TikTok begins removing Universal Music publishing songs, expanding royalty battle

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The bruising battle over royalties between Universal Music Group and TikTok entered a new and more severe stage in the early hours of Tuesday as songs published by UMG began to be removed from the platform.

The standoff, which began earlier this month, initially saw recordings owned or distributed by UMG removed from the platform, but now is extending to a much larger number of songs by including those published by the company.

The situation, accompanied by a bellicose war of words from both sides, pits UMG — the world’s largest music company — against TikTok — the most influential platform for promoting music for the past five years — as they continue to fail to renew their licensing agreement, which expired on Jan. 31.

The reach of this latest move is broad, as it effects a vast number of recordings not issued by a UMG-owned label, and many artists who have collaborated with songwriters under contract to Universal Music Publishing Group. Videos featuring those songs must either be removed from the platform or have the music on them muted. (UMG, a Dutch American-owned company, has no relation to NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News.)

While the scope of the move is complex — artists and songwriters may have differing deals in different territories — sources tell Variety that the initial move is focused on “Anglo-American” repertoire. UMPG’s vast stable of writers includes such top creators as Adele, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Ice Spice, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Metallica, Metro Boomin, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, SZA, the Weeknd, and many others.

Considering the large number of songwriters and publishers credited on most contemporary hit songs, it was unclear just how much music will be affected, or where the two companies might draw the line over whether or not a song is controlled by UMPG — for example, if one of seven writers on a song is under contract to Universal. Opinions differ widely: Sources close to UMG claim that it has a share in a majority of the songs on the platform, while ones close to TikTok places the number much smaller, between 20% and 30%. The latter sources also claim that TikTok has seen no drop in users since UMG music began to be removed earlier this month.

In an open letter dated Jan. 30, UMG chairman-CEO Lucian Grainge wrote, “In our contract renewal discussions [with TiktTok], we have been pressing them on three critical issues — appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users… With respect to the issue of artist and songwriter compensation, TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay,” adding that TikTok accounts for 1% of the company’s total revenue. “Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”

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In response, TikTok posted an open letter the same day, writing in part, “It is sad and disappointing that Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters… TikTok has been able to reach ‘artist-first’ agreements with every other label and publisher. Clearly, Universal’s self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”

More strong words can be expected during UMG’s earnings call, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

The impact of the move on artists and songwriters has been very real, despite UMG’s claim about revenue, as artists have lost the most-powerful platform for promoting their music, along with any royalties that would have been generated on the platform.

“That really hurts,” says songwriter-artist Bonnie McKee, who has written hits for Katy Perry and Britney Spears and has a solo album coming in May. “TikTok is how artists get the word out about a new song — and now they’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?”

Sources close to the situation tell Variety they see no quick resolution to the standoff. The clearest precedent took place across 2008-2009 when Warner Music Group removed or muted its music on YouTube for several months before the companies came to terms. However, the scope of the UMG-TikTok battle is much broader.

Reps for UMG and TikTok did not immediately respond to requests for further comment on Tuesday. Variety will have more on the situation as it develops.

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