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Universal Music Group/TikTok Standoff Hurting Innocent Bystanders

Updated: May 1

As reported by Variety, the battle between Universal Music Group (UMG) and TikTok has taken a toll on artists and songwriters, highlighting the power dynamics within the music industry. UMG's decision to remove most of its catalog from the platform has left many creatives scrambling to understand the impact on their careers.

The world's largest music company claimed the move was to help artists and songwriters reach their greatest potential. However, the human cost of this dispute has been largely overlooked. Artists and songwriters, whose careers have been built on the platform's ability to amplify their work, are now grappling with the loss of a crucial marketing tool.

Conan Gray, a Republic/UMG artist, humorously expressed the fear felt by many when he joked, “I mean my career’s over for sure. I’m never going to have a hit song ever again at this rate.

While his statement was tongue-in-cheek, it underscores the anxiety of artists who rely on the platform to break new songs and connect with fans.

Bonnie McKee, a songwriter for pop stars like Katy Perry and Britney Spears, echoed these sentiments. The loss of TikTok as a promotional avenue for her new album, "Hot City," felt like a setback.

“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?”, stated McKee. 

The impact of UMG's actions extends beyond established artists. Alt-pop artist Verskotzi, whose music is distributed by UMG-owned Virgin, discussed the emotional toll of the removal. The artist explained how the loss of TikTok as a platform felt like a personal attack, given the energy and effort he had invested in building an audience there.

Hoodie Allen, an independent hip-hop artist with millions of streams on Spotify, expressed his frustration at having his music removed from TikTok. He speculated that the decision was due to him collaborating on a song in college with a writer who later signed with UMPG, the publishing arm of UMG. Allen's case highlights how the dispute extends to artists who have no direct affiliation with UMG.

Similarly, Ryan Oakes, an independent artist whose music was removed due to his label's distribution deal with Virgin, shared his financial losses. Oakes had invested $20,000 into TikTok advertising, only to have his music removed after it gained traction on the platform. He criticized UMG for profiting off artists' work without providing proper support or transparency. “I probably spent about twenty-thousand 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.”, he stated.

BLÜ EYES, an independent artist, also spoke out about the removal of most of her songs due to a co-writer's affiliation with UMPG. She called out UMG for "holding everyone hostage" and criticized the company's actions as driven by pride rather than a genuine concern for artists' rights.

These examples illustrate the far-reaching consequences of the UMG-TikTok dispute. While the power struggle between the music giant and the social media platform plays out publicly, it is the artists and songwriters caught in the crossfire who bear the brunt of the fallout.

Despite TikTok's reputation as a platform for viral sensations, it is not a traditional music streaming service. It does not host full-length songs, limiting its function as a discovery tool rather than a primary source of music consumption. Nonetheless, the platform's ability to introduce new artists to massive audiences cannot be understated. When UMG's music was removed, millions of TikTok users lost access to the sounds that had soundtracked their lives.

In its open letter, UMG cited concerns over TikTok's use of AI as a reason for the impasse. However, the company's decision to remove its music while competitors like Warner and Sony have managed to strike licensing deals with TikTok raises questions about the motivations behind UMG's actions.

The battle between UMG and TikTok has exposed the fragility of artists' careers in an age of intense platform competition. As the music industry evolves, the power dynamics between companies and creatives will undoubtedly shift. The impact of this dispute serves as a stark reminder of the need for transparency, fairness, and a commitment to supporting the artists who are the lifeblood of the music business.

The battle between Universal Music Group (UMG) and TikTok has exposed the deep-seated tensions between the major music companies and the disruptive power of technology. The music industry's history of litigation-first responses to technological innovation, from the Napster era to the ongoing dispute over streaming royalties, has set a precedent for confrontation over change.

UMG's decision to remove its catalog from TikTok, while claiming to prioritize artists' interests, has left many creatives feeling unheard and vulnerable. The company's statement in its open letter, emphasizing sensitivity to artists' concerns, rings hollow in the face of the real-world impact of its actions.

Alt-pop artist Verskotzi encapsulates the frustration felt by many when he said, "Two huge corporations 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." The artist's experience underscores the imbalance of power within the music industry, where major labels wield significant influence over artists' careers.

TikTok's democratic potential as a promotional platform for music cannot be overstated. Unlike traditional radio, which has long been dominated by a small group of gatekeepers, TikTok allows any artist, signed or unsigned, to reach millions of new fans organically. This level of direct-to-fan connection has the power to bypass the industry's existing power structures and create new opportunities for artists to build their audiences.

Perhaps the loss of this democratic control is what truly concerns UMG. The company's actions suggest a desire to reassert the traditional power dynamics within the music industry, even if it means short-term disruption for artists. As the industry continues to evolve in the face of digital disruption, the power struggles between major labels and innovative platforms like TikTok will undoubtedly persist. The challenge for the music community will be to find a balance that supports both artists' creativity and the industry's long-term sustainability.

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