Universal Music Group pulled songs by Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and other stars after failing to agree on a new contract. Here’s what’s at stake.
TikTok users woke up Thursday and discovered that many videos using songs by stars like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Drake and Ariana Grande had gone silent, after a public brawl between TikTok and Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company.
It was a startling turn of events for the app’s creators and users, as well as for the music business, where heated negotiations over copyright permissions and royalty terms sometimes boil over into public view but rarely reach what one industry publication called the “nuclear option” — the full-scale removal of content from one of music’s biggest and most influential online outlets.
Here is a look at what happened and why, and some thoughts about what may come next.
On Tuesday, Universal Music, the global giant that releases music by hundreds of major artists, published a forceful open letter to TikTok as the end of its contract with the social media platform neared. Universal said that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, had not adequately addressed Universal’s concerns over A.I.-generated music on the platform, and that it would not agree to what Universal considered a satisfactory royalty rate.
“Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business,” the label said, “without paying fair value for the music.”
Universal noted that its existing deal with TikTok was set to expire on Wednesday, and the label said it would revoke its licenses — the legal permissions to use its music — if an agreement was not reached. The deadline came and went, and TikTok confirmed early Thursday that it had begun removing access to Universal’s vast catalog of songs.
What is Universal Music?
Universal is the biggest of the three major music conglomerates — the others are Sony and Warner — that have deals with thousands of music stars to release their music. Besides Swift and Drake, its labels’ biggest names include Olivia Rodrigo, Morgan Wallen, Nicki Minaj, Billie Eilish, Noah Kahan, Post Malone and Lorde, and it has deals with K-pop giants like Stray Kids and NewJeans.
The company’s labels include Interscope, Geffen, Island, Def Jam, Capitol, Motown, Blue Note and Republic, and it also has an extensive music publishing division for songwriters.
Universal’s chief executive, Lucian Grainge, is a seasoned talent scout who, for more than a decade, has been one of the industry’s dominant corporate leaders. Most years, he tends to take No. 1 on Billboard’s annual “Power 100” list. This year, he is at No. 2 — behind Swift, with whom Grainge is said to have a close working relationship.
Universal has been aggressive in defending its artists’ rights and in pursuing the best deals it can get; last year, the company sued Triller, another social media app, saying it had not paid licensing fees. Recently, Grainge has been outspoken about the need for controls and industry standards regarding the use of artificial intelligence in music.
How will the takedowns work?
When the music industry has had issues in the past with streaming outlets like Spotify, it has had the ability — theoretically, anyway; it’s always complicated — to simply yank its content. That is what happened when Warner Music fought with YouTube for nine months in 2008 and 2009.
But TikTok is different. On the app, users upload their own video clips, and can draw from an audio library — much of it supplied by labels like Universal — to add background sounds. Artists and record labels also add their own content.
To comply with Universal’s withdrawals, TikTok removed the company’s songs from its music library, which made those songs unavailable for new clips. For older videos that already had music from Universal in them, TikTok on Thursday began “muting” the clips — deleting the audio entirely, leaving silent videos. That is what happened with videos from celebrities like Kylie Jenner and Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. the Rock), as well as on countless others; many included explanatory notes like “This sound isn’t available.”
On the official profile pages for artists like Swift, the sections that usually carried dozens of songs for users to feature went largely blank. (In some cases, brief snippets or user-generated mixes remained.)
The full process of removal is expected to take at least several days. A TikTok representative on Thursday did not say how many videos would be affected by Universal’s withdrawal, but it could conceivably be millions.
Why is it happening?
In some ways, this is an example of a conflict that has played out repeatedly in the media business over the last couple of decades, in which the innovations of tech companies — and, sometimes, the creativity of rule-skirting users — has run up against the music industry’s demands for control and fair compensation. This tension has been a driving force in the music industry, from Napster and YouTube to Pandora and, now, TikTok.
Universal’s concerns are real, and reflect some of the most urgent challenges in the music business today: artists’ need to make a decent living, the parameters of modern licensing contracts, the role of artificial intelligence. And in recent years music companies have begun to adjust to the reality that music fans’ attention is not solely focused on jukebox-type streaming outlets like Spotify or Apple Music, but also on an array of social platforms, like TikTok, where music may be just one attraction.
For TikTok, as with any social media company, the issue may involve how much leverage it is willing to relinquish to any single content partner. As important as music is on TikTok — in the past the company has said “music is at the heart of the TikTok experience” — it does not represent the entirety of the experience on the app; as any TikTok user knows, a song could simply be the audio wallpaper for a makeup tutorial or a plumbing how-to guide.
How might this affect musicians?
This is a key consideration for Universal, which says it is pursuing a better deal for its acts. At the same time, the longer the dispute drags on, the more it may hurt artists, at least in the short term. TikTok is a vital promotional outlet, and a generation of young fans now rely on the app to discover music, old and new.
Some of the most vital moments in music in recent years happened on TikTok, from the explosion of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” to the revival of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” For many artists today, being absent from TikTok would be like Madonna having a video disappear from MTV in the 1980s.
At the same time, though, artists are keenly aware of the need to secure better deals for their music, and of the low rates they face across the streaming landscape. Talk to an artist for two minutes about the business, and they will tell you they should make more money from streaming. They just do not want to sacrifice promotion, or their connection to fans, in the process.
What happens now?
We wait to see who blinks.
Universal’s roster of stars gives it leverage, and losing access to a library of thousands of the world’s music popular songs is not good for TikTok. Apps with a music component rely on their licensing arrangements with entertainment companies, and users expect to have a broad selection.
On the other hand, TikTok has licensing deals with many other music companies, and users could soon figure out that if they lose access to a Lady Gaga song, they could pick one from, say, Dua Lipa (a Warner artist) instead.
The greatest power, though, may reside with Universal’s artists, especially those who have new music to hype; if they feel that the conflict is starting to hurt them more than a new deal could help, they will make it known.
Ben Sisario covers the music industry. He has been writing for The Times since 1998. More about Ben Sisario