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Do Indie Artists Benefit From Universal’s Ban?

As the showdown continues between Universal Music Group (UMG) and TikTok after the world’s biggest record company pulled content by its artists and songwriters from the video-hosting social media site, it seems as though the ban has created a window of opportunity for independent music acts.

A look at the upper echelon of Billboard‘s TikTok Top 50 chart shows that the first seven entries on the chart are independent recordings, including Dasha’s breakthrough “Austin,” Mitski’s “My Love Mine All Mine,” Djo (a.k.a. actor/musician Joe Keery)’s “End of Beginning,” and even Bobby Caldwell‘s 1979 hit “What You Won’t Do For Love,” which has gained traction on the platform due to a food trend of videos highlighting foods and other things people love. Prior to UMG’s TikTok ban, independent artists, music from independent artists already made up a significant portion of the TikTok 50 chart, which debuted in September 2023, but without UMG artists’ or songwriters’ works on the platform — which by Billboard‘s recent estimates affects more than 60% of the most popular songs in the United States — the pathway to success is more clear than ever.

However, top independent music executives have a message for artists in the sector: “Not so fast.”

As UMG’s ban drags on, independent music executives are advising artists to look at the bigger picture — and also to use this as an opportunity to look at what rights they do and don’t control. 

“I truly hope we don’t do what we so often do in the music industry, which is say, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity for me to get a bit of an advantage,’ and then take the advantage, but ultimately damage the ecosystem,” says Richard James Burgess, president/CEO of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM). “I think we are sort of at a critically bad state, in terms of the amount of money that’s being paid through [to artists]. That works out fine if you’re an aggregator, distributor or label, and you’ve got enough copyrights. But it’s extremely difficult for the artist to generate enough copyrights to make a living from if someone’s not a household name.”

Burgess continues, “TikTok is an extremely bad actor in terms of the types of deals they do and the structure of their deals. It’s almost like trying to play the lottery — if you get a viral TikTok, it can have an impact on your sales, but how much money does TikTok make from us trying to get that sort of viral spike? They should be paying for the use of music and they’re effectively not paying. I think Universal did a great thing here, and my membership, my board, supports that position.” (A rep for TikTok has declined to comment for this story).

In a 2022 Billboard story, one executive from an independent label noted that artists on his roster earned approximately $150 from TikTok from around 100,000 videos that were made with their music. Meanwhile, in the same report, a marketer who spearheaded a campaign for a music single that was used in approximately half a million TikTok videos noted that his artist earned less than $5,000 from TikTok, though views rose into the billions.

While there are opportunities for increasing numbers of independent artists to gain greater traction on TikTok during the platform’s impasse with UMG, “it’s important for artists to use the opportunity to focus on their own art instead of chasing trending sounds or being the one-millionth person to cover a hit song,” says Jody Whelan of independent record label Oh Boy Records, which was founded in 1981 by the late singer-songwriter John Prine and which now represents music from Prine, Kelsey Waldon and Arlo McKinley, among others. “If you’re lucky enough to go viral on TikTok, you want folks to stick around to hear what you have to say.”

For many contemporary acts, TikTok is a key component of their marketing plans, with labels and managers urging artists to create content in hopes of driving listeners to streaming platforms. A 2023 report, commissioned by TikTok and facilitated by Luminate, noted that 62% of U.S. TikTok users pay for a music streaming service, compared to 43% of all consumers.“TikTok user engagement metrics are strongly associated with streaming volumes,” in the United States, the report stated. “In other words, higher TikTok engagement — whether that’s likes, views or shares — corresponds with elevated streaming volumes.” The report also noted that TikTok users are more engaged with other areas of music-related consumption, claiming that in the United States, 45% of TikTok users purchased music-related merch over a year-long span, compared with 35% of overall music listeners, while 38% of TikTok users attended a live music event during the year, compared to 33% of overall music listeners.

Even with stats like these, Whelan says the TikTok/UMG battle should serve as a cautionary tale to realize how even so-called independent artists can get caught in the ban’s web because of an affiliation with UMG or UMPG. “This should also serve as a reminder to the independent community: You can’t rely on someone else’s platform to reach your audience,” Whelan says. “This month it’s UMG, next month it could be your distributor. The algorithms and priorities of social media companies and the streamers continuously shift. You have to be able to control the means in which you communicate directly with your audience, whether that’s by email or by text (we also still send out postcards to our fans!).”

Stem CEO Milana Lewis agrees, seeing the situation as a “great moment to highlight the difference between independence and autonomy. Artists believe they’re independent when they do a deal with the independent distribution arm of a major label because their deal terms might be more flexible. In reality, they still have very little control over their rights, and this is a great example of how a big corporation is deciding on their behalf whether or not their music is available on a platform and whether or not they are willing to trade off earnings for exposure.”

Independent artists should be taking this time to examine their relationships with all social media and make sure they are taking full advantage of each platform despite TikTok’s current dominance, says Seth Faber, Stem’s general manager of music distribution and payments. “Time will tell if Universal’s maneuver will lead to a meaningful redistribution of the viral pie. In the meantime, artists should continue to lean into the full landscape of snackable content,” Faber says. “The power of Instagram’s Reels, Spotify’s Clips and YouTube’s Shorts aren’t to be ignored. Diversify those content portfolios.”

For Burgess, UMG vs. TikTok is a repeat of an age-old battle pitting the industry against artists, with artists often coming out on the short end of the stick. “[TikTok] plays this promotional exposure-discovery game. How many times do we get sucked into that?” Burgess asks. “Radio hasn’t paid [artists] for recorded music. MTV didn’t pay. We keep making the same mistakes. Good thing is that Universal is big enough, and especially with the publishing and everything, the tendrils from that go far and wide.”

Burgess further likens the UMG-TikTok battle with the ongoing battle with secondary ticket markets, saying that most of the money is not making its way to artists. “That is the essence of the problem,” he says. “It would be good if people did the right thing here and stood together to get a better deal for everybody.”

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