Nine million people is a lot of people. It’s the same population as Scotland and Wales combined, and it’s also the number of people who viewed a 60-second clip of Inverness musician Katie Gregson- MacLeod singing her breakout hit ‘Complex’ on TikTok.

Katie had just over 1,000 followers on the platform when she first posted the video of herself performing the self-written piano ballad in August last year. Within 24 hours, she had hundreds of thousands of new followers and within two weeks, she had a recording contract with Columbia Records (the label of Harry Styles and Bob Dylan, among others).

She is the poster child of this new type of TikTok star, with the platform offering an opportunity for those without any significant following to go viral overnight. There’s no longer any need to haul yourself through an X Factor-style talent show or slog around pubs playing music – all you need is a good song and the favour of the algorithm.

Yet while appreciative for the success that social media has brought her, 22-year-old Katie is determined to make a name for herself beyond the label of TikTok.

“TikTok has been instrumental to my progress,” she explains, “and I’ll always be eternally grateful for the audience it’s given me. But I also want to give context that I’ve been writing music for years, so although it an overnight thing, there was a lot of preparation for that moment.”

Music “has always been there” for Katie, who learned to play the guitar, piano and clarinet while growing up in Inverness. Yet although she felt she wanted to pursue music as a career, it was difficult to foresee the best way to get into the industry.

“For so many jobs you know the classic route into that career, you know what degree to do and what path to take. I found it hard having nobody around me who was in the music industry who could give me advice.”

The Herald:

She decided to move to Edinburgh to study history at university, playing at open mic events and folk clubs while writing music in her spare time. In 2021 she decided to download TikTok, a video sharing app that’s hugely popular with younger generations, and began sharing clips of some of her original songs.

“I tend to overshare,” she laughs, “which applies to my music as well, so I have never felt weird about posting music I’ve written, even though the songs are quite vulnerable.”

It was that vulnerability that perhaps caused ‘Complex’ to become so popular so quickly, with the simplicity of the sentiment of unrequited love offering near-universal appeal. Katie posted it on TikTok and then went to bed, unaware she had just created a seismic shift in her fortunes.

“I woke up the next day to see the comments and the shares were flooding in. I started to get seen by people at the top of their game musically [US stars like Camila Cabello] and interest from record labels. It feels like a fever dream when you are in it. I posted it on the Thursday night, and by that weekend my whole life was different.”

Within two weeks she had a manager and had signed to a major record label, with headline shows and festival slots following soon after. Yet Katie herself admits she is still unsure quite why the song went viral in the way it did. 

“I will never know exactly why it was that song that took off. There was something in it that seemed to resonate with people, maybe because it is a very vulnerable song. I wrote it from a very personal place but a lot of people relate to it.”

She is currently working on her debut album, with homecoming gigs in Edinburgh and Glasgow scheduled for the end of November. But Katie says her ambition is “huge”, with plans to build on the connection she has formed with her fans.

“I will always be grateful for TikTok,” she says “but I would eventually love for that to be a footnote in my story.”

Katie Gregson- MacLeod plays Edinburgh Summerhall on November 30 and Glasgow King Tut’s on December 3.