“[When Mitski signed to Dead Oceans] we felt like she was very singular, and we were hopeful that things would go well,” says Coombs. “But in the six years or so that we’ve worked with her, our definitions of success have changed. I don’t think any of us were guessing that she’d be where she is now.”
Undoubtedly, this is a uniquely talented artist finally seeing dividends on her artistry and hard work. Still, looking closely at her streaming stats reveals a trend that’s somewhat puzzling.
Mitski released her fifth album Be the Cowboy in August 2018. Things had indeed been building for her — she opened for Lorde on an arena tour earlier that year — and continued to build, with a sold-out tour culminating in four nights at the 1800-capacity Brooklyn Steel that December. But immediately following Cowboy’s release, she was averaging 2 million weekly streams (across all platforms, audio and video) in the U.S., according to MRC Data. That weekly number had dropped a little by the week of September 8th 2019, when she played her last concert to date — the second of two sold-out Central Park shows — and had already deleted all socials until she was to return with new music. Her hiatus stretched into the pandemic, and numbers remained steady.
Then, in the summer of 2020, those numbers began growing. And growing and growing and growing. Mitski wasn’t doing anything herself — no social media presence, no releases, no shows or livestreams, no interviews. But still, her weekly totals kept climbing. This summer and fall, up until the “Working for the Knife” release, they seem to have settled around the 12 million mark — twice the amount she posted even during the Be the Cowboy release week — with highs over 16 million. (There’s also been a spike across her catalog in physical sales, but the conversion is “not one to one by any stretch,” says Coombs.)
“I think it was July or August of 2020, our marketing director at the time and I were chatting, and we just noticed this small uptick in Mitski streams,” says Steven Pardo, Digital Marketing Director at Secretly Group. “And it was kind of before indie music had really started to catch on on TikTok or anywhere else. What came to follow for basically ten months unabated was constant, almost exponential growth of streaming numbers. It went from being a few thousand a day, which was noticeable at the time, up until we had songs peaking at over 700,000 streams a day. I don’t think we’d seen anything like that happen before.”
Here Pardo touches on what is probably the first key to understanding this phenomenon: Since around last summer, coinciding with when those numbers started growing, Mitski has become one of TikTok’s most discussed and beloved artists. As of November 2021, videos tagged with #mitski have collectively reached over 846 million views. Compare this with Mitski’s similarly indie-stratospheric Dead Oceans labelmate Phoebe Bridgers, whose hashtag has 374 million views; even with Lorde, who has 578 million. Her most popular track, “Washing Machine Heart,” is used in over 148,000 videos.
It’s not uncommon in the 2020s for rising stars to have songs break out on TikTok. Sometimes their virality corresponds with dances or memes — Mitski has been at the center of at least one such trend, where creators “run away” from relationship fears or problems set to her 2018 single “Nobody”, her biggest hit pre-TikTok success. But Mitski’s prominence on the platform doesn’t seem to be linked to any one track. Looking at the top search results for ‘Mitski’, her whole discography, across five albums, gets a turn; and far more often than TikTokers are just using Mitski as backing music, they’re discussing her artistry or highlighting lines in any given song that resonate with them.
“When Covid-19 started I don’t think many people that were into indie music were on [TikTok], and over the past year and half-ish we’ve seen those people start to go on platform,” says Pardo. “And as Mitski fans went on platform, I think they were just organically using the music to show interest, and I think the snippets that they were grabbing ended up becoming these pieces that resonated with people. I think in a lot of ways, having such a strong, dedicated fanbase just ended up translating and providing a lot of organic momentum.”
The “very personal” nature of the fan connection to Mitski was immediately notable to Pardo. “The songs that were trending were never around dances or anything of that sort, it was very often people discussing trauma that they’d gone through,” he says. “It started out in more niche teen mental health communities. And I think what always stuck out to us was it seemed like people were really resonating with just the beautiful lyricism of Mitski.”
It’s almost inarguable that Mitski is a remarkable lyricist, one of the standouts of her time. On TikTok, where you only hear a song for a matter of seconds while lyrics can be written on-screen, lyricism is really amplified. (It’s also worth mentioning the Twitter page, @mitskilyricsbot, which compiles her lyrics in random small snippets. It has 107.4K followers, and each tweet is usually met with their feverish emotional reactions.) While her lyrics broadly tend to explore universal feelings of romantic love and loss, they also more subtly capture themes of mental illness and trauma, of race and cultural identity, and of sexuality and gender roles — a blend that places her somewhat uniquely as someone with whom a lot of young TikTok users identify. She’s hailed as an icon in LGBT communities, “cottagecore” communities, even anime communities, where her music is often used as a backing for fan videos.
It’s perhaps the fact that Mitski’s music resonates so deeply with users on that emotional level that leads them to carry this TikTok virality onto music streaming platforms “It’s still relatively small numbers when you look in the pop space for TikTok — but the streaming conversion has been exceptional at every point in time,” Pardo explains. “[From] the people that do find her on TikTok, we tend to see a really high rate of streams per listener.”
“It feels larger than a viral moment, as interest in Mitski overall has grown over the past few years. We often see tracks blow up overnight, but in this case it feels like Mitski as a fully formed artist is blowing up,” says John Stein, Head of US & CA Editorial at Spotify. For viral TikTok artists, that’s rare; a Rolling Stone article from last year analyzes the difficulty of transferring viral success to the rest of an artists’ catalog. Yet according to streaming data from October 2021, eleven of Mitski’s songs saw more than 10 million streams this year; that includes three (“Strawberry Blond”, “I Want You” and “Class of 2013”) from her 2013 album Retired From Sad, New Career In Business, self-released before she was well-known even in indie circles.
Laura Ohls, Spotify’s Senior Editor for Folk and AAA, says, “Mitski has always maintained a level of intention, vulnerability, and guttural honesty in all of her work. It’s these traits that I think differentiate her viral success from other artists’ in the market.”
“It comes down to the songs, in my opinion,” confirms Coombs. “It really does come down to Mitski’s songwriting, and her songcraft, and her recording abilities. I know that’s pretty obvious, but while it’s obvious, it’s also relatively rare. She’s creating songs that people connect with so deeply that they want to listen to them back to back, multiple times a day. I don’t think you should take that for granted.”
The teams at Secretly Group and at Spotify have done what they can in playlisting and promotional pushes to amplify the organic streaming success. At the end of 2019, Spotify’s editorial team named “Your Best American Girl” as the best indie track of the 2010s (“Nobody” is at No. 80 too). You’ll see her in places like Spotify’s Ultimate Indie, Essential Indie and Lorem; Apple Music’s Indie Anthems, Indie Folk and Catching Feelings. Her rise on TikTok has her popping up a lot in the Spotify Viral Hits playlist, too. Stein says that with a broader audience comes the opportunity to look outside of the singer-songwriter’s core indie/alt audience and into more pop-oriented playlists — but, as Pardo points out, that isn’t an easy path with an artist as unconventional as Mitski.
“I think one of the things that we’ve run into with Mitski is the songs are sonically pretty unique for the amount of streams that they’re getting,” he says. “We’re doing pop numbers for songs that don’t have a traditional verse-chorus structure. So it’s been an interesting thing for everyone to figure out — how do you place these songs that don’t fit into the expectations [for pop music] that exist throughout the industry, when we have numbers that I think within the vertical of music we exist in are easily in the top 1% or 0.5%?”
That may speak to a shift caused by TikTok that the traditional industry hasn’t yet caught up with; the way it opens young pop fans’ ears to less accessible, more challenging artists and sounds, by encouraging discovery and providing fan spaces within the same platform. “I think [TikTok] took songs that already had that emotional connection and just evangelized them in a way that wouldn’t be possible with traditional industry levers,” says Pardo. “It’s really democratized [music discovery] in a way that I don’t see being possible otherwise.” Spotify caters to this on some level with “genreless” playlists like Lorem and Pollen, designed to “reflect culture” instead of sonics; but for an artist in Mitski’s position — more the leader of a large cult following than a major player in the larger pop culture — her own Spotify page likely works harder for her than any playlisting infrastructure.
“Working for the Knife,” released on October 5th, was Mitski’s first major single since 2018. It was in the Spotify US Daily Top 50 for the first two days of its release — a near-unheard-of debut for a new indie rock song — and the YouTube premiere for its video saw 66,400 people watching at once, Pardo says. “The most people we’d had concurrently at a premiere [before that] was I think around 11,000 for the Big Red Machine/Taylor Swift song “Renegade” [released via Secretly Group label Jagjaguwar]. So It just pretty squarely blew our expectations of what was possible.”
The same day, Mitski announced North American and UK/EU tours for February through April, almost all dates of which sold out on the day of sale. Rooms throughout the U.K. and Europe were upgraded; most of those sold out immediately too. “We knew it was gonna be very strong, [but] my mind was blown at how quick the entirety of the tour went,” says Coombs.
Seeing the between-cycle success convert to such immediate and fervent support for new music is something of an impetus for Dead Oceans. “It changes the nature of the conversations we have,” says Coombs. “[There are] a lot of internal meetings. We’re making sure that every next step we take is in line with how Mitski wants to grow, and what’s vital to her. Right now we’re so in the trenches, taking it day by day.”
Handling an unprecedented rise to success is by nature challenging, but Dead Oceans — with whom Mitski plans to remain “for the foreseeable future”, says Coombs — stay the course by prioritizing Mitski’s artistry. “We’re very fortunate right now to be able to talk about Mitski, whose streaming is growing and tickets are growing, and that of course is one way to measure success,” says Coombs. “But at the end of the day, we’re doing our best work when we’re treating Mitski’s music with care.”