Universal removing its catalogue from TikTok will have huge repercussions for both companies as well as creators

Posted by Dina Zubi in Comment

6 months ago

On 30 January, Universal Music Group published a statement called An Open Letter to the Artist and Songwriter Community: Why We Must Call Time Out on TikTok. The next day, the licensing agreement between the two companies expired and on 1 February, Universal’s full catalogue was pulled from TikTok.

Universal is the biggest music company in the world, and has rights to the works of huge names such as Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar, Adele, U2, Drake, SZA, Ariana Grande, Bob Dylan, Coldplay and many, many more. The absence of Universal music on the app will undoubtedly be felt by both TikTok users and artists, something the label acknowledged in its open letter. The hashtag #TaylorSwift has been used in 11.7 million TikToks, #Drake in 8.8 million posts, and #HarryStyles in 10.9 million.

“TikTok’s success as one of the world’s largest social platforms has been built in large part on the music created by our artists and songwriters,” Universal wrote in its open letter. While this is certainly true, the positive impact TikTok has had on the company can also not be dismissed. Universal artists such as Maisie Peters and Sam Ryder have used the app to build their music careers, and older tracks have also resurged in the charts, largely due to TikTok.

A recent example is Sophie Ellis-Bextor, who re-signed with her former label Universal in January 2024 after her 2001 hit Murder On The Dancefloor went viral following its appearance in the Amazon Prime film Saltburn. The song was all over TikTok, from Molly-Mae Hague using it in a PrettyLittleThing video (218,000 views) to a Royel Otis cover (3.4 million views) and countless remixes. TikTok hype contributed to sending the song to the top of the charts for the first time in 22 years.

Universal accuses TikTok of “bullying”

Universal wrote in the open letter there were three key issues that affected the companies’ ability to reach a new agreement – sufficient compensation for artists and songwriters, online safety for TikTok users and protecting artists from the harmful effects of AI. The label accused the app of not only allowing AI-generated recordings, but also “sponsoring artist replacement by AI”. These concerns reflect the sentiment within the wider entertainment industry following the WGA and SAG-AFTRA screenwriters and actors’ strikes in 2023.

Universal stated that TikTok only accounts for about 1% of its revenue in spite of the app’s rising ad income, massive user base and reliance on music-led content. “Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music,” the open letter read. Additionally, Universal claimed TikTok attempted to “bully” the label during negotiations by removing the music of its emerging artists but keeping its global stars’ songs on the app.

Sadly, as Universal pulls its artists’ work from the app, it is likely to be the developing artists who miss out on TikTok’s ability to catapult them into stardom. Established talent will also find promoting new albums and singles a more difficult task, especially artists who owe much of their success to TikTok, such as Ice Spice, Fred Again, girl in red and Megan Thee Stallion. On TikTok’s end, losing access to songs and content from the top global artists will impact its cultural relevance and could result in users and advertisers defecting to its competitors Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. In other words, both parties have plenty of incentive to negotiate a compromise down the line – hopefully sooner rather than later.

By Dina Zubi, CORQ news and features writer. Picture credit: Maisie Peters via Instagram