Maybe you haven’t heard the name Shawn Desman in a long time.
The 40-year-old R&B singer behind hits like Electric, shook Y Get prepared — known to some as Canada’s answer to Justin Timberlake in the early-mid 2000s, an energetic performer and dancer with a smooth, sexy sound — hasn’t released an album since 2013.
His life and fortunes changed this summer when his label urged him to download TikTok. He had been on top of the act at Drake’s OVO All Canadian North Stars show in July, a reunion concert in Toronto that featured the hottest artists from the heyday of Canadian R&B and hip-hop.
More than 64,000 followers later, Desman is back making music, performing to sold-out crowds, and has found a new generation of fans to sing with.
“Let’s call it 2010, when I turned off night like this, Tremble, Electric. If there was social media like now, I feel like it would be a different day for me,” Desman said.
A mature generation of Canadian artists who emerged in the early and mid-2000s, an era without major social media megaphones and digital music streaming services, are now turning to those platforms to make a comeback.
“Social media and streaming have totally changed the game,” Desman said.
TikTok giving a boost
Jully Black knows what she means. Until this year, the Toronto-born R&B veteran behind such hits as seven day fool Y sweat from your forehead he had not released an album since 2015.
She jumped on the TikTok bandwagon in early 2021 and found a connection she didn’t have as a budding artist in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.
“What I can appreciate now is being able to speak directly to fans on social media,” he told CBC News. She has over 26,000 of them following her on TikTok.
CLOCK | How Jully Black and Shawn Desman found new fans on TikTok:
Amidst a series of high-profile performances in 2022 where he sang with his contemporaries and successors alike, Black released a new album, Three rocks and a slingin September.
As he racks up listens on Spotify, he says streaming feels different compared to the gesture of buying physical media.
“When you were selling a CD, a real $10 CD, a $15 CD, it was something else. Because you knew that person was going to the store, they really wanted that song, they really wanted that album,” he said.
While TikTok is becoming a popular choice for older musicians who want to rediscover their audiences, it’s also an accessible launch pad for today’s generation of new artists who don’t have a traditional entry into the music industry.
It’s a packed arena, not necessarily a problem for Black when she was one of the few women in Canada’s R&B and soul scene in the 2000s, she said.
“It’s crowded; don’t kid yourself. Every day, new music, new music, new music. So how do you quiet the noise, stand out from the crowd?” Black added.
What I can appreciate now is being able to speak directly to fans on social media.
Shannon Burns, iHeartRadio entertainment correspondent and Virgin Radio host, noted that a crop of older artists are joining TikTok, filling a demand for nostalgia that she says began during the pandemic.
“We’re reminded that these people are still out there and they exist, and I think artists are reminded that a lot of their fans are still out there,” he said.
Nelly Furtado, born in Victoria, has an account; Nickelback also has a presence; and BC rockers Mother Mother became a TikTok sensation in 2020 when their music went viral on the app, leading to a spike in streams on Apple Music and Spotify.
Even MuchMusic, the beloved channel that existed as a showcase for Canadian artists and music in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, was revived in 2021 as a “digital-first” entity on TikTok. He has two million followers as of October 26.
“There are also a lot of people who remember the music and get excited about it,” Burns said. “They have all these nostalgic memories that come back.”
Black agreed: “A song, a tone, a texture, a timbre can remind you of a different era.”
Streaming services help reach global audiences
It’s been a whirlwind few months for Desman, who was inspired to return to a recording studio after a pep talk from one of the world’s most famous artists.
As the R&B artist tells it, Drake took him aside after his OVO performance to ask him some simple questions: What are you doing? Why don’t you make music?
“That really hit me. I was like, man, life happens. I have three kids. I’m busy being a dad and I lost the love of music for a while,” he recalled.
“And he’s like, ‘No, no, no, delete all that. Shawn Desman needs to get back to making music.'” And I can honestly say Drake changed my life that night,” Desman said. “He really did.”
CLOCK | How Drake inspired Shawn Desman to make music again:
The domino effect was immediate, he added. Her phone rang nonstop; he received calls from digital streaming services, asking when he would release more music.
Acting landed him on TikTok, which he calls “a full-time job.” Within a month on the app, he had reached 50,000 followers and people were approaching him on the street.
But they didn’t recognize him from his early dance-heavy albums or music videos: they had only seen him on his algorithmic “discovery” page on the app.
“At first, I was like, no, don’t do it. I don’t have time. I can’t do it,” he said. Now, he regularly posts videos of himself dancing with his seven-year-old daughter, or quizzing fans with trivia about his career, or promoting his new song, Maniac.
“When I was putting out records, you had to go to the store, buy the album,” he said. “Now everyone around the world, the day the music comes out, they can listen to it. It doesn’t matter where they are.”
Desman has more than 165,000 monthly listeners on Spotify (Drake, for reference, has around 60 million). His first songs, like the ones from 2002 shook – are some of his most popular, with more than two million views.
The impact is not lost on the artist, who was dropped by his label, Universal Music Canada, in 2015. After an uphill battle of challenges, he is back making music and has never been happier.
“Just think of the reach that artists coming out in the early 2000s, mid-2000s would have if we had all these platforms,” he said.
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