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The Dartmouth
May 24, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Trends: Universal Music Group’s impact on TikTok

After UMG removed its songs and sounds from TikTok on Feb. 1, the app was forced to adjust.

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On Jan. 31 — after failing to reach a licensing agreement with TikTok — Universal Music Group removed its catalog from the platform. UMG represents around 250 artists, including A-Listers such as Drake, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift. The result: 30 percent of popular songs have been removed from the platform and many old videos no longer have sound. 

According to the group’s open letter to TikTok, UMG’s decision — which involved a fraught exchange between the two parties — highlights three core issues: fair artist compensation, the harmful effects of AI on human artists and TikTok’s flawed system for content moderation.

UMG outlined its grievances with TikTok in a statement released on Jan. 30, one day before the music group’s contract with TikTok expired. The group began by recognizing TikTok’s power and influence as both a platform and a technology, but also highlighted UMG’s role in TikTok’s success.

“TikTok’s success … has been built in large part on the music created by our artists and songwriters,” the letter stated.

UMG goes on to address the issue of fair compensation for artists, claiming that TikTok proposed paying UMG artists at a “fraction of the rate” offered by other “major social platforms.” According to the company’s open letter, TikTok accounts for one percent of UMG’s total revenue — a statistic UMG used to emphasize poor compensation for artists and songwriters.

UMG also cited the protection of artists from AI-generated recordings as a major issue. In its statement, the group accused TikTok of taking insufficient steps to protect artists from AI content creation.

“TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings,” the letter stated. “[TikTok is also] developing tools to enable, promote and encourage AI music creation on the platform itself — and then demanding a contractual right which would allow this content to massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists, in a move that is nothing short of sponsoring artist replacement by AI.”

UMG also expressed overarching concerns with TikTok’s platform. The statement cited, for example, reported difficulties removing problematic content — specifically surrounding pornographic deepfakes of artists, which have become a greater issue as AI has developed. The group compared TikTok’s existing moderation infrastructure to “the digital equivalent of ‘Whack-a-Mole.’”

UMG recognized the strain the move could place on artists and fans but emphasized a responsibility to artists as the group’s primary motivation for the decision to cut ties with TikTok.

“We have an overriding responsibility to our artists to fight for a new agreement under which they are appropriately compensated for their work, on a platform that respects human creativity, in an environment that is safe for all and effectively moderated,” the letter stated. 

TikTok posted a short response to UMG’s letter on Jan. 30, expressing their dissatisfaction with the way in which UMG handled the issue.  

“Despite Universal’s false narrative and rhetoric, the fact is they have chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform with well over a billion users that serves as a free promotional discovery vehicle to their talent,” TikTok’s letter stated.

In the past four years, TikTok has played a large role in popularizing music and launching artists’ careers. UMG artist Noah Kahan, for example, credits TikTok as instrumental to his hit song “Stick Season” gaining popularity.

In a February 2024 profile for “The New Yorker,” Kahan discusses his unlikely viral success. 

“I knew there was potential for a moment to happen for me,” he said. “I didn’t realize it would happen so quickly and in such a big way … I didn’t think it would be through viral success. I fucking hated social media. TikTok for me was just, like, ‘What the fuck, dude? What am I gonna do here? I don’t get it.’”

Now, however, the most popular pinned videos on Kahan’s page — which tease the release of the third iteration of his album “Stick Season: Forever” — have been muted. Frequent users of TikTok have cited similar phenomena on other artists’ pages. 

Annie DeTar ’27 said she did not know about UMG’s decision before it happened, but became aware of it after noticing a lot of muted sounds on TikTok.

“I had no idea [that UMG removed their catalog],” DeTar said. “But I knew a lot of the videos that I looked back on were muted, so I knew something was going on. I would say I’ve seen a lot less of Taylor Swift and Noah Kahan on there. Recently, on my ForYou page, I’ve seen a bunch of solo artists teasing music they are going to release, more than before.”

Alvina Zhang ’26 said she also noticed a shift in the music on TikTok following UMG’s decision. 

“I feel like there are a lot more indie songs coming up,” Zhang said. “I’ve noticed a lot more less well-known artists.”

Other users, however, noticed fewer changes to their ForYou pages — TikTok’s main channel for content. Anna Manta ’26 said her ForYou page has remained similar even without official sounds from many popular artists she enjoys.

“I thought I would notice a shift, but I actually haven’t really,” Manta said. “I’ve seen a lot of people either speeding up the sounds or making mixes because a lot of my ForYou page is still Taylor Swift. I see a lot of mashups of her popular songs. I feel like everyone is just adapting to get around those rules.”

According to Billboard, it is too early to determine the lasting impact UMG’s decision could have — both on TikTok and the music industry as a whole. Billboard suggests that “in the interim, indie artists might see a bigger window to get their songs noticed on the short-form app.”

TikTok is a platform familiar with controversy. Owned by the Chinese parent company ByteDance, lawmakers have become increasingly concerned that TikTok may be giving sensitive user data, including location information, to the Chinese government. TikTok has denied allegations from Congress. The app is banned on all government devices used by the military, and it has sparked controversy regarding its availability on other government devices. More than 30 states have banned TikTok on government devices, according to Forbes.

On March 13, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed a bill with broad bipartisan support that would force ByteDance to either ban TikTok in the United States or sell the hugely popular platform.

UMG may be making a risky gamble. If most users do not notice a significant difference in TikTok’s quality or content without UMG’s catalog, it could eventually force UMG and other music companies into worse negotiating positions than ever — thus exacerbating the issues of artist compensation and AI-generated music that UMG was originally trying to combat. In the meantime, TikTok continues to walk a thin line between massive popularity and controversy.