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Universal pulls its music in battle with TikTok.

On January 31st 2024, TikTok's licensing deal with Universal Music Group expired and Universal artists' music was duly pulled from TikTok.

Talks between the two heavyweight companies on a new deal had broken down a few days earlier, and the two sides were not shy about making their positions public.

TikTok - an ad revenue supported User Generated Content platform - has of late become a showcase for musical talent, among many other areas. Universal is the world's largest record label.

Universal's complaint is that TikTok didn't pay enough for its music (less than 1% of the platform's ~$11 billion annual revenues) and is "allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings” while "demanding contractual rights that could “massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists” - essentially a continuation of the creative industries' widespread push back against the use of AI to supplant human creators that was raised, for example, in 2023's Hollywood strikes.

TikTok immediately countered by saying that it was “sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters”. It goes on to characterise its platform as a “free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent”.

Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG), Universal's major publishing arm, also had its deal expire on January 31st, but that deal gives TikTok a further month to remove its content or reach a new deal. UMPG started preparing the ground for the removal of music that it controls by releasing a statement to its songwriters saying “Despite TikTok’s widespread use of music, its exponential revenue growth, and the massive increase in its user base in such a short period of time, TikTok insists on paying our songwriters at a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social media platforms pay – and without any material increase from our prior agreement. TikTok tried to bully us into accepting their proposal by selectively removing the music of certain developing artists. This is unacceptable."

Removal of UMPG's publishing content will have effects far beyond the Universal record label's artists. Because of the normal practice that songs are written by several songwriters, each represented by the publisher of their choice, artists who record with a different label but have UMPG handle their publishing will have music taken down, as will those who record songs with co-writers who are signed to UMPG.

TikTok is portraying music as of little consequence for it, and saying what should be important to Universal is the exposure it gives to its artist's music. Universal is saying that music is a key part of TikTok’s value to creators (and advertisers), so artists and labels should be compensated far more for that usage.

Whilst it's possible that this rare overspill of normally confidential commercial negotiations into a public war of words will ultimately be resolved, it is also possible that the effects could be long lasting and profound.

The clear messages here for choreographed performance sports and performing arts administrators and participants are:

  • The music industry is taking an increasingly strong stance to protect the value of its music.

  • After January 31st every Universal artist’s page went silent, and TikTok started to mute pre-existing videos using their music content - TikTok is being careful to comply with their agreement with Universal to the letter rather than continue to use the music without explicit permission and risk a massive lawsuit.

  • TikTok's upcoming removal of UMPG songwriters' content will have an even wider effect, once again illustrating the power and importance of publishing rights when using music - under copyright law, even if the songwriter only owns a small fraction of a song's publishing rights, their permission (license) is needed to use that song. If they say 'no', that song can't be used.


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