Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, said it would revoke the licenses for its vast catalog of songs from TikTok after its current contract expires on Wednesday if the two companies could not reach a new deal addressing Universal’s concerns over artist compensation, artificial intelligence and other issues.
In an open letter posted late Tuesday, Universal accused TikTok of responding to its requests with “indifference, and then with intimidation,” creating a public squabble in the remaining hours of the two companies’ existing contract. If the talks fail, TikTok users would be unable to use music by Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, U2, Bad Bunny and thousands of other artists in their videos.
TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is one of the world’s most popular and fastest-growing social media platforms, with more than a billion users, and its influence on youth culture around the world is unmatched. The company says it is used by more than 150 million Americans. For a majority of TikTok users, music is an integral part of the experience, with songs — often comically sped up — playing over the short clips that fill users’ feeds.
In its public letter, Universal said that during negotiations it asked TikTok to address its concerns over three issues: compensation for artists and songwriters, online safety for TikTok’s users and “protecting human artists from the harmful effects of A.I.” Universal accused TikTok of allowing the platform to be “flooded” with songs created by artificial intelligence, which Universal said dilutes royalties for real, human artists and amounts to “sponsoring artist replacement by A.I.”
In response, TikTok accused Universal of putting “their own greed above the interests of their 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 in a statement.
TikTok has existing deals with other major music companies, including one announced last year with the Warner Music Group — home to acts like Dua Lipa, Zach Bryan and Cardi B — that the companies said would “create new revenue, marketing and insights opportunities for W.M.G.’s artists and songwriters, while deepening the engagement with TikTok’s huge audience of passionate music fans.”
By highlighting TikTok’s value as a “free promotional and discovery vehicle,” the company touched a common nerve in the music industry: that tech platforms use music without fair compensation, and justify it by claiming promotional value.
TikTok does have clear promotional value, and for years it has been a powerful engine for turning songs, sometimes obscure ones — like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” — into hits, which then sometimes make more money for artists on other platforms than they do on TikTok. And as any TikTok user knows, music is often used as background sonic wallpaper for comedy skits, dances or time-lapse power-washing videos.
Universal’s feud with TikTok is a sign of the social media platform’s power, and of its ongoing importance to the music industry. In the past, major music companies have fought with Spotify, YouTube and Pandora as each was perceived to be violating copyright law or simply straying from the music industry’s preferred parameters in licensing contracts.
Now it may be TikTok’s turn to face the large-scale removal of content. By Wednesday morning, however, popular Universal songs still appeared to be used in many users’ videos.