The Universal Music Group Puts TikTok on Mute

TikTok’s trendiest songs disappear from the platform due to copyright issues.

Graphic by Zoë Carr/GRAPHICS CENTER

As an avid user of TikTok, I easily spend more hours than I would like to admit scrolling on the social media platform. You can imagine my surprise when a lot of my favorite songs disappeared from the app this month, and worse yet, several videos were missing their original audio. All of the removed sounds had one thing in common — they were songs by musicians whose copyright belonged to The Universal Music Group (UMG).

UMG is the largest music company in the world, according to Forbes. Artists under UMG include big names like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Justin Bieber. They even have international pull, representing artists like BTS and Karol G, who initially rose to fame outside of the United States.

The company is home to some of the biggest labels and brands in music. These include iconic names in the industry such as Republic Records, Capitol Music Group and the Virgin Music Group. 

In an open letter to the public released on Jan. 30, UMG outlined several reasons for their decision not to renew their contract with TikTok. According to the company, despite TikTok featuring music more than any other social media platform, TikTok streams account for merely 1% of UMG’s total revenue. UMG claimed, “TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.” In contrast with platforms like Youtube and Spotify, which pay artists on a per-stream basis, Tiktok pays artists a reported $0.03 each time their song is used in a video — meaning a video that gets a million views earns artists the same as a video that gets two views.

“TikTok’s tactics are obvious: use its platform power to hurt vulnerable artists and try to intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music and shortchanges artists and songwriters as well as their fans,” UMG’s letter read. “We will always fight for our artists and songwriters and stand up for the creative and commercial value of music.” 

While UMG claims to protect artists and their rights, the move from TikTok will hurt musicians more than help them.

Tiktok’s response to UMG’s removal of music came in the form of a public statement.“It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.” 

TikTok rebutted UMG’s choice to pull their content by claiming that TikTok’s user-base makes the platform a valuable marketing tool for musicians. Artists often use the social media platform to promote their music. For example, the song “Stick Season,” by Vermont musician Noah Kahan took over the internet in the summer of 2022, and even got him nominated for ‘Best New Artist’ at this year’s Grammys. The success of the song is primarily due to it blowing up on Tiktok.

“TikTok has become an increasingly powerful engine for the dissemination of culture, a new sort of pop star has emerged…Noah Kahan is one of those artists…with striking numbers on Spotify and TikTok, and a steady presence on the Billboard chart since the release of “Stick Season,” his third album, in 2022”, says The New Yorker, as the article heavily emphasizes Tiktok’s strength in helping Kahan achieve his viral moment.

Kahan’s music was taken off TikTok in this move. He commented to the Rolling Stone, “I won’t be able to promote my music on TikTok anymore…I’ll land on my feet, right?”

Popular artists like Olivia Rodrigo attribute a portion of their success to TikTok. For example, Rodrigo’s 2021 single “Driver’s License,” has been used an estimated 1.5 million times on the app.

I can vouch for TikTok’s strength as a form of music-marketing. Songs like Steve Lacy’s “Bad Habit” and Ocean Alley’s “Confidence” made their way to my Spotify playlists after I heard them on the app. 

UMG paints a picture of themselves as a company that fights for their clients and protects them, but this isn’t the reality. The choice to move artists’ music off TikTok may not significantly affect some of the globe’s biggest names in music like Taylor Swift or Drake, as they are already well-established — but smaller artists will suffer.

It has now been almost a month since UMG removed all their music from TikTok. I’ve already noticed that there are less new songs that I’ve liked on the platform. The lack of music circulating on the app is definitely hurting me, and I can’t even imagine how much more this decision hurts upcoming artists under UMG’s belt.

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