TikTok has been defined by its musical moments and trends ever since its release in 2016. Or, rather, the music industry has been defined by TikTok. The social media platform has been responsible for spawning countless viral tracks, uncovering some of our most prominent artist’s today, and pushing genres from underground obscurity to mainstream dominance.
In recent years, we’ve seen the likes of Central Cee and PinkPantheress, who first gained momentum due to viral hits on the platform, become some of this generation’s highest-streaming stars. There was the small phenomenon that was Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License”, and the viral tracks like “Death Bed (coffee for your head)” by Powfu and numerous Willow Smith hits that have catapulted to international success on the back of the app. For better or for worse, TikTok has reshaped the modern musical landscape forever – but its clutches on the industry now look set to be loosened indefinitely.
Universal Music Group’s (UMG) agreement with TikTok is set to expire on Wednesday, (January 31st), after the companies failed to agree on issues including artist compensation and AI, meaning some of the world’s most popular music will be removed from TikTok’s library. Therefore, the likes of Drake, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, SZA and a number of the most recognisable classic acts, like The Beatles and Elton John, will all have their music pulled from the app. It will also mean the removal of one of TikTok’s most popular songs right now: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s 2001 hit, ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’, which is experiencing a resurgence thanks to its inclusion on the Saltburn soundtrack.
UMG’s dominance over popular music cannot be overstated. It’s the only music company to ever hold nine of the top 10 albums in the Billboard 200 music chart at once and has achieved that four times, so the fact that it’s cutting ties with TikTok is set to create shockwaves throughout the industry. So, why exactly is UMG cutting ties with one of the world’s most popular social media platforms? A platform that has arguably helped propel artists into global recognition?
Today, the company published an impassioned open letter addressed to the artist and songwriter community, saying they must “call time on TikTok.” The label said that TikTok wanted to pay their artists at a rate that is just a “fraction” of what other platforms offer. “Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business without paying fair value for the music.” They also alleged TikTok tried to “intimidate” the company by “selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars.”
According to Music Business Worldwide, musicians receive royalties based on how many videos their music appears in rather than how many views it receives – this is due to the fact that only a small portion of their track actually appears in the video. As of 2023, TikTok reportedly pays $0.03 for each video an artist’s song is featured in, which is significantly less than figures they’d receive from streaming services.
UMG also accused TikTok of “allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings”. By developing tools that allows users to dabble in AI music creation, TikTok is “sponsoring artist replacement by AI,” UMG said, claiming that the only means it had to seek the removal of infringing content on TikTok was a “monumentally cumbersome and inefficient process which equates to the digital equivalent of Whac-a-Mole.”
The deluge of AI-generated music may be just one of several concerns UMG raised, but it’s one that the label has kept an exceedingly close eye on for some time. For example, it opened a lawsuit against Anthropic last October for distributing copyrighted lyrics with its AI model Claude 2. The company was also successful at taking down the viral AI-generated Drake song via a copyright claim last year, in addition to the many copycats that followed.
In response to UMG’s open letter, TikTok released their own statement, declaring it “sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.” The letter from the tech company also labelled UMG’s narrative as “false” and pointed out that they have been able to negotiate ‘artist-first’ agreements with “every other label and publisher.”
So, if the removal of UMG-distributed music on TikTok is to go ahead (with just a few hours left in the day, it’s increasingly likely), what will this mean for TikTok? Well, to put it frankly, it’s catastrophic. The platform relies so heavily on music from both up-and-coming talent and mega stars, and without the backing of the world’s most dominant label, there’ll be a huge music-shaped hole left on the app. To put it into perspective, 65% of all of TikTok’s videos are accompanied by music of some sort, making it the backbone of the content on the platform. And if users can no longer accompany their clips with music from their favourite artists – or charting singles that could increase the chance of going viral – it may lead them to competitors who still have UMG’s catalogue available, such as Instagram.
On the other hand, UMG may not be taking a financial hit right now, but the removal of TikTok as a marketing tool could create huge consequences in the future, particularly when it comes to their developing artists. Songs that trend on TikTok often end up charting on the Billboard 100, or Spotify Viral 50 and 67% of the app’s users are more likely to seek out songs on music-streaming services after hearing them on TikTok, according to a November 2021 study conducted for TikTok by the music-analytics company MRC Data. TikTok makes up such a large part of music discovery in the modern day that the complete removal of that as a marketing tool is sure to create problems for even the most powerful of labels.
The news may lead TikTok to rethink their payout figure to artists in order to lure UMG back into a new deal, but unless they combat issues that directly affect the label’s revenue streams – such as AI-generated tracks – it’s unlikely that the pair will reach an agreement. And if that’s the case, the music industry may never be the same again. Other prominent labels may see this as an opportunity to walk away in search of better royalties for their musicians, and if that occurs, TikTok’s position as the fourth biggest social media platform in the world could be in serious jeopardy.