Feb 27, 2024 5 min read

TikTok is stripping out Universal published songs from its catalogue - with recordings owned by Sony and Warner music likely to be affected

As Universal’s big fall out with TikTok continues, the video sharing platform has begun removing songs controlled by Universal Music Publishing. This has resulted in songs partly controlled by other companies - including the other majors - being removed from the service

TikTok is stripping out Universal published songs from its catalogue - with recordings owned by Sony and Warner music likely to be affected

The deadline for TikTok to remove every song that is currently published by Universal Music Publishing from its platform is looming. This has led to much debate regarding how much music, and how many artists and songwriters, will be impacted by the big bust up between the major music company and the video sharing platform. It will also be an important topic for discussion on Universal’s next investor call, which takes place tomorrow, Wednesday 28 Feb.

Recordings released by Universal Music were removed at the end of last month after talks to negotiate a new licensing deal collapsed. However, the deadline for removing songs that the major publishes is the end of this month. As the songs are blocked, artists and labels not allied with Universal - but who have recorded versions of songs in which Universal controls even a small percentage - will see their tracks taken down and muted on the TikTok platform. 

According to TikTok data seen by CMU today - and verified against MLC publishing data - three of the biggest recordings currently trending on the platform will be affected in this way: ‘Girl On Fire’ by Alicia Keys, ‘One Kiss’ by Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa, and ‘Runaway Baby’ by Bruno Mars

The first two tracks are both Sony-owned recordings, while ‘Runaway Baby’ was released through Warner Music. However, all three tracks include writer shares controlled by Universal Music Publishing, meaning that it’s likely that these tracks may be affected as Universal-published works are removed, having wide ranging implications for other labels. 

Interestingly, a cover of the Emeli Sandé track ‘Read All About It (pt III)’ is also trending. The original recording of this is owned by Universal, and while it’s not clear whether the cover is being substituted for the original track, it does show that songs may be more important than a particular recording when it comes to music being used on TikTok.

Industry gossip has suggested that as many as 70-80% of popular tracks on TikTok could be affected, when both recordings and songs controlled by UMG are combined. Though sources closer to TikTok reckon that removing Universal publishing repertoire will impact closer to 20-30% of popular songs.

It's not clear what is meant by 'popular' in these predictions. What really matters isn't the total number of tracks affected, but what percentage of the music that is inserted and then streamed on TikTok will be impacted. 

If Universal's stand off with TikTok continues for any length of time, it will be interesting to see how the artists and labels negatively impacted by the removal of the major's songs respond. It's not just Universal that has criticised platforms like TikTok for undervaluing the music posted to its platform. However, other labels continue to work with the social media firm.  

Warner Music renewed its licensing agreement last year and its CFO Bryan Castellani recently told the company's investors, "we like our TikTok deal ... it continues to be a driver of growth”.  

And, back in the 2010s, when German collecting society GEMA refused to license YouTube, many labels expressed frustration that their videos were blocked in Germany, despite also being unhappy with the rates YouTube paid at the time. 

We don't know the specifics of Universal's big beef with TikTok, except that in its letter to artists and writers last month it said that its priorities during licensing negotiations were "appropriate compensation for our artists and songwriters, protecting human artists from the harmful effects of AI, and online safety for TikTok’s users". 

However, we do know that, as the biggest music rights owner in the world, Universal has been putting a lot of pressure on its digital partners to evolve their business models in a way that benefits its bottom line. 

Spotify has introduced a new payment threshold that freezes millions of grassroots artists out of the royalty pool. Apple has introduced its spatial available bonus which negatively impacts many independent labels. And in the TikTok dispute, even its rival major labels will be hit. 

It remains to be seen if those rivals become increasingly vocal about these changes and - even if they do - whether there's anything they can do about it other than loudly moan. 

Universal might counter that it is standing up for the value of music in general and - if it wins the battle with TikTok and gets a better deal - that could set a precedent that allows other labels and publishers to negotiate better terms. 

In its memo last month, the major declared, "ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music". The major has an investor call tomorrow and it will be interesting to see what CEO Lucian Grainge has to say about the TikTok war when questioned by shareholders and analysts. 

It will also be interesting to see quite how many non-Universal artists and songwriters end up being impacted. The complexities of music publishing make the removal of the songs trickier and the potential impact harder to assess. 

When labels and distributors deliver a recording to a digital platform, they do not usually identify the song contained in it nor who controls the song copyright. Therefore platforms do not really know what songs are being streamed or who owns them, meaning publishers and collecting societies have to claim what they are due each month based on recording data. 

Sources say that TikTok is using information provided by Universal Music Publishing in order to identify what works need to be removed. Other publishers have already spotted works they co-own with Universal being impacted, though often not the latest releases. It's not clear if that's because rights ownership is still being agreed and rights data still being processed in relation to the newest music. 

There is also an added complication. Even when Universal publishes a song, it doesn't necessarily license the work to digital services, depending on which collecting society the writer is a member of. In some countries the mechanical rights in songs are controlled by the publisher and in other countries by a collecting society. 

If the mechanical rights are controlled by a collecting society, usually the society would license digital platforms. So, if a writer is a member of German society GEMA, it controls the mechanical rights and issues the licence, even if the writer is signed to Universal. Payments are then made to GEMA and Universal would collect the ‘publisher’s share’ of that money. 

However, there are always extra complexities with music publishing and - with sources suggesting that TikTok is erring on the side of caution when it comes to removing songs - it could be that the takedowns also impact works where the writers' collecting society is the licensor.  

As March approaches and TikTok completes its big song takedown, we might get a little more clarity on how big the impact really is, and how those impacted plan to respond. 

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