver, Electric. If there was social media the way it is now, I feel like it would be a different day for me," Desman said.
A matured generation of Canadian artists who came up during the early and mid-2000s — an era without major social media megaphones and without digital music streaming services — are now turning to those platforms to stage a comeback.
"Social media and streaming has totally changed the game," Desman said.
TikTok giving a boost
Jully Black knows what he means. Until this year, the Toronto-born R&B veteran behind hits like Seven Day Fool and Sweat of Your Brow hadn't released an album since 2015.
She jumped on the TikTok train in early 2021 — and found a connection she didn't quite have when she was a fledgling artist in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.
"What I can appreciate now is being able to directly speak to the fans on social media," she told CBC News. She has over 26,000 of them following her on TikTok.
WATCH | How Jully Black and Shawn Desman found new fans on TikTok:
Amidst a string of high-profile 2022 performances where she sang with her contemporaries and her successors alike, Black released a new album, Three Rocks and a Slingshot, in September.
As it racks up listens on Spotify, she says streaming feels different compared to the gesture of buying physical media.
"When you would sell a CD, an actual $10 CD, $15 CD, it was a whole other thing. Because you knew that person went to the store, they really wanted that song, they really wanted that album," she said.
While TikTok is becoming a popular choice for older musicians who want to rediscover their audiences, it's also an accessible launching pad for today's crop of new artists who don't have a traditional entryway into the music industry.
It's a jam-packed arena — not necessarily an issue for Black when she was one of few women in Canada's 2000s R&B and soul scene, she said.
"It's crowded; don't get it twisted. Every single day, new music, new music, new music. So how do you quiet the noise, stand out from the crowd?" Black added.
What I can appreciate now is being able to directly speak to the fans on social media.
Shannon Burns, an entertainment correspondent with iHeartRadio and a host on Virgin Radio, noted that a crop of older artists are joining TikTok, meeting a demand for nostalgia that she says began during the pandemic.
"We're being reminded that these people are still out there and exist, and I think the artists are being reminded that a lot of their fans are still out there," she said.
Victoria-born Nelly Furtado has an account; Nickelback has a presence, too; and B.C. rockers Mother Mother became a TikTok sensation in 2020 when their music went viral on the app, leading to a surge in streams on Apple Music and Spotify.
Even MuchMusic, the beloved channel that existed as a showcase for Canadian artists and music in the '80s, '90s and 2000s, was revived in 2021 as a "digital-first" entity on TikTok. It has two million followers as of Oct. 26.
- ListenJully Black on Three Rocks and a Slingshot — her first full-length album in more than a decade
"There's a lot of people, too, who remember the music and they get excited about it," Burns said. "They have all these memories of nostalgia that come back."
Black concurred: "A song, a tone, a texture, a timbre can remind you of a different era."
Streaming services help reach global audiences
It's been a whirlwind few months for Desman, who was inspired to get back into a recording studio after a pep talk from one of the world's most famous artists.
As the R&B artist tells it, Drake pulled him aside after his OVO set to ask him some straightforward questions: What are you doing? Why are you not making music?
"That really hit me. I was just like, man, life happens. I have three kids. I'm busy being a dad and I kind of lost the love of music for a little bit," he recalled.
"And he's like, 'No, no, no, scratch all that. Shawn Desman needs to make music again.' And I can honestly say Drake changed my life that night," Desman said. "He really did."
WATCH | How Drake inspired Shawn Desman to make music again:
The domino effect was immediate, he added. His phone rang off the hook; he received calls from digital streaming services, asking when he'd be releasing more music.
The performance led him to TikTok, which he calls "a full-time job." Within a month on the app, he'd reached 50,000 followers, and people were approaching him on the street.
But they didn't recognize him from his early records or dance-heavy music videos: they'd just seen him on their algorithmic "discover" page on the app.
"In the beginning, I was like, no, not doing it. I don't have time. Can't do it," he said. Now, he regularly posts videos of himself dancing with his seven-year-old daughter, or quizzing fans with trivia about his career, or hyping up his new song, Maniac.
"When I was putting out records, you had to go to the store, buy the album," he said. "Now everybody across the world, the day music comes out, you can hear it. Doesn't matter where you are."
Desman has over 165,000 monthly listeners on Spotify (Drake, for reference, has about 60 million). His earliest tracks — like 2002's Shook — are some of his most popular, with over two million streams.
The impact isn't lost on the artist, who was dropped by his label, Universal Music Canada, in 2015. After an uphill battle of challenges, he's back to making music, and he's never been happier.
"Just think of the reach us artists coming out in the early 2000s, mid-2000s would've had if we had all these platforms," he said.
With files from Eli Glasner and Griffin Jaeger