When Tai Verdes calls to speak with Billboard in late July, it’s from a curb outside of the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, where he’s checking out the scene before playing the festival himself that Friday (July 30). It’s both his first time at the festival — any festival, he says — as either an performer or attendee, and his first gig as a live performer of any kind. So, unsurprisingly, he plans to give it his all: “If I don’t pass out [onstage], I’ll be disappointed with myself.”
The 25-year-old Verdes — who has been grinding to make a name for himself in the music industry since he was trying out (unsuccessfully) for music reality competitions and uploading songs to YouTube under his given name, Tyler Colon — earned the status to make his live debut for a festival audience of thousands in large part due to viral success on TikTok. In 2020, the alt-pop singer-songwriter’s “Stuck in the Middle” took off on the service, ultimately crossing over to streaming, where it’s racked up over 70 million plays on Spotify and led to a deal with Arista in late 2020.
But while countless artists have found early success on TikTok to be unrepeatable, Verdes has already eclipsed his breakthrough hit with this year’s affirmative “A-O-K,” from debut album TV. The song has matched the viral performance of “Middle,” while also scoring radio airplay — it’s reached No. 21 on Billboard’s Pop Songs listing — resulting in it becoming Verdes’ first Billboard Hot 100 hit, where it climbs to a new peak of No. 67 this week. It’s nothing that the self-assured, goal-oriented performer didn’t already have visualized, though: “I have a video on TikTok that says like, ‘I wanna get on Billboard by the end of the summer,’” Verdes recalls.
Below, Billboard talks with the newly minted hitmaker about his debuts both on the charts and onstage, and how he already has his career planned out until the mid-2020s.
How have you gotten ready for first live gig? Have you had rehearsals? Have you put together a band? Do you have any sort of vocal training?
Man, you’re a good guesser! All three of those things. Yo, I just wanted to make sure I was the worst person on stage [when I perform]. I wanted professionals around me, playing my songs in a way that brings them to life. You know? And once I got that done, all I gotta do is basically jump and scream so hard that I pass out, and we good. In the show.
Any big surprises or planned moments for your own show tomorrow?
Mmm… I think I got some moments for everybody. I’m really just excited to see the physical representation of what I’ve been working on for this entire last year and a half. Because everything has been kind of imaginary. All these numbers — who really counts Spotify streams, right? But I do know that I can count the amount of people that have hit me up on Instagram or in any DM and said like, “Hey, ‘A-O-K’ has made a difference in my day,” or like, “This song has brought me out of this moment.” You know? So I just really appreciate that, and I wanna see it happen — like, the physical representation of that.
Were you excited to see “A-O-K” hit the Hot 100 for the first time?
Yeah man… now it’s just about seeing what it does. It kind of has its own life now, because the radio’s pushing it, and everyone is super in on the song. So now it’s just about exposure. We’ll see what happens after that.
Have you heard yourself on the radio yet?
Yeah man! A couple times at random, and a couple times on purpose, but yeah, each time has been wild.
How do you do it on purpose?
My manager will hit me up like, “Oh, the first time that it’ll be added will be around this hour.” And then I’ll like, spend the whole hour on the radio trying to listen to it.
Does it feel good to get that second hit out of the way after “Stuck in the Middle”? So many artists that break big on TikTok, it’s pretty hard for them to get a second hit, let alone one that’s bigger than the first one.
Man, to be honest, like — I have this planned out for the next four years, what’s about to happen. I know the album covers, I know what color they’re gonna be. I know the names of them. I know what tracks are gonna be on the next album. I’m working on the third one. I just want my ideas to be shared. Whatever capacity is great, but I know the plan that’s going to happen. So I’m excited to see that fleshed out.
Were there any lessons that you picked up while you were either on the shows that you were trying out for, or the YouTube recordings that you were uploading — anything you learned that sort of prepared you for this moment?
Just what I didn’t want to do, man. I was an intramural volleyball referee for a corporate association, right? So I would see Jim from accounting yell at me for not having a spike be in, on beach volleyball. So I was doing that. I was slinging phones. I worked at like a premium Asian luxury sunglass brand… I had to stand all day. I know I didn’t want to do any of those things. I worked at a marketing agency — and even though I market now, I didn’t want to work at a marketing agency.
That’s the biggest thing about life — just figuring out what you don’t want to do. And then, it gives you more space to figure out what to do.
You’ve really embraced TikTok as part of your marketing, but a lot of artists have a love/hate relationship with it — they’re grateful for the exposure it gives them, but they don’t necessarily want to come to be associated with it. Do you think that artists have the wrong idea about how to use TikTok to their own advantage?
I think that TikTok is just people sharing things. And that’s a lot of social media. And when you’re on a platform where you can put any piece of content out without touching a single setting, that can be put into a circle that you would never reach with a marketing company or with — maybe even going out into the physical world — that’s exciting to me. And I think finding those pockets of excitement is what I’m going to be chasing moving forward.
How did you come to get hooked up with Arista?
Well s–t, I want to own my s–t! I had calls with people from Atlantic, Warner, they wanted to take my stuff. But this is my s–t. So I want to deal with it my way. It’s my team running the creative, it’s the people around me figuring out what’s going to be in the music videos… I’m writing the treatments, I’m figuring out the songs. This is a very driven direction that is already working, and I just needed some gas behind it. And then Arista was the one who was like, “We totally support this, give you the money and get out of the way.” And I’m super down for that.
Does that mean that you also own your own masters — or is that something you’re looking to do?
No, I already own my own masters. I told you man, I want it. I want it all.
Did you have any ideas already what the next album is gonna be like? Any sort of new directions you’re leaning in, or new vibes you kinda want to bring to it?
Man, if I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise! I mean, honestly I’m just making stuff that I feel good [about]. So any time you hear a Tai Verdes album, it’s just gonna be like, “Oh, there’s Tai Verdes making stuff that makes him feel good.”
I’m just pumped about music, man, and that’s what I want it to be like for the rest of the time that I’m doing it. Just to be pumped. I think that music is something that’s forever. It’s a forever entity. And this music that I’m putting out, I always want to love it. So I’m never going to put out something that I don’t like.