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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Universal Music Group and TikTok’s Licensing Agreement

UMG and TikTok were unable to renew their licensing agreement because of concern over artists protection and AI, but were able to settle the matter recently.
Many of Nicki Minaj’s songs have gone viral on TikTok. They are frequently used for trends. For example, using the lyrics “I’m angry but I still love you” users would post about their relationship woes. Apart from that, Minaj is quite beloved on the app. As part of a long running joke, many TikTok users post videos of her saluting with the American flag in the background. (Photo Credit: MTV International, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

On February 1, during my morning train ride, per usual, I opened up TikTok, but I was met with a strange silence. The app, whose logo itself includes a singular music note, was now only full of muted videos. 

Universal Music Group (UMG), one of the largest and most influential music companies globally, boasting an extensive roster of artists across various genres, had pulled their entire catalog off the app. With labels like Capitol Music Group, Def Jam Recordings, and Republic Records under its umbrella, UMG has had a profound impact on shaping contemporary music culture. Beyond its label operations, UMG also offers music publishing, merchandising, and audiovisual content services, making it a powerhouse in the entertainment industry. Without their partnership, TikTok’s current success, which relies on the creation of viral audios, often using music, is threatened.

On January 30th, 2024, UMG explained that their licensing agreement with TikTok expired on the 31st and that they would not proceed with renewal in “An Open Letter to the Artist and Songwriter Community – Why We Must Call Time Out on TikTok.” They said “With respect to the issue of artist and songwriter compensation, TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay.” In terms of fair pay for artists, UMGs approach may be effective. When Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify in 2014 for similar reasons. At the time, Swift felt that the free service did not place the premium value onto music and thus could not compensate the artists properly. Swift’s music returned to Spotify in 2017 after it was reported that the app was considering a “windowing” policy, in which they would make new releases available to premium users earlier. 

UMG elaborated in the open letter, “On AI, 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.” 

AI recordings have become very viral on TikTok. For instance, a Lana del Rey rendition of Mitski’s “My Love Mine All Mine” has been used in thousands of videos. Although this may seem revolutionary for the music industry, it is actually quite the opposite. AI may allow music to be made using the voices of deceased artists, as Drake did with Tupac’s voice, but it also blurs ethical lines. Del Rey never consented for the audio using her voice to be made or distributed nor did Mitski consent for her own written song to be used. 

Original songs have also been made using AI. Prior to the release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version), an allegedly leaked portion of the track “Suburban Legends” was spread on TikTok. However, after the album came out, it was revealed that the “leaked” audio was AI generated. The same occurred with “Fortnight” a track from Swift’s most recent album The Tortured Poets Department

The concerns that UMG has raised are valid, but their falling out with TikTok also raised many questions about the future of music marketing. In recent years, TikTok has accounted for the success of many musicians. For instance, Noah Kahan noted “A lot of the success of this album [Stick Season] is definitely born on TikTok.” Kahan would post many videos with the hooks of his songs, garnering the attention of users. He is now a Grammy nominated artist and Stick Season boasts millions of streams. 

Katie Gregson-Macleod, another artist, was able to land a record deal with Columbia. After posting an acoustic recording of a breakup song titled “complex,” Gregson-Macleod completely blew up. TikTok users made videos talking about how much the song resonated with them, many talking about how they “had never had an original experience in their lives.” Madison Beer and many others also covered the 25 second clip from the chorus. Under Columbia, the demo was first released and later the fully polished song.  

To combat the copyright issue, many TikTok users have started to use sped up clips from the songs. In fact, Sabrina Carpenter, who gained popularity after the outros for her song “Nonsense” went viral on the app, has promoted her most recent single using this loophole. Despite the UMG licensing dispute, “Espresso” was a TikTok certified hit, making it to the number one spot on many charts because of this. 

On May 1, TikTok and UMG were able to settle their issues and come to a new agreement for licensing, which they announced in a joint statement. Prior to this, Taylor Swift’s catalog had returned to TikTok before the release of her double album The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology

In terms of UMG’s previous concerns, they said “As part of the agreement, both organizations will work together to realize new monetization opportunities utilizing TikTok’s growing e-commerce capabilities and will work together on campaigns supporting UMG’s artists across genres and territories globally.”

To address AI, “TikTok and UMG will work together to ensure AI development across the music industry will protect human artistry and the economics that flow to those artists and songwriters. TikTok is also committed to working with UMG to remove unauthorized AI-generated music from the platform, as well as tools to improve artist and songwriter attribution.”

The two companies repairing their relationship shows promise for both the media app and the music industry. The two are heavily intertwined and will continue to grow with the help of each other. Through UMG’s solid stance on licensing conditions, they were able to protect their artists and set a precedent for the use of music on social media platforms. This will further change the way musicians navigate the industry and how consumers make choices.

In recent years, TikTok has accounted for the success of many musicians. For instance, Noah Kahan noted “A lot of the success of this album [Stick Season] is definitely born on TikTok.”

About the Contributor
Faizunnesa Mahzabin, Staff Reporter
Faizunnesa Mahzabin is a Copy Chief and Social Media Editor for 'The Science Survey.’ She enjoys journalistic writing because of how it can both educate and entertain. She feels that photography adds a necessary element to writing by capturing emotion that can only be visually seen, not described. Faizunnesa spends her free time reading books, watching movies, and listening to music.