Universal Music Group pulls music from TikTok, citing ‘bullying’ and ‘bad deal’ for artists

Universal Music Group pulls music from TikTok, citing ‘bullying’ and ‘bad deal’ for artists
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2024

It looks like you won’t be hearing songs by Taylor Swift, Drake, Billie Eilish and more of the world’s biggest artists on TikTok.

The app has drawn millions of users through the creation and sharing of music content, but one of the world’s biggest record labels is pulling its artists from TikTok.

Universal Music Group (UMG) is pulling its catalogue of millions of songs — by everyone from Lady Gaga to Post Malone — after failing to come to terms with the hugely popular social media platform on a new licensing agreement, which expires on January 31. 

UMG has also blasted TikTok, claiming they faced “bully” tactics and “intimidation” during negotiations.

“TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music,” UMG declares in an open letter, addressed to the “artist and songwriting community”.

They accuse TikTok of offering royalty payments that are “a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay”.

“Today, as an indication of how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters, despite its massive and growing user base, rapidly rising advertising revenue and increasing reliance on music-based content, TikTok accounts for only about 1 per cent of our total revenue.”

Changing the way we discover music

TikTok has fundamentally altered the way people — especially young Australians — consume and discover music since the app’s launch Down Under in 2019.

Doja Cat’s ‘Paint The Town Red’ — which just topped triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2023 — owes some of its viral success on the app, as have several songs in the pointy end of the annual countdown in recent years.

TikTok has also helped launch the careers of local artists and given huge signal boosts to international songs and artists.

It’s an unprecedented move for Universal to remove their presence from a modern digital platform. Especially TikTok which, like competitors Spotify, Apple and Meta, renegotiates contracts with big music companies every few years as it’s become an increasingly essential part of the music eco-system.

UMG says “appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters” forms one of three “critical issues” the label has been “pressing” TikTok on during contract renewal discussions.

The others involve “protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users”.

The problem with AI

Regarding AI, UMG said: “TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings — as well as developing tools to enable, promote and encourage AI music creation on the platform itself – and then demanding a contractual right which would allow this content to massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI”.

For example? In April 2023, a song featuring AI-generated vocals of UMG artists Drake and The Weeknd went viral on TikTok.

Titled ‘Heart On My Sleeve’ and credited to TikTok user Ghostwriter977, the sound-alike track made its way to streaming services, racking up more than 600,000 spins on Spotify alone before Universal had it pulled, issuing a statement condemning “infringing content created with generative AI”.

A man wearing a red blazer holding a microphone and performing
Canadian artist The Weeknd had a deep-fake of his voice used on TikTok.(AP Photo: Ashley Landis)

In today’s open letter, UMG alleges that TikTok doesn’t make enough effort to deal with “vast amounts of content on its platform” they say infringes on their artists music.

“It has offered no meaningful solutions to the rising tide of content adjacency issues, let alone the tidal wave of hate speech, bigotry, bullying and harassment on the platform,” UMG wrote.

“The only means available to seek the removal of infringing or problematic content (such as pornographic deepfakes of artists) is through the monumentally cumbersome and inefficient process which equates to the digital equivalent of Whack-a-Mole.”

Universal accuses TikTok of bullying

UMG claims that TikTok responded to the label’s requests with “indifference”, then “attempted to bully” the corporation into “accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth”.

“How did it try to intimidate us? By selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars.”

UMG adds: “TikTok’s tactics are obvious: use its platform power to hurt vulnerable artists and try to intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music and short-changes artists and songwriters as well as their fans.”

TikTok responds

“It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters,” TikTok wrote in a brief statement addressing UMG’s claims and decision to cut ties. 

“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.””

The platform adds that they have been “able to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher.

“Clearly, Universal’s self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”

Locally, Universal Music Australia represents the likes of Tame Impala, Missy Higgins, Baker Boy, Matt Corby, Tkay Maidza, and Peach PRC, who was one of a handful of homegrown acts that  topped the ARIA Album Charts in 2023.

UMG’s statement also follows the launch of TikTok Music, a premium music and video streaming service launched publicly in Australia, Singapore and Mexico in October, following the service’s initial rollout in Brazil and Indonesia.

TikTok Music has licensing deals in place with the other major labels, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, in Brazil and Indonesia.

In July 2023, TikTok and Warner also partnered on a “multi-year, multi-product” licensing deal, that sees their vast artist catalogue available to TikTok, and its parent company ByteDance’s video editing platform CapCut.

Last year, TikTok also invoked the ire of the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) over a month-long “test” that limited and even removed access to music for certain users.

ARIA’s Annabelle Herd, CEO of the trade body that includes Universal Music among its members, labelled TikTok’s methods as untrustworthy and damaging to Australian music.

“After exploiting artists’ content and relationships with fans to build the platform, TikTok now seeks to rationalise cutting artists’ compensation by staging a ‘test’ of music’s role in content discovery,” said Herd at the time.


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