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Universal Music Group Ends Licensing Deal with TikTok, Pulls Songs From the App

  • Michele
  • 08 February 2024, Thursday
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Universal Music Group ends licensing deal with TikTok, pulls songs from the app

Universal Music Group decided to cut ties with the social media giant TikTok. The decision followed a dispute over TikTok's obligations as a social platform, its excessive tolerance of AI-generated content, and discussions on how much artists should get paid for their music streams.

Universal Music cuts ties with TikTok

Universal Music Group, the largest company in the music industry, represents some of the world’s most famous artists. Its licensing agreements cover the music of Drake, Lana Del Rey, The Weeknd, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, and many other big names in the business. Their popularity reflects itself on social media platforms, where their music is often used for video content. One such platform is TikTok, an essential app for music discovery, promotion, and trendsetting.

Users now have to say goodbye to adding the songs of their favorite Universal artists to their videos. As of last week, Universal Music Group decided to pull all of its music from TikTok after negotiations to renew their licensing agreement contract did not lead to an extension. Consequently, TikTok videos containing music by Universal artists have become quiet, while all their songs have been deleted from the app’s library.

The decision is the result of a fairly common dispute. Before the contract between the two media giants expired, UMG accused TikTok of not addressing its obligations as a social platform, underpaying artists, and excessively tolerating AI-generated content that places musicians at a disadvantage. The latter is a major topic of contestation, with some praising AI for its capabilities and others denouncing it for its real and potential dangers. UMG is acutely aware of the discourse and views AI as problematic for the creative environment. In an open letter to the artist and songwriter community, the company explains:

TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings—as well as developing tools to enable, promote and encourage AI music creation on the platform itself – and then demanding a contractual right which would allow this content to massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”

Who has more power, who wants more control?

To some, the decision signifies a change of direction in the music industry but also reflects broader power dynamics. Social media platforms play a crucial role in music discovery and marketing, giving them much decision-making power and influence. As a result, many artists are willing to compromise on data safety, enjoyability, and fair pay to benefit from the app's potential, hoping to gain more visibility to establish themselves online. For example, artists complain about Instagram’s changes to its algorithm and business model, which many consider detrimental to their user experience. Still, they usually continue to use the app to market themselves because “nowadays, artists cannot avoid being on these platforms.”

However, music-centric apps rely on being provided with songs and ensuring a positive user experience, which makes them somewhat dependent on licensing agreements. And, of course, UMG is not the only party accusing the other side of unethical business practices. TikTok expressed its disappointment with the decision, accusing UMG of prioritizing its “own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.”

Ultimately, much of the dispute concerns business practices, power, control, and money. For now, it is impossible to assess how the conflict will develop over time and whether the music of Universal artists will reappear on TikTok sooner, later, or at all. Nevertheless, a question remains – one which is often omitted by large companies that own more money than one could visually imagine: did anyone ever speak to the artists?

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