You may have noticed that, since late last week, Tik Tok has been devoid of most of the immensely popular songs that have fueled the trends on their platform over the last couple years. Dancers are no longer able to use Drake’s latest releases for new choreography, creators can’t make memes using Ariana Grande’s recent “yes, and” anymore, and Taylor Swift fans everywhere are lamenting the removal of their favorite couples trends music. Most of us have heard, “it’s because of UMG”. But what does that really mean?
Despite being a behind-closed-doors legal issue, the reasons for the feud between UMG and Tik Tok are actually quite interesting. It all has to do with copyright – who owns the music, and who has the rights to use it. As you can guess, the answer to the former is not the artists themselves.
1. Who Owns The Music
UMG (Universal Music Group) is one of the biggest music labels in the world, and has possibly the most impressive artist roster in the industry. Their artists include:
- Justin Bieber
- Ariana Grande
- The Weeknd
- Taylor Swift
- Olivia Rodrigo
- Kendrick Lamar
- Noah Kahan
- Lana Del Ray
- Billie Eilish
… and so many more superstars, it’s astonishing.
Signing to a label is the industry norm because of how many services they provide for artists (distribution, promotion, marketing, advertising, funding projects, overseeing legal affairs, etc), but a grand majority of the time, it comes at the cost of the artists’ control over what they make. Very often, when artists sign a contract with a major label, they sign away ownership of their music. Labels pay for studio time and project costs, making any recordings done under contract their property.
Big artists such as the ones listed are no exception. The more successful you are, the bigger the scope of your projects becomes. It is common for artists who started independently to transition to a label contract because the magnitude of their projects and albums demands the larger funds and powerful network that only the biggest players in the industry have. So, in layman’s terms, major labels give artists all the resources they need to make and release their music in exchange for ownership of it. They then control where the music is used and who has a license to use it, and UMG has decided to leave Tik Tok out of the equation by not granting them the license that allows them to use their artists’ music. It is illegal to use music without a license due to copyright laws, so Tik Tok is out of luck here.
2. Who Has the Rights to Use It
Music copyright exists in a number of forms, but this case only concerns one of them: the master recording. When a song is created and fixed in a tangible form (on paper, in a notes app, as a voice memo, truly any form), it automatically has its own copyright. This is the composition copyright of the piece, which is made up of the lyrics and melody separately, as well as the lyrics and melody paired together, which is the composition. When the song is recorded, mixed, mastered, and reaches its final form before release, the final version is called the master recording (or just “master”).
This is the file that gets distributed to streaming services, radio stations, social platforms, and anywhere else you may hear music – like Tik Tok. In order for platforms to legally use the master in any capacity, the rights to the music must be cleared by the owner. This comes in the form of an agreement on a license between label and platform. The platform is given the license to use the master in exchange for royalties (payment per stream, video, etc). These royalties are then redistributed to artists, with the label and streaming service keeping a big chunk of it before artists get their share.
What is being restricted by UMG is thus the master recordings from their catalog. Technically, you could still be hearing some Rihanna or Ariana floating around the app, but what you are hearing is an altered version of the song in question. Any perceptible difference from the original version makes it a different recording, and thus legal to use. You’ll find that it’s actually common practice on the app to slightly alter an official song; sped up versions of songs have become hugely popular (so much so that labels have been pushing artists to release sped up versions themselves to receive royalties from those too, especially when they go viral), slowed down versions are used for edits, and covers are absolutely everywhere. These changes are the legal loopholes that might explain why some of the songs that were pulled with the rest of UMG’s catalog are still around in some capacity.
3. Where The Revenue Goes
Royalty structures differ by platform and service, and it seems as though UMG took issue with Tik Tok’s payment plan. As of right now, Tik Tok pays $0.03 for every video that uses a creator’s song. This would mean that a sound would need to be used in roughly 34,000 separate videos a month in order to pay the equivalent of a month’s salary with a minimum wage job in the US. That’s a lot of videos, and when put in those terms, not a great look for Tik Tok. However, the platform is simultaneously the most opportunity-offering social media there is. Your chances of going viral on Tik Tok are unquestionably higher than on any other platform due to their feed structure (not having to follow someone to be shown their videos) and algorithm (having a very personalized feed). Not only that, but it’s free. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you are promoting your music through the same means as the biggest artists in the world, and the potential to go viral is genuinely realistic. It is one of the best tools to promote your music, hands down.
You could argue that in pulling its discography, UMG is looking out for its artists, pushing for a more fair means of compensation for all the attention they bring to Tik Tok. However, once you consider how powerful and wealthy the label and its artists already are, you are left with the possibility that it may be something other than a lack of fairness. The value these artists get from having their music on Tik Tok is not the money, it’s the popularity and virality. Young audiences are able to seamlessly integrate newly released pop music into the culture through memes, trends, and dances like we’ve never seen before. This quickly converts into streams, which is where payout really matters. The free promotion Tik Tok provides for artists and the time it saves the labels by doing so without their involvement far outweighs the con of being paid slightly less than what UMG would like. What was once a mutually beneficial deal has turned into a rather unnecessary parting of ways.
4. Room To Breathe
There is one upside to this situation, however. The hole left in the absence of the aforementioned artists leaves an enormous amount of room for independent artists to take over the Tik Tok soundscape. Users will crave music no matter what, and if the biggest players in the game are benched, they will turn their attention towards smaller artists to fill the gaps. Now more than ever, indie artists will be getting more recognition, and the possibility of going viral is at an all time high. Whether you’ve been using the platform to promote your music for a while, or were only just considering it, use this time to your advantage! Make content and share your music as much as you can while people are on the prowl for new sounds and new songs.
We could go back and forth about all the reasons why UMG would pull their catalog from Tik Tok all day, but it is unquestionably a decision that will prove detrimental to both label and platform in the long run. The lesson artists can take from this ordeal is that ownership is important, and will ultimately determine how much say you have in your career. For now, let’s put the spotlight on artists who don’t have the support of a label behind them. The moment confidence and consistency pay off is right now – we can’t wait to see where they take you.