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TikTok just lost a huge catalog of music. What happened?

Written by The Anand Market

Updated on:

TikTok users woke up Thursday to find that many videos using songs from stars like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Drake and Ariana Grande had gone silent, after a public fight between TikTok and Universal Music Group, the biggest music company in the world.

It was a surprising turn of events for the app’s creators and users, as well as the music industry, where heated negotiations over copyright permissions and royalty terms sometimes spill over into the public eye. public, but rarely achieve what one industry publication called the “nuclear option» – the large-scale removal of content from one of music’s largest and most influential online media outlets.

Here’s a look at what happened and why, plus some thoughts on what might come next.

On Tuesday, Universal Music, the global giant that distributes the music of hundreds of major artists, released a energetic open letter to TikTok as the end of its contract with the social media platform approaches. Universal said TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, had not adequately addressed Universal’s concerns about AI-generated music on the platform, and that it would not accept this. which Universal considers to be a satisfactory royalty rate.

“Ultimately, TikTok is trying to create 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 — legal permissions to use its music — if a deal was not reached. The deadline came and went, and TikTok confirmed Thursday morning that it had begun removing access to Universal’s vast catalog of songs.

Universal is the largest of the Big Three music conglomerates – the others are Sony and Warner – which have deals with thousands of music stars to release their music. Besides Swift and Drake, his biggest label names include Olivia Rodrigo, Morgan Wallen, Nicki Minaj, Billie Eilish, Noah Kahan, Post Malone and Lorde, and has deals with K-pop giants like Stray Kids and NewJeans .

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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 Chief Executive Lucian Grainge is a seasoned talent scout who for more than a decade has been one of the industry’s leading business executives. Most years, it tends to take the top spot on the annual Billboard chart.Power 100” list. This year he is in second place, behind Swift, with whom Grainge is said to have a close working relationship.

Universal has been aggressive in defending the rights of its artists and seeking the best possible deals; Last year, the company sued Triller, another social media app, claiming it failed to pay licensing fees. Recently, Grainge has been franc on the need for controls and industry standards regarding the use of artificial intelligence in music.

When the music industry has had problems in the past with streaming platforms like Spotify, it has had the ability – in theory at least; it’s always complicated to just extract its content. This 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 provided by labels like Universal — to add background sounds. Artists and record labels also add their own content.

To comply with Universal’s takedowns, TikTok removed the company’s songs from its music library, making those songs unavailable for new music videos. For older videos that already contain music from Universal, TikTok on Thursday began “cutting” the clips — removing the audio entirely, leaving the videos silent. This is what happened with celebrity videos like Kylie Jenner and Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), as well as countless others; many included explanatory notes such as “This sound is not available.”

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On the official profile pages of artists like Swift, sections that typically contained dozens of songs for users to feature were largely empty. (In some cases, brief clips or user-generated mixes remained.)

The complete removal process should take at least several days. A representative for TikTok did not say Thursday how many videos would be affected by Universal’s removal, but it could be millions.

In some ways, this is an example of a conflict that has arisen repeatedly in the media industry over the past two decades, in which innovations from tech companies – and, sometimes, the creativity of users who bend the rules – have taken over. against the music industry’s demands for control and fair remuneration. This tension has been a driving force across the music industry, from Napster and YouTube to Pandora and, now, TikTok.

Universal’s concerns are real and reflect some of the most pressing challenges in the music business today: the need for artists to make a decent living, the parameters of modern licensing deals, the role of artificial intelligence. And in recent years, music companies have begun to adapt to the reality that music fans’ attention is not just focused on jukebox-style streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music, but also on a whole series of social platforms, such as TikTok, where the music can be broadcast. just an attraction.

For TikTok, as with any social media company, the issue may be how much influence it is willing to cede to a single content partner. As important as music is on TikTok, the company has said in the past: “music is at the heart of the TikTok experience» — this does not represent the entire experience on the application; As any TikTok user knows, a song can simply be the audio background for a makeup tutorial or a plumbing how-to guide.

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This is a key consideration for Universal, which says it is seeking better terms for its acts. At the same time, the longer the conflict drags on, the more it risks harming artists, at least in the short term. TikTok is an essential promotional tool, and a generation of young fans now rely on the app to discover music, old and new.

Some of the biggest musical moments in recent years have happened on TikTok, from the explosion of Lil Nas Mac. For many artists today, being absent from TikTok would be like watching Madonna see a video disappear from MTV in the 1980s.

At the same time, however, artists are keenly aware of the need to get better deals for their music and the low rates they face in the streaming landscape. Talk to an artist for two minutes about their business and they’ll tell you they should be making more money from streaming. They just don’t want to sacrifice their promotion or their connection with fans in the process.

We wait to see who blinks.

Universal’s star-studded roster gives it leverage, and losing access to a library of thousands of the world’s popular songs isn’t good for TikTok. Apps with a music component depend on their licensing agreements with entertainment companies, and users expect to have a wide choice.

On the other hand, TikTok has licensing deals with many other music companies, and users might soon realize that if they lose access to a Lady Gaga song, they could choose one from, say, Dua Lipa (a Warner artist).

Perhaps the greatest power, however, lies with Universal’s artists, particularly those with new music to promote; If they feel the conflict is starting to hurt them more than a new deal could help, they will let their labels know.