TikTok's Fate Hangs in the Balance. Can Triller Triumph?

Triller is tired of being called a “TikTok rival.” But it’s a fair comparison: both Triller and TikTok are social networks reliant on the sharing of music combined with short-form videos. Both are also wildly popular amongst teenagers (TikTok, with over 2 billion global downloads, is more so; but Triller, with over 250 million, is closing the gap).

Yet in the eyes of Triller’s CEO Mike Lu and co-owner Ryan Kavanaugh, the phrase “TikTok rival” gets the story the wrong way around. The duo point to two documents as evidence: 1. Triller’s 19-page lawsuit, filed in Texas last month, which accuses TikTok and its Chinese parent Bytedance of ripping off technology that Triller’s co-founders patented in 2017, two years after their app launched; and 2. a sign on the wall of Triller’s Los Angeles HQ, which reads, succinctly, “TikTok is for kids.”

Spend any time chatting with Lu and Kavanaugh, and you’re guaranteed to hear a fair few broadsides like this aimed at Bytedance’s app. That goes double right now, with TikTok firmly in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s administration amid geo-political tensions with China — and with Triller benefiting from the uncertainty, seeing its downloads skyrocket and taking the Number One slot on the App Store in 50 markets, including the US and UK. The company also recently announced it’s raising over $200 million to invest into its product and marketing — and to tempt over some of TikTok’s biggest influencers, with cash.

Lu and Kavanaugh spoke with me about Triller’s growth, its legal tussle with TikTok, and how their platform stacks up to the one making headlines alongside Microsoft, Twitter, and the U.S. government.

How does Triller make money and how does that money transfer towards the music industry?
Ryan Kavanaugh: The traditional route that all other social platforms follow is as you scan, you see advertising every so often, and you get paid. We have an offer from a very big company to turn that on. And if we did so tomorrow, it would generate a couple hundred million dollars a year, growing hopefully [into] a couple billion, and we would share that with influencers.

We have not turned on advertising on purpose, because we’ve seen a very unique shift in monetization. When we call an artist, [or] an influencer, they come in, we sit down, and we treat every one of them like a business: ‘What’s your identity; what’s your brand identity?’ Then we go together to the brands, and say, ‘We want to do a two year deal around this artist, around this influencer, and it’s not [traditional] advertising or product placement, but here’s how it will help your product.’ We’re finding a lot of the guys are like, ‘I’m making five times what I made over on TikTok.’

Could we one day turn on advertising and add a couple billion dollars of revenue? Sure. But right now, our numbers are higher than any of our competitors. We’ll be [generating] a couple hundred million dollars and that’s without advertising.

You say you’ve trademarked the phrase “social streaming.” Why?
Kavanaugh: It means when people go on Triller and a song is played, it triggers a stream, which leads to money. We have a deal with Apple Music; it’s an integrated player. So the more people interact, the more artists make money. We have a very close relationship with Apple, but I would say don’t be surprised if you see all of the DSPs becoming partners too.

David Israelite, CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association, recently suggested you’re not fully licensed for the NMPA members’ music. How do you react to that?
Mike Lu: To be honest, I was really surprised to see that from David. We’ve been in constant communication with their team for quite some time. I understand his point, which is it seems a little bit unfair for anyone to not have the NMPA’s blessing in this industry. Our lawyers spoke to him right after that article came out, and we hope to come to an agreement very soon — because we’ve already started working with some of the publishers [who are members of] NMPA. Our goal is to work with all of them.

“We sued TikTok because they stole our IP. It’s as if they ripped our fucking IP, right out of the patent store, copied it and said, ‘That’s cool. Let’s use it.’ And by the way, they’re not the only ones.”

Are current geo-political tensions surrounding TikTok playing on your minds somewhat?
Kavanaugh: It’s not just political tensions. We sued TikTok because they stole our IP. It’s as if they ripped our fucking IP, right out of the patent store, copied it and said, ‘That’s cool. Let’s use it.’ And by the way, they’re not the only ones. There’s others — but we’re going to go one by one. It’s not like we’re the first business that’s ever accused a Chinese company of doing this. [Ed. note: TikTok is yet to comment on Triller’s patent suit.]

Lu: Growth is our target and building a stellar product is always going to be core to the success of Triller. There’s a lot of noise out there, but our team is hyper-focused on the product, improving stability, improving features, and adding new functionality.

How do you respond to the news circus happening in the US around TikTok, Trump, and Microsoft? And the narrative that an entrepreneurial, forward-thinking Chinese company is getting corporately bullied out of America?
Kavanaugh: The first thing would be to talk about the irony; I’ve never seen anything like it. I can’t believe the press hasn’t picked it up. Virtually every major US company is banned from being in China — Google, Facebook, Instagram, you name it. But apparently we’re bullying them by saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to only give you $50 billion to let you be here…’ It is the most ridiculous, double-sided [argument], I can’t even begin.

The second thing is — they stole our IP, and you’re talking about us bullying them? And they’re selling their company on our IP?! And if you really want to go down to the to the final piece of it, Bytedance and TikTok have sat there and said, heads high for the last seven months, ‘We’re not a Chinese company, the Chinese government has nothing to do with us.’ Well, the Chinese government just came out and said, We’re blocking a sale. So, if the Chinese government has nothing to do with you, then how the hell can they block a sale? Sorry, I’m emotional about it. [Ed. note: China’s government hasn’t announced a block of the deal, but Chinese state-run media has called the Microsoft situation ‘open robbery’ and warned of retaliation against the US and Trump.]

What would your reaction be if Microsoft gets this deal through?
Kavanaugh: It’s an impossible deal. From what I understand, the technology of TikTok is located in China. So for Microsoft to acquire it, it needs to transfer that entire protocol, probably millions of lines of code, to the US. There is no possible way that Microsoft could guarantee that whatever Chinese spyware has [allegedly] been embedded into TikTok isn’t still there, even after they transition it — it would take somewhere between two and five years for them to even find it.

The only possible way we see something like this working is if [Microsoft] doesn’t actually buy the app: you buy the goodwill, you buy the name, but you use another app that looks, feels and acts like it. Then you rescan it and call it TikTok, and you tell everybody in the US, ‘Hey, by the way, re-download TikTok,’ after it’s taken off the App Store for an hour. So that what they’re downloading has all the same functionality and the same feel, but was never in China. Microsoft doesn’t have that. There’s very few companies that do have it — and the three that do, other than us, have antitrust issues.

“I don’t know whether that means an IPO one day; I don’t know if it results in an acquisition. But right now, we have tech that will blow the world away, rolling out over the next 30 to 60 days.”

Your press releases often crow about how you’re doing in relation to TikTok. But when brands are antagonistic towards better-known brands, it suggests they’re trying to annoy the target into buying them. Do you see Triller being sold to a big tech company one day? Or IPO’ing?
Kavanaugh: I don’t think we’ve put out dagger press releases; we might have put press releases out pointing that we’re number one, but we haven’t taken any potshots.

We were already growing at a phenomenal rate prior to all this TikTok stuff. More than three months ago, before the ban was being talked about, some of the top TikTok influencers were coming in and saying, ‘We feel a responsibility to get off this app — we’ve done our own research.’ They started to onboard with us, and it’s grown out into hyper-speed. I can tell you, we’ve turned down offers from major tech, because we believe we’re in chapter two of chapter 20.

I don’t know whether that means an IPO one day; I don’t know if it results in an acquisition. But right now, we have tech that will blow the world away, rolling out over the next 30 to 60 days, and that we will continue to roll out. We’re not even near to flexing our muscles where our real strong suit is, which is in the 23 patents we hold for the tech we haven’t launched.

You recently launched Step Up To The Mic, a talent search which promised the winner a record deal and a chance to create a track with Starrah, Murda Beatz, Quavo and Takeoff. Why?
Kavanaugh: If you look at what Triller has always stood for, we’ve actually been responsible for discovering more music talent than any other platform in the world. If you go talk to Maverick, Universal, Roc Nation, they’ll tell you they’ve discovered more talent of off Triller than anywhere else. Little Nas X was discovered on Triller and signed off of Triller.

So the point of Step Up To The Mic was like, we’re already [discovering artists], now let’s make it bigger and bring in our owners, because we are owned by the music community, and turn it into something more formal. There really hasn’t been a break thrown [to artists] like this since American Idol.

You have shareholders like Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, Warner Music Group and Live Nation, plus artists like The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, as well as leading artist managers. Why have you gone down the route of handing over minority ownership stakes to all of these music companies and individuals?
Mike Lu: We always wanted to made sure that we had an identity — why we exist. Social and short-form video, especially now, is a very crowded space. So we wanted to start out being an ally to the industry. We want to help create an ecosystem where everyone can win.

One of your big moments coming up is a pay-per-view exclusive boxing bout between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones. Will we see more of this from you?
Lu: We recently acquired Halogen; a live streaming app with a paywall function. So this is the first of many. Triller hopes to be a destination for high-premium content across sports and music — events that play right into our core demographic. Expect to see a lot more.

What’s your view on so-called TikTok copycats — or should that be Triller copycats — now coming into the market, like Instagram’s Reels and Snapchat’s new music video feature?
Kavanaugh: We have really good partnerships with Snap and with Instagram. Our product allows people not just to post on Triller but also to post on most social platforms. And we think what Snap is doing is just giving their users some more functionality.

We’re close to Instagram, but when you play with Reels, and then you read our case against TikTok, you’ll see that [Instagram] is doing the same exact thing that we’re suing TikTok for.

That chapter is yet to be opened, but it will be soon. It’s just a matter of time.

Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis, and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for Rolling Stone.

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