Universal Music Group’s agreement with TikTok is set to expire in the next 24 hours after the companies failed to agree on issues including artist compensation and AI, meaning some of the world’s most popular music – including Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and newly viral hit Murder on the Dancefloor – will be removed from TikTok’s library.
In a blistering open letter titled “Why we must call Time Out on TikTok” published on Tuesday, UMG, the biggest music company in the world, accused TikTok of attempting to “bully” and “intimidate” them into “accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth”.
TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is a social media app that allows users to make short-form videos, the majority of which are soundtracked with sound effects and licensed music.
UMG’s dominance over popular music cannot be overstated, with the company holding the rights to artists including the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Drake, Sting, the Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Adele, U2, Coldplay, Post Malone and more. It is the only music company to ever hold nine of the top 10 albums in the Billboard 200 music chart at once, and has achieved that four times.
One UMG-owned hit, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor, has been a particular hit recently on TikTok, where some wealthy users have filmed themselves dancing around palatial properties in a recreation of a scene from the 2023 film Saltburn.
If UMG fails to reach an agreement with TikTok, all of its songs will be removed from the service once the deal expires on Wednesday, a UMG spokesperson confirmed to Reuters.
In the open letter, UMG alleged that TikTok accounts for “only about 1% of our total revenue”, which they said was evidence 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”.
The music company alleged that, during negotiations for a new agreement, TikTok had “proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay”.
When negotiations stalled, UMG alleges that TikTok tried to “intimidate” the company “by selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists” while keeping bigger stars on the platform.
“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 shortchanges artists and songwriters as well as their fans,” UMG wrote.
In a fiery response, TikTok accused UMG of having “put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.”
“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 company said.
The fallout comes as TikTok dabbles more with music creation and artificial intelligence. It launched TikTok Music last year in select countries as a rival to Spotify and Apple Music and is piloting an “AI Song” feature that allows users to create songs using prompts.
UMG accused TikTok of “allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings”. By developing tools that allows users to dabble in AI music creation, TikTok is “sponsoring artist replacement by AI,” UMG said, claiming that the only means it had to seek the removal of infringing content on TikTok was a “monumentally cumbersome and inefficient process which equates to the digital equivalent of Whac-a-Mole.”
TikTok holds similar agreements with music companies including Sony and Warner Music – which the social media company made a point of highlighting in their statement on Tuesday – but whether they share any of UMG’s concerns remains to be seen.