With over 1.5 billion total downloads, TikTok has become an undeniable face of the internet and a surprisingly monumental platform for new artists.
Aubrey Key, a musician from Jonesville, South Carolina, has seen his TikToks garner thousands of views, with the most popular reaching over 750,000 views.
In October 2020, he put up a series of “tongue-in-cheek” promotional videos that are titled some variant of “day 3 waiting on my songs to blow up so I don’t have to work at circle K anymore.” His melodic, alternative songs accompany a video of Key wearing his classical Brutus frames and a Circle K collared shirt.
Being a smaller artist from a very small town in South Carolina, these videos were a jumpstart for his music. Key lives in Jonesville, a town near Spartanburg with a population of around 900 people as of 2017, which limits the audiences one can reach.
Candice Turner, Key's friend who is also responsible for much of his merch and album artwork, said they were with him when he realized his videos were blowing up.
“When the streams came in, that's when it really hit him," Turner said. "He was on the verge of tears. It was very sweet. And he’s not an emotional man. And I was like, 'Just be proud of yourself.'"
Though he has gained more of a following today, Key has been writing music since middle school and even carried a ukulele with him every day in high school. He recorded songs with experimental sounds and phases throughout this time, but it wasn't until he found his current sound that his music began to grow a following.
“They know that I make the stuff I make now, but they don't really care about it,” Key said of his high school audience and growing up in his hometown. “It has definitely made me focus more on the internet because there’s barely any venues that aren’t 30 minutes away.”
Although TikTok hasn’t dramatically changed Key’s life, it has increased the popularity of his music on streaming services, he said.
Key still works at his job at Circle K, but he is just as committed to the music. A verified artist on Spotify, he now has 36,024 monthly listeners. In 2020, his streams reached over 205,300, had 52,300 listeners and reached over 88 countries with his music. He has also been talked about on a local radio station's "Battle of the Bands" and has performed at a few local venues, including Pablo, the popular underground music venue within Clemson student housing.
“I am working on stuff right now. So I'm definitely gonna be releasing music. I've always kind of gone full force into it," Key said. "Other than work, that’s all I do. Especially with COVID.”
While COVID-19 closed many potential venues, the pandemic also increased traffic on the internet and gave inspiration and time for one of his popular albums, "Cow." Recorded entirely during quarantine, "Cow" is one of his only pieces with a strong focal point and theme of real-life struggle from a difficult time in the world. It was the "Cow" album demos, all of which were recorded outside, that comprise the audio of these viral TikToks.
His mother, Elizabeth Key, wasn't even familiar with TikTok until his videos took off, but she said she always knew Key had talent.
“He would always enter in the talent shows,” she said. “Once he started singing, you could hear a pin drop in the room. Everybody just got quiet. And he always played songs he wrote ... I knew when he did that, I thought, 'Wow, if he could get up there and do that, I know if he tries, he can really make it somewhere.'”
Correction (Jan. 12, 2021, at 2:52 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced Candice Turner's pronouns. Turner's pronouns are they/them.