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The Trending Sound to Billboard Pipeline
Mikhaela Jennings (@khaenotbae) on how her original trending sound spawned copycat sounds, one bad billboard, and lots of cease and desists.
A few weeks ago, in a mindless FYP scroll, I came across a TikTok from @khaenotbae. You might recognize her voice from trending sounds like “the girls that get it, get it” and “cause I know you girls like to tussle”. The video was her calling attention to a billboard for Bloom Nutrition posted by founder Mari Llewellyn. The billboard read “The girls that get it, get it”, a direct reference to a sound that had been trending on TikTok that Mikhaela Jennings (@khaenotbae) created. A sound that Mikhaela had even trademarked. But that didn’t stop Bloom Nutrition from turning it into an ad.
Ever since brands started experimenting on TikTok, there has been legal murkiness around trending sounds and songs. While brands don’t have access to the music library on TikTok, but they do have the ability to technically use all creator-made sounds. Some of the most talked about brands on TikTok (ones that the platform itself points to as best in class) use trending sounds and songs that likely require their legal teams to look the other way. Plus, with the speed at which a TikTok sound turns into general internet speak, we’re seeing brands type out these quotes and sounds on platforms like Twitter with zero crediting. This is a lot like what happened with the lack of dance crediting on TikTok a year or so ago and we are now seeing it happen again, but on the brand side. Historically, it’s often sounds and trends from Black creators that are being taken without credit or compensation.
While it’s (hopefully) pretty straightforward to not take a quote from a trending sound and put it on a billboard without compensation, it gets a little trickier when you’re staying within the app. Most social managers aren’t aligned on how exactly to deal with trending sounds. I personally would love to see some solutions that come specifically from the platform itself. Maybe it’s a way for brands to pay creators directly, through the app, for sound usage. Or a place where you can officially and properly credit a creator on a video so that all trending sounds can be attributed back to the original source. Maybe creators can turn off the ability for brands or business accounts to use their sound. Or an algorithm that doesn’t reward using the same sound over and over and over again. It’s something every person in social and marketing should be thinking about right now.
For this week’s newsletter, I spoke with Mikhaela to get her perspective as someone who has had lots of brands use her sounds. She spoke with me about the feeling of having a sound go viral, how she views brands that don’t credit her, and ultimately how she’s taking back control of her voice.
Rachel Karten: To start, can you just tell me a little bit about yourself? What do you do and how would you describe your TikTok?
Mikhaela Jennings: I'm in my mid twenties, I'm an esthetician, and I'm also an author. I’d describe my TikTok as just an escape where I get to do what I want to do and say what I want to say.
MJ: At first, it was kinda like, oh, this is funny. Then it was a bit surreal. I was seeing celebrities and famous people using the sounds, which was kind of weird. I guess I was supposed to be more grateful, but it really just felt odd.
RK: Was there a moment when you really noticed brands using the sounds?
MJ: Oh yeah, definitely. Especially on Twitter, I’d see brands type out the sound and not give credit. It’d be huge corporations and they basically refused to do the work to properly credit the sound. I felt like they knew they could do a little digging or research to credit, but they didn’t care.
RK: A year or so ago there was a lot of controversy with popular dances and crediting the dance creator. And yet I feel like with trending sounds, it really feels detached from the original creator. Do you feel like there's a process that should happen if a brand wants to use the sound that's trending?
MJ: I guess it’s a respect thing. I feel like brands don't feel like we deserve respect because we’re just TikTokers or I’m just some regular girl sitting in her bed. But brands paid the girl who stole my sound. Why couldn’t they do the same thing with me?
RK: Wait, who stole your sound?
MJ: Not to get deep into it, but she was a white girl and she said she was making a version of my sound that white girls could use. My sound said “I literally told you chitterlings eating b*tches the girls that get it, get it and the girls that don’t, don’t. Obviously, you don’t get it cause you’re not that girl.” But instead of cutting my sound, which you can do on TikTok, she made her own version of it and profited off of it. Her version now has 72k videos associated with it. She did pin a comment crediting me but the brands still used her sound and she’s the one now associated with it.
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RK: Oh wow. And speaking of profiting off the sound, tell me about the billboard ad that used your quote. What was your reaction?
MJ: I was just like, again? Really?
What frustrates me is everyone is always talking about trademarking, copywriting, etc your trending sounds. They go on and on about protecting yourself that way. But what people don't realize is I really don't think that's going to stop people from stealing anything. It all goes back to apathy and the apathy that brands have towards creators, and specifically Black creators. Because I did trademark my words and the corporation who did this still didn’t care.
I’ve been sending cease and desists since last year, but I am tired of doing that. I tried to do it quietly but eventually I was like, let’s see what the public thinks of this. Like, am I really wrong for thinking this is unacceptable? And that’s when I made this video.
RK: And she took down the post right?
MJ: Yeah. She said she's taking down the billboard. Her team emailed me. She never said one word to me, despite her claiming she spoke with me.
RK: I feel like TikTok as an app creates trends and moments quicker than any other social app. These sayings, songs, and trends quickly just become seen as general pop culture and detached from the source. And I’ve seen people make an argument “well, it’s a common phrase”—but it wouldn’t be if, for example, you had never made a TikTok saying “the girls that get it, get it”. How do you feel when people make arguments like that?
MJ: Exactly. I feel like brands think we should be beholden to them, or grateful to them for using the sound. But that’s not the case. Why should I care about this brand or the person behind it? She doesn’t care about me.
RK: Have you made any money from some of your trending sounds?
MJ: Complex wrote an article about me and that really gave me credit on a big scale. In the article it showed brands using my sound, not to call them out but just to show them using it. But a couple of those brands reached out after and compensated me. Also some of the brands I sent cease and desist letters to didn’t want to take their videos down so they compensated me.
RK: Has what’s happened with your trending sounds made you hesitant to keep contributing to the platform?
MJ: I was a little hesitant at first because sometimes I feel like stopping posting is the only way I can take back control of my voice. But ultimately I feel like I can still enjoy the app while also making sure I get the credit I deserve.
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