In March, when the first lockdown hit, Cat Burns was just joining TikTok. Nine months later, she has over 680,000 followers: a seismic haul which ultimately led to her being signed by RCA Records, making her a label mate of Mark Ronson, Miley Cyrus and Zayn.
“I think at 100,000 I thought, ‘oh wow,’” Cat tells HuffPost UK. “Then when I hit 500,000 I thought ‘oh, I’ve actually amassed a following. This is mad’. And then I saw the billboard and thought wow, this is really kicking in, I did this in such a short space of time.’”
In lockdown, Cat’s face was plastered around central London on giant TikTok promotions, including at Piccadilly Circus, a signifier of her fame spiralling upwards. Of course, she made a TikTok about it.
And why wouldn’t she? The app is close to the 20-year-old’s heart. Without it, she tells HuffPost UK, she wouldn’t be signed to a major label and have recently released her first single, Go.
That said, Cat insists major labels are still only just figuring out how to work with TikTok stars like herself.
“I think labels are still trying to understand TikTok, which is why they wanted to work with me,” Cat tells us.
In short, label execs simply couldn’t understand how Cat had gained such a huge following without any help. “They were just like, ‘how did you manage to do that?’ And then ‘how can we use that to help our other artists also do that?’”
Quite easily, according to TikTok: app information insists artists can reach large audiences without already having a following, or a successful video to their name. “Neither follower count nor whether the account has had previous high-performing videos are direct factors in the recommendation system,” they explain in a blog post.
Essentially this means anyone could potentially ‘make it’ based on purely having high quality content and no followers at all.
Everyone’s kind of trying to figure out how I’ve managed to finesse the system.
So naturally, labels are trying to figure out how to help their artists rake in some of the audience figures Cat has carefully amassed by putting out what she calls “authentic, organic” content.
But she is the first to admit that it’s easier said than done and not as straightforward as it may seem.
“There’s definitely still a mystery, the algorithm has to like you basically,” she ponders. “Everyone’s kind of trying to figure out how I’ve managed to finesse the system.”
Finesse she did, and Go has crossed over to other platforms - it currently has over 130,000 plays on YouTube.
Cat says TikTok fame has translated IRL too: she’s often noticed out and about in London as the app becomes more and more mainstream. “If I’d go out with my friends there’d be someone that stared at me and asked, ’are you that girl from TikTok? Can I get a picture?” she says.
Being recognised was not on the cards prior to TikTok: the Londoner had met with labels in the years before her recent ascent but was met with rejections.
“Obviously what I was trying to do as a young Black female playing the guitar and doing pop music was not really seen in the mainstream music world, so to a lot of people, they don’t know it, and they’re like, ‘it’s not gonna work, it’s not gonna sell,’” she remembers.
“So I kind of had to prove that it would and I kind of unknowingly did that with TikTok.”
Now she has her following, Cat hopes to use her platform to engage more with the queer Black community particularly, and commends how the app throws up suggestions for genres and sounds labels may reject for not fitting an obvious template.
“I like to follow other Black creators because that is something that needs to be uplifted on the app, especially Black female creators,” she reflects. “In terms of Black British female queer spaces there are loads on TikTok, there’s a massive community but I’ve yet to meet them [in real life].”
The app, she says, is rife with musical diversity - the type labels could take note of. “I was scrolling and this Black rock band, three girls, had said they’d really struggled going down the major route, and they posted their own stuff, shared it on TikTok and loads of people started supporting them.
“It opened up a discussion about why as Black people we feel like we can’t do other genres outside of R‘n’B or rap - they kind of sparked a conversation.”
Cat’s music is nowhere near either genre: she writes gentle melodic pop songs with surprisingly jaunty lyrics. In Go, about an ex who cheated on her, she warns: “Pack up your bags and go,” with all the listlessness of Lily Allen’s Fuck You.
Sonically, it’s a charm offensive but lyrically wrapped in a strong moral message about transparency in relationships. Lily, it turns out, was an inspiration, as were artists India Arie, Tori Kelly and Alessia Cara.
I try and have the lyrics and melody juxtaposed so that it’s heartbreak, but it’s quite fun.”Cat Burns
“I’ve always loved Lily,” says Cat. “I love the social commentary type of style she’s always had, and just her Britishness which I always wanted to do with my songs. I wanted to make sure I sing in my accent... I try and have the lyrics and melody juxtaposed so that it’s heartbreak, but it’s quite fun.”
“I have other songs which are quite deep and quite sad, but the melody and the beat is fun, so it’s putting a positive spin on something that might not be very happy.”
This positivity extends further, beyond her music, into a worldview that is clearly resonating with her hundreds of thousands of social media fans, some of which say in comments under her videos that they are learning to play the guitar and write music since they have discovered her. There’s the sense that she is clearly an addictive person to be around in the digital sphere, especially during a pandemic.
“I’m not really a serious person,” Cat concludes. “Even when I’m talking about serious things there’s always some light to it, because I think we should always see some light in something that is dark.”