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Who’ll blink first: The world’s largest music company or TikTok?


In this photo illustration, the TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone screen with the logo for Universal Music in the background. 
Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Why Taylor Swift, Drake, and Bad Bunny have been muted on TikTok dance videos.

At the end of January, when Universal Music Group (UMG) failed to negotiate a new licensing deal with TikTok, it removed its entire music catalog from the app. Just like that, thousands of videos featuring music by artists like Drake, Taylor Swift, and Bad Bunny were suddenly silent.

UMG said it made the decision because TikTok offered to pay only a fraction of the rate that other social platforms offer. For its part, TikTok said that Universal was putting “their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.”

Some of those artists and songwriters have spoken out about the situation. “I think it’s ass-backward, and at the very least we should have known,” said Jack Antonoff to reporters in the press room after winning Producer of the Year at the Grammys earlier this month. “You got a whole industry being like, ‘You’ve got to do everything; you’ve got to do everything, and here’s where you’ve got to do it,’ and then one day it’s like, ‘Poof!’”

Musicians aren’t the only ones upset about this disruption. Content creators like Jarred Jermaine, who breaks down music samples on TikTok, posted a video of himself in tears claiming that videos he created that contained UMG music were taken down. And dancer and content creator Lars Gummer told the Daily Beast that he went from “shocked” to “disappointed.”

“Most of my friends in LA are content creators, especially dance creators,” he said. “So immediately we all were angry about the decision made between UMG and TikTok.”

In a recent episode of Today, Explained, digital activist and writer Cory Doctorow told host Sean Rameswaram that companies like TikTok “don’t have to care” about the disruption they cause their users. Doctorow coined the phrase “enshittification,” which he uses to describe a process that digital platforms use to lure customers in, giving them goods or an experience they can’t find elsewhere, only to make it worse for them down the line in order to better serve their business partners.

“I think that the calculus that TikTok is making is that they would rather inflict pain on their customers than on their shareholders,” said Doctorow. “So whatever it is that Universal was asking, [TikTok’s] customers could live with that pain, with having the videos that they worked on for hours or days or weeks and put maybe thousands of dollars into suddenly rendered silent because TikTok decided not to step up for their interests.”

To better understand the battle between TikTok and Universal Music Group, Rameswaram spoke to the Verge’s editor-in-chief Nilay Patel. An adapted transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. — Hady Mawajdeh

Sean Rameswaram

Nilay, you’re on TikTok, right?

Nilay Patel

I’m on TikTok. As a viewer, I have a burner [account] that no one knows about. But then I’m on TikTok on the Verge channels all the time.

Sean Rameswaram

As a person with potentially multiple TikTok accounts, can you tell me how important music is to the platform?

Nilay Patel

TikTok is built on music. It came to this country as part of an acquisition. So ByteDance, which owns TikTok, bought a platform called Musical.ly, which was [mostly filled with] teenagers dancing to music. And TikTok has built itself on the back of people using music, making music for the platform, creating dance trends, recontextualizing music, bringing back old music. All of TikTok is built around music. Music functions almost as the organizing principle of TikTok.

Sean Rameswaram

But some days ago, things got kind of quiet on TikTok. What happened?

Nilay Patel

So Universal Music Group, which is the largest record label in the world, pulled their music off of TikTok. UMG represents Taylor Swift, Drake, Bad Bunny, you name it. And UMG says, TikTok is trying to bully us. They want to pay under the market rate for licensing our catalog. We’re not going to accept the low rates. Our music is gone until TikTok can pay us like the major social network they are.

Sean Rameswaram

And these musicians you’ve mentioned — Bad Bunny, Drake, Taylor Swift. They’re three of the biggest musicians in the world. Are they okay with this? They’re good with all their music being ripped off TikTok?

Nilay Patel

I think the big artists are totally okay with this. They all want more money. They know they’re the lifeblood of the platform. They know the fans are going to seek them out regardless. It’s the up-and-coming artists who get discovered and who become popular on TikTok that are probably the most worried. And that is an interesting split, as this conflict stretches out that has yet to come into the public consciousness. We haven’t seen any evidence of that split being real, but over time, if this stretches on, I think that’s the split we’re going to see.

Sean Rameswaram

Who loses more here in this spat, Nilay? Is it musicians? Is it labels? Or is it TikTok?

Nilay Patel

Far and away the loser right now is TikTok. You have an entire base of TikTok creators who don’t have access to the thing they care about the most, which is music. If you look at the bottom of every TikTok video it tells you what audio is being used. Most of the time it’s songs. If you click on them, you can see all the other videos that use that audio. That is how TikTok is organized and it’s gone. It’s silent.

There are creators complaining that their entire archives of content are just muted because the music isn’t there anymore. And if you cannot provide that value to your creators as a platform, suddenly they might start thinking that other platforms like Instagram Reels or YouTube shorts can provide that audio can provide that audience, and they might spend time over there.

That hasn’t happened yet. It hasn’t been long enough. I think everyone is assuming that this will get resolved, but one of the main things a platform provides to its creators is licensing. Creators don’t have to worry about it when they make content for a big platform. And right now, in the case of TikTok, they do.

Sean Rameswaram

So how did TikTok let this happen?

Nilay Patel

TikTok is the engine of music discovery in America and possibly the world and not just for new artists. These massive music catalogs that are getting sold and resold for billions of dollars are becoming more valuable again because of TikTok.

So old music is coming back around in style, hitting the charts again because of TikTok. That has not happened previously in the history of music, that Stevie Nicks is just a superstar again, because a guy was skateboarding listening to Fleetwood Mac. That’s TikTok’s power in the culture, and I think it is, on balance, a good thing.

TikTok creates new artists, it creates new relationships with artists. It preserves fans’ relationships with older artists. It recontextualizes old music. There is a conversation happening about music and its place and culture that is fresh and interesting that is driven by TikTok.

TikTok knows that’s the value it provides the music industry, and it knows the music industry doesn’t have great answers of its own on how to break new artists without social platforms. So I think it’s saying to Universal Music Group, Hey, we’re providing you all this value. You can go away. You won’t have the ability to break any artists ever again. And they have run tests in Australia where they didn’t show new artists to people just to see what happened. What were they trying to prove? Hey, no new artists are breaking in the Australian market.

So TikTok is trying to demonstrate this leverage. And I think right now they’re trying to say, Look, that’s the value we provide, it’s not just dollars. And I think UMG is saying, Yeah, but your whole platform is built on the music that our artists make. You have to pay us for it.

There’s going to be a meeting of the minds. There will come a middle point. I don’t think it’s gonna last forever.

Sean Rameswaram

So, Nilay, this whole dispute is all about money. How much was TikTok paying to license the Universal Music Group’s music and how much does UMG want now?

Nilay Patel

We don’t have hard numbers to go on. We can backtrack the numbers from a clue that Universal put out in its letter saying we’re leaving TikTok.

Universal said TikTok is 1 percent of the company’s revenue. Universal is a public company. According to Music Business Worldwide, which is a trade publication, they backtracked the numbers and figured out that TikTok is paying Universal about $110 million a year. That’s not a lot of money. Bigger platforms like Meta are in the range of $200 million to $300 million a year. That covers Instagram and Facebook. The streaming services like Spotify and YouTube pay vastly more money.

So TikTok is a drop in the bucket of Universal’s revenue. It’s not a lot of money, but if you’re UMG and you’re saying, Okay, “Cruel Summer” by Taylor Swift hit No. 1 again on Billboard’s Top 100 when she went on tour because kids on TikTok were playing and dancing and thinking about the song, that’s worth an awful lot of money to TikTok. That is a cultural moment that TikTok ought to profit off of, and we deserve a huge percentage of that money as well.

Sean Rameswaram

Do we know who might blink first here, TikTok or Universal?

Nilay Patel

My instinct is that TikTok will blink first because I know that Universal won’t. Right now, Universal CEO Lucian Grainge is pushing very hard against things like generative AI and platforms. They have pushed YouTube into a deal where YouTube is going to allow Universal to take AI-generated copies of artists like Drake off the platform, which is not really in copyright law. There’s no legal precedent for doing that. And YouTube basically caved.

So I think Universal is riding high in the sort of moral leverage it has with its artists and with the fans of the artists. TikTok at the same time is beginning to squeeze its users. It’s not up-and-coming or burning a bunch of money to acquire users anymore. So it’s pushing sponsored content all over the place. So there’s a real turn for the platform away from its ascendancy as a social platform, when it’s new and interesting and free and organic, to becoming ruthlessly monetized.

I think it’s an appropriate reaction for the labels to say, Okay, you’re starting to monetize this platform. We deserve a big cut of that because we allowed you to build on the cheap.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow Today, Explained on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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