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TikTok’s War With Universal Heats Up, Songs Scrubbed From Platform

A day after Universal Music Group threatened to stop licensing its music to TikTok amid a breakdown in deal negotiations, songs from UMG‘s unparalleled stable of artists have started to get removed from the social media platform late Wednesday.

The removals started gradually late Wednesday evening; The official versions of UMG-owned recordings like Taylor Swift‘s “Cruel Summer,” Olivia Rodrigo‘s “Get Him Back,” and Lana Del Rey’s “Let the Light In” are no longer appearing in search results, while some videos featuring the songs — like a Kylie Jenner post set to Del Rey’s “Cherry” and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s video that was soundtracked to Rick Ross’s “Hustlin’” being muted. The videos now have a prompt at the bottom noting the sound was removed due to copyright restrictions.

The update is the climax of a tense year of negotiating between UMG and TikTok over the two companies’ differing views on what constitutes a fair deal for use of the record company’s music on the platform.

UMG set the stage for the sonic stripping when it posted an open letter Tuesday night saying its prior licensing deal with TikTok was set to expire Wednesday and that talks over a new deal had reached an impasse. The world’s largest music company — whose artists include Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Daddy Yankee — said it was making a stand “for the creative and commercial value of music.”

It claimed TikTok, the wildly popular short-form video app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, was responding to its concerns with “indifference” or “intimidation” on three important issues: “appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users.”

“TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay. Today, as an indication of how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters, despite its massive and growing user base, rapidly rising advertising revenue and increasing reliance on music-based content, TikTok accounts for only about 1% of our total revenue,” the open letter read.

“Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music,” UMG claimed. It accused TikTok of trying to “bully” it into accepting a “bad deal” by “selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars.” Universal further alleged that TikTok was allowing its platform to be “flooded” with AI-generated recordings. The company described TikTok’s response to AI as “nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”

In a statement posted online, TikTok accused UMG of putting its “own greed above the interests” of artists and songwriters. “Despite Universal’s false narrative and rhetoric, the fact is they have chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform with well over a billion users that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent,” TikTok said.

TikTok claimed it was able to reach “artist-first” agreements with other labels and publishers, though it didn’t elaborate on the terms that were reached. It called Universal’s decision to revoke licensing a “self-serving” action.

Over the past five years, TikTok has become the most influential marketing tool in the music industry, launching up-and-coming artists’ careers, turning viral songs into bonafide hits, and pushing older catalog tracks back to the top of the Billboard charts. TikTok has been the launching pad for numerous massive singles including Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” among others.

According to TikTok, more than 150 million Americans use the platform, nearly half the U.S. population. It’s undeniably a useful vehicle for promotion, but UMG appears to be betting the current licensing revocation will force TikTok back to the table and establish that the benefit goes both ways.

The dispute between UMG and TikTok has caused significant discourse within the industry as executives and artists have weighed in about what should happen. Russ, who isn’t signed to a label, balked at the label’s claims that they made the decision for their artists. “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,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Metro Boomin’ seemed more supportive about the move, though more so expressing his displeasure at the industry’s need to make content that fits the app than at the business model itself.

“I love the creativity and appreciation the kids show for the music on TikTok but I don’t like the forced pandering from artists and labels that results in these lifeless and soulless records,” the producer tweeted.

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With UMG’s artists’ music officially gone from the most popular marketing tool in the industry, the question becomes how musicians will push their songs and if the change will impact their rollouts. Noah Kahan, signed to UMG’s Republic Records and Mercury Records, took to the platform Wednesday evening to briefly address the situation while Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel played in the background. He told fans he’d no longer be able to use the app to push his upcoming single “Forever.”

“I won’t be able to promote my music on TikTok anymore, but luckily I’m not a TikTok artist, right,” he said sarcastically. “You’re gonna have to pre-save “Forever” now if you want to listen to it, because I can’t stick it down your throats anymore on this app.”

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