If you Google “tiktok music industry,” you’ll find articles dating back to 2019 about how the Gen Z-dominated social network is “changing,” “impacting,” “transforming,” or even “taking over” the the music world.
Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” are prime examples of TikTok’s 689 million users collectively dictating mainstream hits, but indie-psych act Dr. Dog (“Where’d All the Time Go?”) and comic Bo Burnham (“Bezos I”) have blown up as well. The kids are even breathing viral life into ancient songs by Kate Bush (“Babooshka”) and Fleetwood Mac (“Dreams”).
An old song from the obscure, locally loved, and very broken up band Hot Freaks just experienced that viral alchemy. “Puppy Princess,” the Minneapolis indie-pop group’s shimmering, disco-indebted 2013 track, became a TikTok hit earlier this month.
The band is as surprised as anyone.
“Someone messaged me on Instagram and told me it was going viral, and I thought that was cool,” says singer Leo Vondracek. “I looked and there were, like, a couple thousand videos at that time, but it’s grown exponentially since then.”
He’s not exaggerating. As of Friday, the TikTok hashtag #puppyprincess produces 8.4 million hits—the sweet tale of puppy love soundtracks lots of “angsty teen videos,” including back-to-school outfit montages and collections of anime drawings, the band tells us. The infectious track now boasts 6.4 million plays on Spotify; a YouTube lyric video, posted by the band amid this current whirlwind, has attracted 230,000-plus views.
“This song makes me really want to be in a cliché cute relationship with a cafe boy,” one YouTuber commented.
“The singer’s voice just gives so much gender envy,” adds another.
The members of Hot Freaks, who split amicably in 2015, scrambled to re-assemble. Vondracek had relocated to L.A. and Darin Dahlmeier had moved to New York City, but now they’re rejoining bandmates Sarah Darnall, Cody Brown, and Celeste Heule to seize on the momentum. And the business opportunities.
As “Puppy Princess” ascended the TikTok algorithm, messages began flooding Hot Freaks’s long-dormant Facebook account. The band thought they were being catfished.
“I remember taking a screenshot of the first message and texting it to everyone being like, ‘Ha ha this is hilarious,'” Darnall says. “But then the messages kept coming in…”
The flurry of attention from major labels like Elektra, Atlantic, Capitol, and UMG was indeed legit, and Hot Freaks are currently finalizing a “substantial” one-song record deal for “Puppy Princess.”
“Record labels and artist teams recognize TikTok as one of the most powerful promotional tools in the business,” Ole Obermann, TikTok’s global head of music, recently told NME. At this point, big business manipulates much of the formula, as this Bloomberg piece illustrates, making the purely organic magic of Hot Freaks going viral even more endearing.
The whole saga has been slightly confusing for a TikTok-illiterate band of millennials.
“I made us a TikTok account because the label said it would be a good idea,” Darnall says. “I am the youngest member at 32, so it kind of made sense for me to do it… but I’m also a boomer and horrible with technology so no clue if I did a good job or not.”
Interestingly, Hot Freaks had started chatting about reunion shows just before going viral. Now it’s a sure thing. This past week the band recorded their first-ever music video for, of course, “Puppy Princess.”
“I keep thinking about KG at the 2008 NBA Finals, yelling ‘Anything is possible! Anything is possible!'” Darnall says with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, this is all crazy and I feel really grateful that we have been given this opportunity. We just wanted to get back together to play music again and have some fun, so all of the TikTok stuff and label stuff is a giant cherry on the top.”
Update (12/9/21): That Hot Freaks video just dropped.