Who’s Getting Hurt in the Universal Music-TikTok Standoff? Artists and Songwriters (Guest Column)

By now, it’s widely known that Universal Music Group has removed most or all of its catalog from TikTok, as well as apparently every song that includes at least one songwriter affiliated Universal Music Publishing Group.

It’s a battle that pits the world’s largest music company against the most influential and powerful platform for promoting music — which for the past five years has been TikTok. Universal claims these actions are “to help our artists and songwriters attain their greatest creative and commercial potential,” it wrote in an open letter last week.

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However, for many of those artists and songwriters, the move is actually having the opposite effect: What has been overlooked in the war of words between both UMG and TikTok is the very real impact on the human beings who make the music.

We can probably assume that Republic/UMG artist Conan Gray was at least half-kidding when he was asked on a red carpet last month what he thought about his music being removed from TikTok and replied, “I mean my career’s over for sure. I’m never going to have a hit song ever again at this rate.” Joking aside, that statement cuts to the fear that countless artists are feeling now that they’ve lost the most powerful marketing tool for their music.

“That really hurts,” artist-songwriter Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry, Britney Spears), who has a solo album called “Hot City” coming in May, told Variety last month. “TikTok is how you get the word out about a new song — and now you’re muting someone’s entire catalog? The labels say TikTok is so important and push their artists to [be active on the platform], and now they can’t?”

If even the songwriter of multiplatinum songs is saying such things, what kind of impact is UMG’s action having on emerging and middle-class artists?

Alt-pop artist Verskotzi has a hybrid distribution deal with the independent label, Preach Records, distributed by UMG-owned Virgin. He discussed in a video the emotional impact of the move.

“As an artist I want my music to reach as many people as possible,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “If it’s not connecting right away, you start to realize your biggest fear — that no one is hearing your work. To have the biggest social media platform mute all of the songs that I put so much energy into over the past two or three years — I just broke. It was so hard, so discouraging, to realize that a negotiation tactic gave me a panic attack that fucked me up for a month. It started to create even more issues in my mental health.”

The independent hip hop artist Hoodie Allen, who distributes his music via Tunecore (which has no affiliation with UMG) and has hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify and hundreds of thousands of video creations using his music on TikTok, took to the platform to express his frustration. “Come yesterday, all my sounds are off this platform. Everything that I’ve built on here has been eliminated and no one can give me answers. I’m freaking out.” He guessed that it was because he’d written one song “in college” with a writer who later signed with UMPG. “Now this company can retroactively take all my songs down because they’re in a proxy battle with TikTok?,” he said. “And not only that, they’ve taken albums down that have no Universal music affiliation whatsoever. And there’s no one who can help at all.”

Similarly, Ryan Oakes had his music removed because his label, Position Music, is disributed by Virgin (which is owned by UMG). He said he’d spent $20,000 “of my own dollars into TikTok, because it was working so well and I was getting a great return on my investment. Now those videos I spent twenty grand on… they just took them down. I spent twenty grand essentially for UMG, who I’m not signed to, to remove all my music in videos after they’re the ones telling artists they needed to blow up on TikTok.”

The independent artist BLÜ EYES (who uses DistroKid for distribution – which has no affiliation with UMG) posted to her TikTok (and her 335K followers) that most of her songs were taken down because one of her co-writers is signed to a publishing company affiliated with UMPG. “Universal, I know you don’t care, but you are absolutely screwing everyone. This completely holds us hostage to be able to make any money. It’s one thing to do this in the name of ‘protecting your artists’ and standing up for their rights. It’s another thing to do this out of pride. And that’s absolutely how it feels right now. It feels like [Universal] made a bluff, and TikTok called [their] bluff. It’s time to admit [your] mistakes and give everyone their music back.”

There are many more examples.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of TikTok either. The power of the platform — and pressure from the labels — has essentially forced artists into becoming content creators, making videos that often have very little to do with their art in a desperate effort to “go viral,” or at least drive traffic for their music.

But despite what many music advocacy leaders would have you believe, TikTok is not a music-streaming platform — it doesn’t even allow official songs longer than 60 seconds onto its platform — so unlike YouTube or radio or a streaming service, few people are turning to TikTok to listen to music. They’re going there to discover it — and then millions of them head to paid streaming services to listen to those songs, which pay artists, labels, publishers and songwriters from those streams (not enough, but that’s a different discussion). It’s not a perfect model, but here we are.

In its open letter, UMG also cites TikTok’s policies on AI as an obstacle to an agreement: “TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI generated recordings… sponsoring artist replacement by AI.” However, it’s worth noting that the other two major music companies, Warner and Sony, both struck licensing deals with TikTok last year and in 2020, respectively — whether or not they have the same concerns, their music remains on the platform.

The major music companies have a problematic history with tech — most egregiously, their strategy of suing fans for illegal downloading during the Napster era of the early 2000s — that usually consists of lawsuits, takedown orders, and talking tough to impress Wall Street, instead of coming up with innovative solutions.

But despite UMG’s claims in their open letter — “We understand the disruption is difficult for some of you and your careers, and we are sensitive to how this may affect you around the world,” it reads. “We recognize that this might be uncomfortable at the moment. But it is critical for the sustained future value, safety and health of the entire music ecosystem, including all music fans.” — many artists are feeling unheard and helpless.

Versktozi continues, “Two huge corporations that are pulling the strings on behalf of artists. We are the actual product — without us they have nothing, but this showed me how little power we have.”

TikTok remains the most powerful promotional platform for music to date — and is arguably the most democratic promotional platform to date, a far cry from the series of gatekeepers who have controlled access to traditional radio for decades. On TikTok, any artist, of any level, signed or not, can reach millions of new fans on their own for free — for better and worse.

Maybe that loss of control is the real issue for UMG.

Ari Herstand is the author of the best-selling book How To Make It in the New Music Business, the host of the Webby award winning New Music Business podcast, the CEO and founder of the music business education company Ari’s Take, and an independent musician.

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