T/G Status Update: TikTok & UMG Face the Music

TikTok logo "fighting" Universal logo in a boxing ring while an enthusiastic crowd overlooks. Text on top reads "Status Update: TikTok & UMG Face The Music"

UMG Pulls Entire Catalog of Music from TikTok

TikTok is making headlines again, but for once it’s not about data security—this time it’s all about music rights. On February 1, 2024, Universal Music Group (UMG) pulled its entire music catalog—including major artists like Taylor Swift, Drake, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, and more—from TikTok. The group failed to reach a new agreement on usage rights by the old agreement’s January 31, 2024 expiration date. Since then, music by UMG artists or distributed by UMG has slowly been muted and/or removed from all existing videos.

Per Universal: “TikTok attempted to bully us into accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth.” Meanwhile, TikTok claims UMG “has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.”

The original agreement made in 2021 formalized the use of UMG music in the app without risk of copyright infringement, but this new arrangement (or lack thereof) pulls all of their music off the app entirely. This extends beyond artists represented by UMG, as many smaller labels or unsigned artists still use UMG to distribute their music. According to an annual report from UMG in 2022, their catalog contains almost 4 million songs.

TikTok’s Impact

TikTok’s impact on popular culture and the music industry is undeniable. At its core, TikTok is a video AND music app. Originally created in 2014 under the name “Musical.ly”, first-gen users could make short lip-sync videos to music and other audio clips. The app underwent a lot of changes beyond the name upgrade and truly took off in the United States in 2020. Billboard has a dedicated TikTok chart, Sirius XM has a TikTok channel, and many other streaming services have playlists featuring rising hits on the app.

Many musicians in the past four years can attribute part of their rise in popularity to TikTok including Lil Nas X, Doja Cat, Jack Harlow, Måneskin, Noah Kahn, and Lizzie McAlpine, to name a few. With younger demographics moving away from radio, TikTok became the new source of passive music discovery. According to TikTok, its users are 2x more likely to discover and share new artists on the app compared to other social and short-form video platforms, with 75% of its users finding new artists via TikTok clips. There’s a reason music execs were scrambling to get their artists on the app as a promotional tool—it works.

Beyond current music, TikTok has a unique talent for resurrecting music that’s long since left the charts. One of the more iconic trends to hit the app originated because of this video. And less than a month later, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” returned to the Billboard Top 10, 42 years after the initial release. Similarly, “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush returned to the charts after being prominently featured in an episode of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and a whopping 2 million and counting videos on TikTok. Even recently, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dance Floor,” originally released in 2001, is finding new life due to the virality of Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn” peaking at number two on the UK singles chart and reaching the top 50 on Billboard’s Top 100 (her first song ever to crack the top 100). You’ll have to take my word for it that it was everywhere on TikTok until recently because it did indeed get muted by UMG.

This is only a snapshot of their impact—we’ve barely even scratched the surface.

So What Does This Mean?

For Marketers:

For marketers of UMG artists, this will have an obvious impact—the loss of a marketing channel, especially one as large (1 billion monthly active users since September 2021) and as far-reaching as TikTok, will require quite the strategy adjustment. For smaller artists, who largely do their own marketing or may not even have a team or label yet, this could be detrimental. Artists like Peach PRC were discovered on TikTok, signed to UMG, and now can post about their music where the majority of their fans are.

For most brands, not much will change in terms of content creation. Business accounts had the highest level of restrictions regarding sounds on TikTok since they can only utilize songs licensed for commercial use. This could, however, have an impact on User-Generated Content (UGC) and influencer marketing, as well as user retention on the app as a whole.

For Creators:

Content creators who make their living on music promotion, like choreographer Kara, will have to massively pivot. Kara worked directly with music labels, including UMG, to create short dances for TikTok in hopes the dance and accompanying song would go viral. But the fallout spans numerous niches on the app. Most notably, the fan community. If you’re not familiar with fancams, this SNL skit with Pedro Pascal may help. This skit pokes fun at the rise in fancam videos of Pedro that swept TikTok at the beginning of 2023—all of which have now tragically been muted.

How the TikTok Community is Coping

Laughing through the pain, of course. Almost immediately after the news broke, users started releasing their own covers of popular songs, wonderfully off-key, and posting fancams with non-UMG sounds like the Nintendo Wii theme music or basic royalty-free tunes. The number of videos under the UMG tag has grown to nearly 60,000 and counting. Even popular musicians like Noah Kahn and Conan Gray have chimed in.

What’s Next?

I predict that TikTok and UMG will return to the table eventually to make a new agreement. Ultimately both entities functioned without each other in the past, but I think beyond the industry itself, consumer behaviors have shifted. In a way, TikTok has the upper hand because they have an existing audience hungry for new music with a proven track record of making artists go viral which equates to as they said “free marketing” (but we all know nothing is truly free). Realistically, UMG is a multibillion-dollar corporation. Will removing their content from TikTok actually hurt their existing bottom line? Probably not. But will this hurt smaller or new up-and-coming musicians? Absolutely. Something else to consider is their competition is still on the app so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. With UMG’s mega stars on the sidelines, what music will take its place?

Ultimately, as it always is, it’ll be up to the marketers to adapt.

T/G to the Rescue

Phew, that was a lot, did I mention I’m chronically online? I make that sacrifice for you, dear reader. At T/G, our digital marketing team stays on top of social trends and news, so you don’t have to. If you’re just dipping your toes into the social world, you may need some guidance on choosing the right social platform for your business or if you have some well-established accounts, it may be time to run a social audit. T/G is your organic social media partner. We offer a variety of services including social media audits, paid social advertising, social strategy/execution/monitoring, content creation, and more. Let’s talk!