Universal Music slams TikTok and pulls Taylor Swift and others from the platform while accusing it of bullying tactics during compensation discussions

TikTok logo on an iPhone display
(Image credit: Unsplash / Solen Feyissa)

If you open TikTok and start to scroll through your For You page you will no doubt notice that many of the videos you see feature music. In fact, music is a key part of how TikTok works with creators filming their videos with songs in the background, lipsyncing them, and more. But that music doesn't come free, and one of the companies that represents some of the biggest artists in the world says that TikTok is playing hardball over how much it's willing to pay to license that music.

In fact, Universal Music Group says that TikTok is being downright dastardly about the way it is trying to rip Universal and its artists off. In a long open letter that claims it is time to "call time out on TikTok," Universal details a long list of grievances against TikTok including what it claims are bullying tactics to try and force it to accept less money than it believes its artists deserve. Those artists just so happen to be some of the biggest in the world including Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and Drake.

Following the breakdown of talks between Universal and TikTok, the music company has started to withdraw its catalog of music from the social network. What comes next is anyone's guess, but videos that previously had the affected music will now be muted and creators will have no choice but to switch to an alternative track instead.

A sad, sad song

Universal's open letter began by setting out its goals to "help our artists and songwriters attain their greatest creative and commercial potential," something that will be literal music to the ears of those people. And it's fair to say that it's been good at it in the past, too. But when it comes to TikTok, there's a problem.

According to Universal, it wanted to make sure that TikTok was working on three key things as part of a revised deal.

"The terms of our relationship with TikTok are set by contract, which expires January 31, 2024," the music outfit explains. "In our contract renewal discussions, 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."

The problem? None of that is happening.

"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," Universal notes, adding that "Ultimately TikTok is trying to build a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music."

On the subject of AI music, Universal accused TikTok of "TikTok is allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings—as well as 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." Strong words indeed.

Universal says that it also suggested that TikTok revamp its system for reporting bigotry, harassment, and other nastiness on its platform only to find that it "responded first with indifference, and then with intimidation."

That intimidation came in the form of offering a new deal that was worth less than the old one while also "selectively removing the music of certain of our developing artists, while keeping on the platform our audience-driving global stars." In short, it doesn't sound great.

As always, it's the TikTok users that suffer here. We'd have to imagine that an agreement between Universal and TikTok can be achieved, but it'll be a case of seeing which huge corporation blinks first. And as anyone following the Epic Games Vs Apple situation in recent years will attest, that doesn't always go well.

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Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too. Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.