The music industry’s Cold War with TikTok just turned very hot — and extremely complicated. By the end of the month, Universal Music Group (UMG) will require the platform to take down music it controls even a small part of, by using what some music executives call “the nuclear option.” This will prevent some other rights holders from making money on TikTok — but at least some of them are cheering it on.
On Jan. 30, the day before UMG’s latest deal with TikTok lapsed, the company announced in an open letter that “we must call time out on TikTok” and began removing its recorded music from the platform. After a 30-day grace period, UMG says it will also require TikTok to take down any song in which Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) controls any rights. That means songs by Harry Styles, SZA and Bad Bunny; those with writing credit from creators like Metro Boomin and Jack Antonoff; and even those that sample compositions by UMPG songwriters. In some markets, that might account for more than half of the music used on the platform.
The question is what this means for the rest of the business. Styles, SZA and Bad Bunny are three of the biggest acts signed to or distributed by Sony Music Entertainment, so this would affect that label, as well as Warner Music Group, BMG and scores of independents. From the end of February until UMG and TikTok reach a new licensing deal, they will not earn any money on music to which UMG has any rights — a relatively minor income stream at this point — while losing out on an important source of promotion. In the long term, of course, a win for UMG that pushes TikTok to pay more for the rights to music could also help the entire industry.
This Cold War turned hot pretty suddenly. For years, rights holders have embraced TikTok as a promotional vehicle while griping about the short-form video platform’s low payouts in what seemed like a repeat of the music industry’s contentious relationship with YouTube. Both can pay less than other platforms because in many cases they can essentially operate under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows them to make available content uploaded by users until rights holders ask for a takedown. In language that sounds like it could have come from YouTube a decade ago — or from a file-sharing service a decade before that, for that matter — in a statement released on social media, TikTok said that UMG had abandoned a popular platform “that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent.” Basically, they offer exposure. But as creators and rights holders might say — and here you have to imagine a Borscht Belt delivery — you could DIE of exposure!
UMG’s move came at the worst possible time for TikTok: the day before a Senate committee hearing on child safety and social media, during an escalating Middle East conflict that has focused negative attention on TikTok’s Chinese ownership, and during a week when much of the music business was in Los Angeles for the Grammys. This isn’t entirely a coincidence: UMG’s long-term deal actually expired at the end of 2023, and Jan. 31 was just the end of a one-month extension. (A source close to TikTok said that the two sides were close to a deal at the end of December, while a source close to UMG said that was not the case.) Fair or not, the pressure in Washington could be substantial. (I have serious concerns about a Chinese-owned app becoming an important source of news on Taiwan, but I’m not sure that has much to do with music licensing.)
So far, there has been some support for UMG from other companies in the music business. Neither of the other two major labels would comment — Sony declined and a spokesperson for Warner did not return messages — and it’s unlikely that they will, for antitrust reasons. Primary Wave, Downtown and Hipgnosis have expressed support for Universal, though. And at a Grammy Week music publishers event, National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) president/CEO David Israelite pointed out that the model contract with TikTok that’s used by many NMPA members expires in April.
The dynamic here is complicated but potentially revolutionary. For the last two decades, most of the negotiations between media and technology companies have involved a few rights holders that each control significant amounts of content and a platform that has a larger share in its market than they do — think labels and streaming services or book publishers and Amazon. Since antitrust law almost always prevents big companies from negotiating together — a lesson Apple and some book publishers learned the hard way — the platforms have an advantage. In this case, UMG managed to get more leverage by using publishing rights that by their nature will affect impact a lot of compositions, creating a situation where some small companies can cheer it on.
The question is what happens after February. Rights holders can live without the money they make on TikTok, but what about the platform’s promotional value for breaking artists? For now, presumably, artists on other labels who don’t work with UMPG songwriters will gain an advantage. If this dispute lasts a few months, that might give smaller labels enough of an advantage to matter. If it lasts longer than that, though, TikTok could face more competition, too. The company has suggested that music accounts for a modest amount of the platform’s value, but that would be tested if TikTok has to compete against other short-form video platforms that have rights to use music that it doesn’t.
The more likely scenario is that UMGand TikTok will reach an agreement — perhaps one that both will grumble about but accept — and then over time find ways to work together that benefit both sides, plus creators of all kinds. Short-form video could eventually grow into a truly important revenue stream. By that time, of course, a new platform will probably come along to challenge that, too.