The UMG-TikTok Saga Is Only Going To Hurt Smaller Artists

UMG TikTok music peach prc conan gray muni long noah kahan

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When Universal Music Group (UMG) announced that it would not renew their contract with TikTok, pulling their artists’ songs from the platform, people wondered how the user experience would change. But the core concern should have been how the move would affect smaller artists represented by UMG. 

UMG’s contract with TikTok expired on January 31, 2024. Now, their music appears to be gone, which means TikTok has lost one-third of its 50 most popular songs, including music by Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Bad Bunny, SZA, Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, and Adele. Even artists like Lana Del Rey and Raye are affected as their label, Polydor Records, falls under the UMG umbrella. Music from those artists alone account for millions of videos on TikTok as most of their music is used on viral content. 

But what exactly led UMG to pull its artists’ music from TikTok — and what happens now? 

Why Did Universal Music Group Pull Content From TikTok? 

For many of us, UMG’s announcement came out of nowhere. Most people, like myself, had no idea that UMG’s contract with TikTok was near expiration or that it was in danger of not being renewed. It wasn’t until UMG published an open letter to the “artist and songwriter community” on January 30th — one day before the contract expired — to call out TikTok for “bullying” them that people realised the gravity of the situation. 

In their letter, UMG said it pressed TikTok on “three critical issues” — appropriate compensation for UMG artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from “the harmful effects of AI”, and online safety for TikTok’s users. I was surprised by the third one. It’s definitely an important issue to address but interesting it was something UMG were pressing so hard for. UMG said that they’ve “moved aggressively to embrace the promise of AI while fighting to ensure artists’ rights and interests are protected now and far into the future”. If you’ve spent any time on TikTok you’ve probably come across dozens of AI covers of songs using artists’ voices and likenesses. It’s rather chilling how accurate some of them are. Just as with the film and TV industries, AI poses serious ethical risks to the music business. 

In regards to their negotiations, UMG claimed that TikTok proposed paying artists and songwriters “at a rate that is a fraction of the rate” that other social platforms pay. UMG revealed in the letter that TikTok only accounts for around one percent of their total revenue. I’m no financial expert but that’s not a whole lot considering how much music is on the platform. As a result, UMG accused TikTok of “trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music”. Ouch. 

UMG then accused TikTok of “sponsoring artist replacement by AI” as they develop tools that basically enable and promote the creation of AI music on the platform. They also addressed the ineffectiveness of TikTok in removing AI music using artists’ voices or deep fake pornography. When asked to address these issues, UMG said that TikTok “responded first with indifference, and then with intimidation” before saying “TikTok attempted to bully us into accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal”. UMG alleges that TikTok “selectively” removed music of developing artists while keeping audience-driving mega stars as a tactic to get UMG to agree to their terms.

Consequently, UMG decided not to renew the contract and remove their artists’ catalogues from TikTok. Apparently, this kind of public sniping is common in music industry negotiations before a deal is reached, but in the meantime, I think we’ll be hearing less music on TikTok for a while. 

How Did TikTok Respond To UMG Pulling Music? 

In response to UMG’s open letter, TikTok published their own rather short, snappy, and sassy statement. They said it’s “sad and disappointing” that UMG “has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters”. TikTok called Universal’s open letter a “false narrative and rhetoric”. The girls are well and truly fighting.

As far as how the platform is going, things are bleak. What once was a feed filled with music is now reminiscent of the silent movie era. Millions of videos have been muted so you’re basically just watching silent lip syncs. Very thrilling stuff.

TikTok users have started dancing to royalty free music instead and it’s incredibly bleak. 

Smaller Artists Will Suffer The Most

It’s no secret that TikTok has been a driving force for music. It dominates the app and many songs and artists have become broadly popular after going viral on TikTok. The platform has helped skyrocket the careers of artists like Peach PRC, Raye, The Rions and Noah Kahan. Even larger artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, and Olivia Rodrigo have benefitted from their songs gaining traction on TikTok. Just look at ‘Cruel Summer’, ‘Padam Padam’, and ‘Bloody Mary’. But they aren’t the ones who need TikTok for recognition. Their fan bases will promote whatever they do on any platform. 

When UMG made their announcement, Conan Gray jokingly said “my career is over, for sure”, adding,  “I’m never gonna have a hit song again at this rate”. While he is (mostly) joking, his song ‘Heather’ swept TikTok and became a viral song for a good while. Peach PRC posted a video saying that all of her videos promoting her music have been muted, ironically, on the same platform that UMG found her on.  

Noah Kahan said he’s now unable to promote his new single and questioned whether he’ll be okay. He’ll be okay, right? 

When asked about the situation, Muni Long said it was “frustrating” but seemed determined to not let it affect her trajectory. 

Some independent artists think it’ll actually be good for them because now there’s a hunger for new music on the app. 

It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s good to see UMG stand up to TikTok to address the flood of AI covers that seriously infringe copyright and pose ethical concerns. On the other hand, smaller artists may fall through the cracks because they can no longer promote their music on TikTok.  

UMG deciding to pull all of their artists’ work from the same platform that musicians are forced to promote themselves on is an interesting move. Because of how the system is currently set up, I don’t know how else smaller artists are going to be able to introduce their new music or get the same reach. But perhaps this might force UMG to find alternative ways to market their artists rather than having them do it themselves on TikTok, which most of them hated

So artists, in this day and age, need a platform like TikTok to promote their music and reach a mass audience that they may not have access to otherwise. However, those same platforms should be held responsible to limit the unregulated use of AI covers and promote a safe environment for artists to create content. It will be interesting to see how things play out as both sides seem adamant in their viewpoints. Either way, I can’t keep watching those royalty-free TikTok dances so somebody please fix this situation. 

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Spotify / Aysia Moretta / Gilbert Carrasquillo