Sped-Up Songs Are Shaking Up the Music Industry. Could They Replace Originals?
Lady Gaga originally released "Bloody Mary" way back in 2011, but it only cracked the Hot 100 for the first time this January. The revival was due in part to a sped-up remix that careened around TikTok, soundtracking videos of users pairing up the track with an eccentric dance sequence from Wednesday, Netflix's hit Addams Family update.
The surprise success of "Bloody Mary" in altered form presented Matt Kelly, operations manager and on-air personality for WVAQ in Morgantown, West Virginia, with a dilemma. "What version do we play?" he asks.
"The original is 100 beats per minute - so slow, relative to the new version that people are more familiar with," he explains. "The sped-up is 130 bpm, but I hated that it sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks."
So Kelly split the difference by making his own 120-bpm edit to play on the air. "It appeases the ear like it's the sped-up version," he says, "but I kept the pitch correction - so it sounds like Gaga, not Alvin."
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Homemade remixes, often sped-up or slowed-down, have been a hallmark of the TikTok era. In recent months, they've helped rejuvenate years-old songs from Lady Gaga and Miguel and driven swarms of listeners to newer releases from Lizzy McAlpine and Raye. In some ways, the music industry has adapted - it's become common to see artists release official tempo-shifted versions of songs that have started to bubble back up, for example. Streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Music, have playlists dedicated to these releases; SiriusXM launched TikTok Radio, which program director Marie Steinbock envisions as "completely reflective of exactly what is trending on TikTok."
But much remains the same: Even if a sped-up remix is ubiquitous on TikTok, the original version of the track tends to get most of the exposure. There are no sped-up remixes in Today's Top Hits, the most followed playlist on Spotify, for example. And even when labels decide to promote revived songs to radio, they push the original, so that's usually what saturates the airwaves. The Weeknd's "Die For You" topped Billboard's Radio Songs chart in February, more than six years after its release, with the normal-speed version earned the overwhelming majority of its plays.
Can sped-up renditions thrive in the wild, or do they function primarily within the confines of TikTok? Homemade remixes will only become more prevalent in years to come, thanks to platforms that make it so easy to futz with audio. (Meng Ru Kuok, CEO of music technology company BandLab, is fond of saying that they "think everyone is a creator, including fans.") In this environment, will the industry continue to prioritize originals?
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Right now, the dominant school of thought in the music industry is that the sped-up versions are effective... as a conduit to drive listeners back to the version the artist released. "The sped-up versions are more attached to the medium in which people are consuming them than they are the actual song itself," one senior label executive says. Listeners "are discovering a song through the sped-up version, but they're consuming the original."
And even as more acts put out sped-up and slowed-down reworks, there's still a sense that the original version remains the truest reflection of artists' intentions. "That's their art and their creativity - that's what they want the world to hear," says Rich McLaughlin, program director at WFUV and a former executive at Amazon Music. "I'm focused on what the artists want to release to the world. That's what interests me."
That said, McLaughlin continues, "From a radio programming perspective, I want to be open to playing songs that our listeners want to hear. If there's a version of a song that comes out that adds a dimension to the original that's unique and something that I think our listeners are going to like, of course I would be open to playing that."
Some radio stations are already experimenting with playing alternate versions. Josh "Bru" Brubaker, a TikToker (4.5 million followers) and radio personality for Audacy, often plays a mix stitching together songs that are trending on TikTok after his Today's Top 10 countdown. The in-house DJs adjust the tempos to nod to the version that's being incorporated into short video clips.
Kelly has been evaluating songs for WVAQ on a case-by-case basis. While he sped up "Bloody Mary," he prefers to play the original version of Raye's "Escapism," not the faster rendition popular on TikTok. "I think that one loses some of what makes it a great song when it's the sped-up version," he says.
What about Miguel's "Sure Thing"? Originally a hit for the R&B singer in 2011, it returned to the Hot 100 earlier this year after a sped-up remix took off on TikTok and has now climbed to a new peak of No. 28. "That's one where I might gravitate towards the sped-up version if we needed it, because listeners are going to recognize that from TikTok," Kelly says. "I could see making an edit where we can keep the timbre of his voice, what makes Miguel Miguel, but speed it up."
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It's likely that no one is playing more sped-up remixes on the air than SiriusXM's TikTok Radio, which launched in 2021. Steinbock currently has around a dozen uptempo reworks in rotation. "This has been my life lately: A song will trend on TikTok, and it's sped-up," she says. "And then I have to wait and see if the label is going to put out an official version or not."
In some situations - she points to Justine Skye's "Collide" and SZA's "Kill Bill" - "people are consuming both [versions] at kind of the same rate," so she can play the original without fear of alienating listeners. But when it came to The Weeknd's "Die For You" and Mariah Carey's "It's a Wrap," she waited until the artists released official sped-up remixes. "It's kind of a dance," she says. "Is the audience going to recognize it when it's not that TikTok remix?"
The current iteration of remixes - the sped-up and slowed-down versions that can serve as rocket fuel for TikTok trends - is unlikely to be the last one. Ebonie Smith, in-house engineer at Atlantic Records, thinks fan-made remixing is only going to become more sophisticated and widespread in the years to come. Young listeners are "already changing expectations around what is normal to hear," she says, pointing to the popularity of sped-up songs. But "once young people are able to parse out each element of a song, and that becomes somewhat gamified, we're going to see remixing like we've never seen before."
Jessica Powell, CEO and co-founder of AudioShake, an A.I. music software company, expresses a similar sentiment. "We're going to see the same shifts in audio that have happened in video and image," she explains. "There will continue to be really professional uses of tools like Photoshop, but you also have the other end of it - me turning myself into a fish on Snapchat. That's all coming to audio."
If this proves to be the case, it's likely that streaming services and radio stations will have to change their relationship with tempo-shifted remixes, or whatever else young listeners decide sounds good a few years from now. Steinbock will be ready. She recently made room in her rotation for McAlpine's "Ceilings," a love-drunk acoustic ballad. It came out roughly a year ago but exploded recently on TikTok thanks to a high-speed rework.
"We're playing the normal one just because it's so big," she says. But "I'm just waiting for an official sped-up version."