Universal Music Group set the music world aflame on Tuesday with its scathing open letter announcing that it would yank its music from TikTok after its licensing agreement with the platform expires on January 31. That letter is UMG’s equivalent of a nuclear bomb threat, the culmination of a year of tense negotiations between the world’s largest music corporation and its most important viral marketing device.
The industry is currently on watch, wondering if that drastic move will actually come to fruition, or if the two sides will come to an armistice at the eleventh hour to avoid an all-out war. As the situation continues to develop, here’s what you need to know about the situation.
Why is UMG threatening to take music off TikTok?
Most primarily, money. TikTok has quickly become one of the most powerful and lucrative social media platforms on the planet, pulling in billions of dollars each year from ad revenue and its e-commerce business. Music, meanwhile, has been a major part of TikTok’s appeal, giving millions of creators access to famous hits to soundtrack their content.
UMG argues that its catalog is a vital aspect of TikTok’s success and that without it, the app would lose its appeal. The company also thinks that artists aren’t getting paid enough for how much the music gets consumed. While a viral TikTok song garners hundreds of millions of views and gets featured in thousands of videos, the payments are insignificant, with the company claiming in its letter that TikTok makes up just 1 percent of UMG’s revenue.
“Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music,” UMG wrote.
The company also pointed to TikTok’s approach to AI as a driving factor in the failed negotiations, along with safety concerns. TikTok demanded an agreement to allow TikTok users to create AI music on the platform, which UMG said would “dilute the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”
TikTok balked at UMG’s claims, saying in a statement Thursday that UMG “put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.
“TikTok has been able to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher,” the platform said. “Clearly, Universal’s self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”
What Happens if UMG pulls its music?
The takedowns could start as soon as today. Until that actually happens, it’s unclear what that looks like. But at its very worst, armageddon could be an understatement.
Swaths of songs from superstars like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Post Malone could be made unavailable, and thousands of videos featuring those songs potentially muted. And that’s just on the recorded music side. All music has two copyrights: one for the recording itself and a publishing copyright for the song’s composition.
UMG said in its letter that its contract expiration includes its publishing rm UMPG as well. The publisher represents hundreds of songwriters whose credits span across all the major labels. So While Steve Lacy licensed his recorded music such as TikTok hit “Bad Habit” to Sony-owned RCA, as a songwriter, he’s signed to UMPG, meaning that music may also be subject to removal. And songs UMPG writers co-wrote could also theoretically be subject to removal, though that would likely be an extreme decision given the impact it would have on the other companies and artists.
TikTok could also face challenges with user-generated content as creators upload unlicensed snippets with songs, which UMG would likely start aggressively issuing DMCA takedown notices around, as they’ve done in the past for other platforms like YouTube and Twitter.
What do the artists think?
Artist sentiment falls under two categories: Those who feel it’s time for TikTok to pay more, and others who think UMG’s decision is only in their interest, not the artists’.
“A label stomping its feet because it’s not getting paid enough for the music they own is top notch comedy,” Russ wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday. “They say it’s because ‘our songwriters and artists aren’t being compensated fairly’ when really it’s their own pockets they’re worried about.”
Artist manager Chris Anokute has overseen campaigns on viral TikTok tracks including Curtis Waters’ “Stunnin’” and Muni Long’s “Hrs and Hrs,” the latter of which won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance last year. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he expressed how important TikTok is to help pour gas on a hit but also said artists and writers are severely underpaid.
“I believe what it’s done for marketing artists, it’s incredible and necessary, but if you’re making all this money on advertising and the music is driving the culture, we’re just sick of it. Why does music sell everything but itself?” Anokute says. “The payments are practically nothing. When you see these videos that have billions of views, hundreds of thousands of [user-generated content] creates and the running time on these videos is 30 seconds long, that’s almost a stream, where is the money?”
While TikTok has proven to consistently drive song consumption for artists of all sizes — something Anokute doesn’t refute — he also says even TikTok isn’t a guarantee anymore, and he has found success on other platforms like IG Reels.
“It’s not as easy to break a song on TikTok as you’d think it is. You can pay $100,000 for a TikTok influencer campaign and it still might not work out,” he says. “What’s happening with Instagram Reels is significant; it’s bringing opportunity to develop songs. I’ve got artists with growth on Instagram up 500 percent in the last month, with videos with millions of views. Seeing which songs [break] without TikTok, it’s separating the good from the great. At the end of the day, the music industry is three minutes and 33 seconds. People can connect the dots to find songs; we don’t have to sing and dance for our supper.”
How Does This End?
If history is any indication, this fight most likely ends with a new deal, though it’s unclear when that happens. This is far from the first dispute between a major music company and a tech giant. YouTube was a scourge to the music business for years, with the major labels claiming in the 2010s that the video giant didn’t pay enough in royalties and didn’t do nearly enough to handle unauthorized user-generated content on the platform, a similar argument to what UMG said about TikTok yesterday.
Who comes out on top by the end of this fight, however, remains to be seen.