This success seems both calculated and hilariously accidental. In the intro to the song he offhandedly shouts out the flashy East London Afrobeats group NSG; not long after its release, he was touring Britain as the group’s opening act. He’s taking meetings and other “bits and bobs,” Austin said, and carefully planning a second single with a record label. He is now 19.
In 2016, Billie Eilish, then 13, posted the song Ocean Eyes on her SoundCloud and went to bed. She woke up to see it had accumulated thousands of plays overnight. She is now one of the biggest pop stars alive.
The 16-year-old rapper Bhad Bhabie has built her career off a catchphrase-minting Dr. Phil appearance. The 13-year-old country singer Mason Ramsey has capitalised well off a recorded Walmart yodeling session. Their sudden, culture-saturating music moments would have been impossible before SoundCloud, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Now the music industry, social media and the influence industry at large are racing to adapt for, and borrow from, such overnight success stories.
Tom Austin — or Niko B, for that matter, as he’s now calling himself, possibly to avoid litigation — is nowhere near as well known as Bhad Bhabie or Billie Eilish. His success, to date, is very much niche. But he is at a crossroads each saw for themselves. He made a song. It did bits. What’s next?
A decade ago, instant virality could be a curse. Rebecca Black was 13 in 2011 when Friday— written for her in exchange for $US4000 of her mother’s money — exploded.
“It took me years to get healed,” she said in a recent interview. “When you’re 13 nobody can explain to you how mentally extreme everything is.”
Back then she had vague dreams of Broadway, but no real career plan. In the years after Friday, she fended off all kinds of cynical business entreaties.
Now at 22, she has built a team around her that she trusts. And she’s back making music: Sweetheart, her latest release, is available on all streaming platforms. She’s also talking about her experience and getting very positive reactions.
“I had to figure out the long and hard way that nobody can give you this career,” Black said. “I had to do it in my own way.”
In the years since Friday, it’s possible audiences have become less judgmental.
While there’s still a bit of stigma associated with sudden virality, especially when it feels easily won, maybe we understand now that tunes can come from anywhere. Maybe we got tired of getting upset.
Or maybe the latest generation got better at being ready. In the end, Bhad Bhabie has bangers. Mason Ramsey is a legitimate country radio presence. And Lil Nas X’s path to success was, on a much grander scale, similar to Tom Austin’s. He used meme knowledge and a social media base to turn Old Town Road into the longest-running No. 1 single in Billboard history.
Black, as a pioneer, had no idea what was about to hit her. Teenage creators now live knowing that any given thing they post might just change their life.
Austin still lives in the tiny old town of Newport Pagnell, near London, in a humdrum subdivision called the Poets Estate. He and his buddies used to skateboard, break into abandoned places, hang out at the kebab shop.
And the rest of the time —”deffo, 100 per cent”— he was on the internet. At the age of eight or nine, that meant building Lego animations on YouTube. (“Like, a skeleton horse chasing a guy,” Austin said.) By 14 or 15, it was prank calls and mock news-channel stuff. He managed to build up a bit of a YouTube following, then switched his attention to Instagram, where he first posted cool-guy fit pix before having a revelation.
He used to work at a Subway but quit when a Crowd pop-up netted him more money in one weekend than he’d previously made in a month.
“Mate, if I’m just showing you what I’m wearing that’s not gonna get me anywhere,” he said. “This is Instagram. You can’t deep it, meaning ‘take it seriously’.” So he pivoted and started posting stuff like “me looking in the mirror, and in the mirror is this really buff guy,” he said. “It was the right turn to make.”
Around the same time, inspired by the multi-hyphenate talent Tyler, the Creator, he introduced a clothing label called Crowd; he now sells to customers as far away as Dubai. He used to work at a Subway but quit when a Crowd pop-up netted him more money in one weekend than he’d previously made in a month.
As much as anything, Mary Berry was a promo for Crowd. (The video is full of Crowd clothes, and a post-video drop was his best-selling to date.) But it was also born of a generational DIY ethos: Why not do it?
The making and release of Mary Berry was tied — breathlessly, naturally — with Instagram documentation: edited fake DMs from Drake asking to get on the remix, surreal footage of Austin surrounded by a platoon of life-size Mary Berry cardboard cutouts. “I did a video of me throwing a basketball out a window and then the Lakers being like, ‘Yo, we need to sign you right now,'” he said. The first Instagram Story tracking the journey is just captioned “about to become a full-time rapper”.
He also persuaded friends who are big on Instagram, such as @GullyGuyLeo, to post a snippet of the song.
Then he landed the attention of @ImJustBait, an influential British meme account run by a slick operator named Antz. Antz messaged Austin, saying, “Yo, you’re jokes.” Now Austin is signed to Antz’s imprint, WEAREBLK, an entity created specifically to avoid the pattern of established labels profiting off viral successes they had no hand in creating.
So Austin is now officially, and accidentally but not accidentally, an independent musician. At an appearance at the taste-making Boiler Room Festival, he heard people sing his lyrics back to him for the first time. His tour with NSG took him to London and Birmingham and Manchester alongside “mad big artists”.
“I felt so bad because all these artists put in so much time and I’m just like, ‘What is going on?'” he said. The juvenilia-fuelled song made the rounds and even got back to his grandmother. (He said she texted him about one of the more anatomically graphic lyrics.)
Next up, hopefully, is some money. “My dad’s a builder and he doesn’t work right now, which is tough,” Austin said. “And my mum’s a teacher in a special needs school. So pay off my parents’ debt, that’s the very first goal. And after that it’s like — whatever. Literally tomorrow I could try beatboxing, and then, a year from now I could be a really famous beatboxer. Anything I want to do, I’ll just do it. Cause there’s no reason for me not to do it.“
New York Times