RAYE started 2023 with a bang earlier this month by bagging her first-ever UK Number One single. ‘Escapism’, which features 070 Shake and hooks about “running away from reality as fast as you possibly can”, made a steady climb up the charts following its initial release in October; its gradual rise being made possible by social media-made remixes of the track. Multiple quick-paced versions of ‘Escapism’ have been doing the rounds on TikTok since its release and soundtracking over 850,000 fan-made videos, spanning from cleaning tutorials to “get ready with me” confessionals. The official “Sped Up” iteration of the track, released in November, has also grabbed over 47 million streams on Spotify, making for a combined 170 million streams of ‘Escapism’ — massive numbers for a proudly independent artist who has recognised and utilised the creativity of her fans, going on to then reap the rewards from the type of organic marketing that even huge record labels can’t buy.
RAYE’s ode to hedonism is just the latest in a growing list of songs that are enjoying widespread chart and streaming success following the popularity of their subsequent fan-made remixes. Last year, Steve Lacy’s ‘Bad Habit’ and Thundercat’s ‘Them Changes’ both received separate “Sped Up” releases after they each went viral on TikTok, with the former eventually making it to the very top of the US Billboard singles chart in October. This type of sped-up edit has been coined “nightcore” after the Norwegian DJ duo who were first credited with introducing the sub-genre back in 2010, when they started creating high-octane dance music by speeding up the tempo and shifting up the vocal pitch of existing tracks.
But despite online creators, social media sites and even labels feeling the positive impact of these quick remixes, there are still questions about what the success of these “Sped Up” songs say about the current state of online listening habits and ownership of music, as well as whether fan-created remixes will ultimately have a positive impact on the industry as a whole. It’s also worth clarifying at this point: what is the big appeal of sped-up tunes?
“As our world changes and evolves, so does music,” producer, performer and comedian Oliver Tree tells NME. “The music that was the soundtrack of the youth in the ‘60s isn’t going to connect with the youth of 2023 in the same way. They are living entirely different lives in an entirely different world, during an entirely different point in history.”
Tree’s nightcore track ‘Miss You’ took over the dance charts last year thanks to both fan-made and official versions of the song being added to social media sites. He believes that the way that younger generations are consuming both music and media explains why they’re so into high-speed music. “The current state of living in a digital society, with the advent of social media and online dating, is that we’re all quickly swiping to see what’s better,” he says. “This leaves us moving at an incredibly fast pace. Music is a mirror of humanity, so no one should be surprised that sped-up music has become popular when you look at the speed in which we’re living.”
Making music that reflects this fast-paced style of living hasn’t come without its controversy, however. In October, two versions of ‘Miss You’ peaked in popularity: one by an up-and-coming German producer called Southstar, the other by Tree and DJ Robin Schulz. Both tracks share the same name, arrangements, run time and lyrics from Tree’s sombre 2020 hit ‘Jerk’, but while Southstar’s version dropped first, it was ultimately unauthorised (according to Billboard). Posting on Instagram following the official release of ‘Miss You’, Southstar alleged that “Schulz stole my song”. However, Atlantic Records, who own the rights to ‘Jerk’, said in a statement that Southstar was in the wrong because he “remixed ‘Jerk’ without permission, and then released a version with re-recorded vocals to avoid fully compensating Oliver Tree and his label”.
In the end, the official version of ‘Miss You’ eclipsed Southstar’s version on both TikTok and streaming sites. But the duelling tracks highlighted the copyright and intellectual property issues that online creators face when making remixes on TikTok and Instagram. That drive to be inspired and create, however, makes sense according to TikTok, who say that interpolation is integral to the platform.
“At the heart of TikTok is the belief that anyone can take a sound, trend or cultural moment and flip it, remix it and collaborate with others to create something entirely original and entertaining,” Clive Rozario, Global Music Program Manager at TikTok, tells NME. “People riff on ideas, make the most of our effects and use sounds that someone on the other side of the world has put together.” Rozario adds that people don’t just come to TikTok to consume, but also to create: “Fans are empowered to become part of the music-making process, which often manifests in creators experimenting with their own sped-up or slowed-down versions.”
Rozario adds: “Remixes have become instrumental in driving artists’ success on and off TikTok, facilitating the community’s love of creatively experimenting with new sounds. By speeding up songs, fans can transform a track into a dance hit or high-tempo anthem, providing an entirely fresh take on songs from a huge range of genres. In turn, more artists and labels are jumping on these trends, leaning into the ‘catchy’ moments in remixed versions and actively promoting newer versions that take off.”
Though creating remixes to both promote and lead fans back to the original songs and albums has been a mainstay in the music industry for some time, social media has made the process of creating those new versions a fan-first activity.
“We have seen an increasing number of sped-up and slowed-down remixes take off on TikTok and then become officially released, often helping to drive engagement with the original track and boost it up the charts,” Rozario explains.
Jovynn is one of the creators who is helping artists spread their sounds all over social media. She was an online content creator long before she became a famous TikTok DJ, cutting her teeth by sharing dance trends, posting memes and observing the types of sounds that went viral on the app. It was during the pandemic, however, that she decided to buy her own turntables and take the “escape” she found in remixing tracks seriously by creating the music she wanted to hear.
“When I was a creator I would struggle to find sounds to make a video to,” Jovynn says. “Then when I was a DJ, I started to tweak sounds and lyrics to make them what I wanted them to be.” For example, her recent reimagining of SZA’s ‘Kill Bill’ is currently backing the videos of thousands of jilted lovers. “In the [original] lyrics she says, ‘I might kill my ex’. I added a little pause to it to create tension, then I tweak SZA’s voice to say, ‘I will kill my ex’. That just flips the song a whole different way,” she explains. “Every time I create a mash-up or sound edit, I ask myself if other people would like it or use it. There’s so much to it than [just] pitching up the audio and speeding the BPM up.”
Mixing her love of music-making with her social media know-how has helped grow the Las Vegas-based creator’s online following to nearly 11 million across all platforms, and pushed her tracks to go viral multiple times: Jovynn’s recent take on Coldplay’s ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’ soundtracked hundreds of thousands of Reels and TikTok videos as the new year began. In her opinion, it’s social media’s desire for emotive music that is creating the demand for sped-up songs. “Having a sound slowed down or sped up adds more personality,” Jovynn argues. “There are songs that are upbeat that have really sad lyrics and people could really use that a capella to slow it down, making it into a sadder song. It enhances the emotions of the song in a different way.” Another reason why users might love rapid-fire tracks, she says, is their inability to focus on the longer version. “A lot of people on TikTok have really short attention spans,” she adds.
Ashley Hoffman, a digital marketer at Secretly Distribution, works with independent artists to distribute their music to social media platforms. Recently she’s seen an uptick in acts getting proactive instead of reactive when it comes to creating nightcore versions of their songs. “I think more artists will start having those sped-up versions prepared along with their original release, instead of fans releasing them first,” she says. Hoffman, who has worked directly with artists who’ve enjoyed success from TikTok remixes, also has a theory on why users are being drawn to these versions as opposed to the originals. “Those versions sound more emotional and exciting,” she says. “That’s what makes them perfect for social media videos on sites like TikTok, where you stop people from scrolling by grabbing their attention and making them feel something.”
A quick survey of TikTok’s ‘For You’ page provides more evidence that the nightcore trend is still going strong. Currently, an unofficial sped-up version of Miguel’s 2011 hit ‘Sure Thing’ is playing behind almost every other video, as influencers and creators mimic the lyrics: “If you be the cash, I’ll be the rubber band / You be the match, I will be a fuse, boom!” The track is currently attached to 900,000 TikTok clips and counting, and, more than a decade after its initial release, the original version of the song has returned to Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs’ Top 20. According to Rozario, the staying power of sped-up tracks can be traced back to the “endless creativity and collaboration” of the people making up TikTok’s global community — and that momentum won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
“From RAYE’s ‘Escapism’ to Steve Lacy releasing a sped-up version of ‘Bad Habit’, it’s clear that sped-up remixes are here to stay,” he says. “We have no doubt that we’ll continue to see fan remixes take off into 2023.”