Mar 1, 2024 3 min read

Universal Music sends another memo to songwriters about its big TikTok bust-up

As the deadline passed for TikTok to remove Universal published songs from its platform, the major has sent another memo to its artists and songwriters. It admits some of them may be finding that the disruption caused by its TikTok bust-up is proving difficult, but insists it will all be worth it

Universal Music sends another memo to songwriters about its big TikTok bust-up

Universal Music has published another statement addressing its artists and songwriters about the big bust up with TikTok. Acknowledging the disruption caused for many of those artists and writers by its licensing stand-off with the video-sharing platform, it insists that it is acting in the best interests of the wider music community. "We have a long history of successfully fighting for our songwriters and will continue to do so", it declares. 

The new statement comes as the second key deadline passed after TikTok failed to agree a new licensing deal with the biggest music rights company in the world. 

Failure to agree a new licensing deal meant that TikTok had to remove all the recordings released by Universal labels by the end of January, and then all the songs published and licensed by Universal Music Publishing by the end of February. Removing the songs means the stand-off now affects artists and labels that have no direct connection with Universal, if they have released recordings of songs in which the major has even a small stake. 

"TikTok is removing Universal Music Publishing songs because there is no licence in place", the new note to songwriters begins. "As you may have heard, to date, they have not agreed to recognise the fair value of your songs, which so many other digital partners around the world have done". 

For those artists signed to Universal that use TikTok as a crucial fan engagement tool, the licensing stand-off is particularly problematic, restricting what those artists can do on the platform. 

Many of those artists may share the concerns about TikTok under-paying for music, but at the same time are annoyed that full use of such an important platform has been cut off so abruptly. They also probably don't share the confidence of Universal CEO Lucian Grainge and CFO Boyd Muir on their investor call earlier this week that music-using creators and music fans on TikTok will just move over to Instagram and YouTube

"We understand the disruption is difficult for some of you and your careers", the new letter continues, "and we are sensitive to how this may affect you around the world. We recognise that this might be uncomfortable at the moment”. 

“But it is critical for the sustained future value, safety and health of the entire music ecosystem, including all music fans” it adds. “As always, Universal Music Publishing will only support partners that value songwriters, artists and your songs. We have a long history of successfully fighting for our songwriters and will continue to do so. You should expect nothing less from us".

In its original open letter to artists and writers announcing that licensing talks with TikTok had collapsed, Universal stressed that its bust up wasn't just about money.

TikTok and its owner Bytedance, it said, had failed to respond to its concerns over AI and online safety. It dwells on the AI point in more detail in the new letter, citing media reports about TikTok's plan to encourage video creators to increasingly make use of AI-generated recordings where it doesn't have to pay any royalties to the music industry. 

"TikTok's intentions with respect to AI are increasingly apparent", the new letter says. "While refusing to respond to our concerns about AI depriving songwriters from fair compensation, or provide assurances that they will not train their AI models on your songs, recent media reports reveal 'TikTok and ByteDance leaders have long wanted to move the app beyond music' [and] 'TikTok has an incentive to push the use of these AI recordings rather than the copyrighted and licensed recordings'. Every indication is that they simply do not value your music". 

Seeking to back up that statement, the Universal letter links to two articles, one behind a paywall on The Information’s website and the other a Bloomberg report which mainly speculates about TikTok’s motivations. In that article, it is University Of Washington School law professor Peter Nicolas who says, “As long as TikTok doesn’t need to pay or needs to pay less for them, then TikTok has an incentive to push the use of these AI recordings rather than the copyrighted and label-licensed recordings”. 

It’s no secret that Bytedance has been investing in generative AI for years, although it’s not clear if Universal has specific knowledge about TikTok’s strategy in that domain which backs up the claim that its “intentions with respect to AI are increasingly apparent". Certainly it hasn’t shared any of that knowledge if it does have it, instead expecting songwriters to take its position on the situation on mere trust. 

Universal-signed artists and writers will likely share the major’s concerns about TikTok not providing assurances that it isn’t training its AI models with their music. Though some might also note that, so far, Universal itself hasn’t provided much assurance that it will get specific consent from artists and writers before allowing their music to be used in AI training, if and when there are platforms willing to pay the major music company for the privilege. 

We await to see where this dispute goes next - and to what extent Universal Music can keep its artists and songwriters on side.

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