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UMG vs TikTok : the end of a love affair

The sound of silence has fallen over the internet’s noisiest platform.


In late January of this year, millions of songs were removed from TikTok as a result of TikTok and Universal Music Group’s (UMG) failure to reach an agreement on music licensing within the app. The ban means that the music of artists signed to UMG, or any artist whose music has been published or created through the aid of the Universal Music Publishing Group (through songwriters, producers, etc) can no longer be played on TikTok. Following the dispute, millions of videos including music from UMG artists have had audio stripped.  


This news raises questions that have been floating around for a while surrounding TikTok’s influence on the music industry and the current state of how music is promoted and consumed. There’s been a clear shift in the last few years of artists being pressured by management to write music with the intention of becoming a TikTok trend. It’s all too recognisable among most mainstream releases lately; short, snappy songs with that 15 second sweet spot that is perfect for soundtracking any multitude of videos. 


In the past, artists including Charli XCX, FKA Twigs, Halsey, and Florence and the Machine, all expressed frustration at their labels refusal to release their new music unless a snippet blew up on TikTok. The notion of such huge artists having to grovel and being held hostage to the TikTok algorithm in order to publish their work is ludicrous, yet it only emphasises music labels’ love affair with the platform as a means of promotion.  


But when did things shift from TikTok being dependent on music to the music industry revolving around TikTok?  


While there is a minority of small musicians who have gained success through the platform, labels have seemingly taken this and formed a new marketing model of attempting to recreate the organic moments of artists like Doja Cat or PinkPantheress through force. However, this approach is unnatural and is failing their artists as the app’s users grow

lethargic of these transparent strategies.  


This new model is also not made to work on a large scale. It is not the Taylor Swifts or the Weeknds of the industry who will be most affected. Sure, moments of virality and a dance trend here and there help streaming numbers, but it is the smaller artists signed to UMG that will face the brunt of this. Those whose careers are being managed around trends. Those whose music is yet to be released until a song of theirs goes viral on TikTok. Like countless other labels, UMG have abandoned classic methods of promotion and have instead put all their eggs in TikTok’s basket. Now, smaller artists are facing the consequences - UMG promised small artists success via TikTok, and now their music is completely undiscoverable on the app. The situation runs like a cautionary tale against dependency on social media. However, as apps like TikTok have become the foremost method of audiences discovering new music, it is unlikely labels will return to previous music rollout styles.  


It’s unclear whether an agreement can be reached by UMG and TikTok. The whole case only further encapsulates TikTok’s unwavering grip on the music industry - the platform has backed the largest music company in the world into a corner and after UMG has, by their own doing, become so hugely dependent on TikTok, the threat of ‘use us or lose us’ is a distressing one.  


Words by Ciara Parsons (she/her)


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