Will UMG’s TikTok Licensing Standoff Lead to Music’s Equivalent of the Hollywood Strikes?

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It’s too soon to say what impact Universal Music Group’s plan to pull all its music from TikTok will have. But if you’re looking for a clue, try asking an Australian.  

Last February, TikTok began running tests in the country in which it limited the amount of licensed music some users encountered on the platform. The intent was to measure and compare the different ways people interact with the app — and what impact music has on their experience.   

Some users took to X (formerly Twitter) to decry the tests: “Tiktok really ruining its own app with all this ‘sound removed’ garbage,” one Australian user posted. Another added: “wtf is up with tiktok removing like half the sounds??? like i swear ive seen SO many tiktoks where the sound has been removed.”  

Some guessed at the time that the results were possibly meant to inform TikTok’s licensing strategy, but now, the social platform is facing an even bigger test.

Starting today, music from the Universal Music Group (UMG) catalog will begin to disappear from TikTok in countries around the world after negotiations between the companies soured. According to an open letter penned by UMG, the two failed to agree on key points like compensation, artificial intelligence and infringing works on the social app.  

The ramifications will reverberate across the entire music business. UMG’s TikTok license covered its recorded music and publishing holdings, meaning that it’s not just artists on UMG labels like Republic and Interscope whose music will soon disappear. Universal Music Publishing Group is the second largest publisher in the world, holding a 21.16% market share on the Pop Airplay chart in the third quarter of 2023, not to mention a formidable trove of evergreen catalogs. When the company pulls that catalog, it will pull any song any of the songwriters it represents contributed to as well, impacting many other labels and publishers in the coming weeks.  

As one A&R from another publisher put it last night at Spotify’s Songwriter of the Year Grammy event, this move by the world’s largest music company feels akin to the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes that halted much of the film business last year. Though the pain will be felt in the short term, the hope is that UMG’s stand will lead to substantive change that benefits everyone in the music industry in the long term. There’s an opportunity for the “movement” to grow too, should the other major music companies, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group (WMG), as well as indies, decide to pull their catalogs as well when their licensing deals expire. (WMG, however, announced a multi-year licensing deal with TikTok last July, and it is unclear when other licenses will be up for renewal.)  

Much like the Hollywood strikes, this battle will also come with casualties. UMG-affiliated artists and songwriters with releases already slated for the coming weeks, those who just released something new, and those who are currently trending on TikTok are all likely to feel the effects. Among them: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor,” which has seen a remarkable resurgence more than 20 years after its release on UMG’s Polydor label thanks to Saltburn and, now, TikTok; and “Made For Me” by Muni Long, which was released in September via Supergiant/Def Jam and is currently No. 2 on the TikTok Top 50 chart. As Justin Lehmann, manager to Amine and Khai Dreams, previously said in an interview with Billboard, “without breaking [on TikTok], it’s difficult to say what else can cause a big moment to happen for anybody.”

It’s easy to imagine that some artists affiliated with UMG would consider pushing back their release dates given how important TikTok has become to label marketing efforts. If the holdout lasts months, it could lead to a bottleneck for major album releases awaiting a resolution. Meanwhile, UMG will be forced to protect its copyrights against unlicensed user uploads, issuing takedown notices to combat them.  

In the interim, indie artists might see a bigger window to get their songs noticed on the short-form app. One major label employee joked that he could see some people trying to make soundalike recordings or covers of big songs by UMG recording artists in hopes of filling the void.  

The risk with UMG’s gamble is that TikTok fares just fine without its giant catalog, eventually forcing UMG and other music companies into worse negotiating positions than ever. It’s hard to imagine a comparable user experience without the likes of Taylor Swift, Drake, BTS, The Weeknd, Olivia Rodrigo and so many other superstars, but this moment will serve as the ultimate test. It turns out Australia was just the warm up.

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