switched on pop

Tai Verdes Started From the Bottom (of His Apartment Building, Literally the Basement)

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

TikTok’s influence on music is undeniable, and while major players like J Balvin and Taylor Swift are on there, its algorithm is surprisingly good at exposing new artists: In 2020 the platform bragged that over 70 acts parlayed their popularity on the platform into record deals with major labels. Much of that success was linked to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders — people were stuck at home and musicians couldn’t tour — but a billion monthly users means the social-media platform has industry power. (In 2021, TikTok touted 175 placements on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, more than twice that of last year.)

Take Tai Verdes. While working his day job at the Verizon store last year, Tyler Colon set his mind on using TikTok to launch his musical career. When he released a video in May 2020 in which he sang his song “Stuck in the Middle” from his car, millions saw him for the first time before hearing him all over Top-40 radio and watching him at Lollapalooza. But like so many overnight successes, his big moment came after years of practice and other creative endeavors. Tai Verdes spoke with Switched On Pop’s Charlie Harding about the ways that social media has fundamentally changed music. Here’s a sample of their conversation:

I was living at the cheapest means possible: I had a shelf on the side with cinder blocks and wood, and I had a bed from Craigslist. I didn’t have a space to sing loudly, so I was underneath my building in this underground garage and my car, which was, like, the only quiet space. And I would just sing there. I was in the car in a garage working on these vocal exercises for an hour and a half every single day for like six months.

My brother told me, “You have to hook people in the first two lines.” And that’s what I live by now. Your premise has to be so good that you need to know what’s next. I was going through a toxic relationship. And I was listening to YouTube beats because that’s how I find my music.

The whole vibe of the internet is loud rap beats, a lot of trap beats, a lot of low-fi beats, but there’s not a lot of, like, instrumental indie stuff. I’m on the seventh level of hell of YouTube every single night. I’m going on YouTube searching like “Harry Styles–type beat.” And then after going around I found this beat that had like a thousand views, which is so small. Usually a lot of these beats have 50,000 to 100,000, maybe 1 million, views on them because they’re so good. I knew that I had to have something that wasn’t viewed a lot because I needed it to be mine. I had to buy it eventually if something worked.

I’m listening to it, and I’m like, Okay, first line, first line. And then my toxic ex pops in my head and I’m just like, “you’re a player aren’t you, and I bet you got hoes” and that’s the epitome of starting with a good premise. So then after I said that line, it kind of just fell out of me.

And then on my drive back to my house I listened back and enjoyed it to the point where I was smiling, windows down. And it was amazing. It’s not like I got out of that car thinking, This is the best song. This song is going to go gold. Put it on TikTok the next day.

To be honest, it was so gradual. It was like 10,000, this is cool. Cause I knew 100,000 views wasn’t a lot. I’ve seen people get 5 million views. I’d seen people get 10 million views on TikTok. I was like, Okay, this is a start. I can start with this. Then I posted another video the next day of, like, the pre-chorus, and then it gets another 100,000 views and I’m like, Oh, okay.

It’s crazy, because right when I put it on Spotify, you could see people going from TikTok to Spotify. All the heads of all these companies were calling me at Verizon during my break. I was on with the CEO of Capitol records for 15 minutes and I tell him, “Sorry, we gotta reschedule because I have to sell these phones.”

Everybody works, and that’s something that people relate to. When you see a Justin Bieber, a Camila Cabello, a Shawn Mendes, it’s hard to imagine them at Subway. But it was easy to imagine me at Subway. So people had this baseline of like, Oh, this is a regular guy that has a job in reality. But I kind of wasn’t a regular guy. I had a lot of social-media experience. I had a musical background. I had parents who allowed me to go into music. I had a lot of advantages that I’m super-thankful for. I portrayed myself as this person, which I was at the time, as this new artist that was really trying to get it. I think a lot of people love that type of underdog story.

Another thing that happened after going viral is that my first headline tour sold out. People were wondering, Can somebody that’s on TikTok sell tickets? I was one of the first people that sold tickets in major markets. It was really cool to see not only the internet translate into streaming, but the internet translated into ticket sales.

I ended up doing shows like Lollapalooza. There’s this big video of me at Lollapalooza doing “A-O-K.” And I don’t even sing. The whole crowd is there, like 35,000 people, and they all go “living in this big blue world,” wall of sound. That was my first live performance.

What are we talking next? People are not going to remember TikTok in 20 years. And if they do, it’s not going to be in the same way. I don’t really know what’s going to happen next, to be honest. But I do know this: That’s where the attention is.

This transcript has been edited.

Tai Verdes Started From the Bottom (Literally the Basement)