UMG should drop the facade and face the music

Scrolling on TikTok, the short- format video social media app, has been different recently: its billion plus users can no longer access songs from top artists like Drake, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift.

Videos with music from an expansive catalog have been silent as of Jan. 31 following a blunt open statement from Universal Music Group to TikTok. UMG, one of the “big three record labels” alongside Sony Music and Warner Music Group, controls more than 32% of the global music market, according to Statistica and Music Business Worldwide. UMG pulled its artists’ music from the app after months of failed negotiation on the company’s rights to satisfactory royalty rates and copyright concerns in order “to protect the rights of artists.”

After UMG revoked the songs’ licenses — the permission for an agency to use the music — TikTok released a statement responding to the decision, stating that UMG “put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters” and prohibited TikTok from

providing a “promotional and discovery vehicle for their [artists’] talent.” 

UMG defended its decision on two points: the right to increase royalties upon the renewal of its contract with TikTok and the worrisome takeover of music generated by artificial intelligence on the app. While their actions may subtract from user experience, UMG is justified in revoking TikTok’s rights to the music, as their drastic approach will prevent false curation of their artists by AI and will spur legislative action to protect artists from this threat.

AI-generated music has filled TikTok feeds in recent months. “Heart on My Sleeve,” a song created by combining the voices of The Weeknd and Drake using AI, went viral on the platform, garnering millions of views. Similarly, Taylor Swift songs on the app have been remixed with AI-generated Ye verses, combining the sounds of two feuding artists into videos quick toreceive attention. This infiltration of AI raises multiple legal concerns for artists and their representation, including what constitutes artistic consent and record label approval. 

While UMG’s removal of its catalog will remedy some of these issues, its true intention is to garner more royalties for streamed music on TikTok — the rights of the artists and their exploitation by AI are not UMG’s utmost priority.

In a recent New Yorker interview, UMG CEO Lucian Grainge reaffirmed the company’s position against generative AI, declaring he has not “spent forty-five years in the industry just to have it be a free-for-all where anything goes.” This statement eerily resembles the concerns that big record labels had regarding artists’ rights after the emergence of sharable MP3 music files in the 1990s and Spotify and other streaming platforms in the early 2010s, according to the Financial Times. As profits dwindled for record labels and the demand for streaming services skyrocketed, “the big three” and other music entities had no choice but to enter into many million-dollar contracts — involving the artist, label and music streaming platforms — to keep profits afloat. With this new financial guarantee, record labels no longer bring up concerns over artists’ rights, as they receive a 50% to 90% of artists’ profits according to Pandora Cloud Cover.

Just as in the 2010s, once UMG’s removal of their music from TikTok succeeds in pressuring TikTok in to satisfy their greedy demands, the AI pretense will be dropped and their inauthentic concern for their artist’s rights will dissipate. 

This highlights the need for immediate and concrete federal legislation against AI-generated music
and the exploitation of artists via AI.

Accompanying this legislation must be a negotiation between UMG and TikTok, as the app’s ability to increase an artist’s reach is crucial to both new and mainstream artists.

UMG’s responsibility to both protect artists and provide them with a profitable platform illustrate the need for boundaries and clarity with TikTok that can only be determined by trial and error; in other words, UMG’s removal of music from TikTok is a necessarytest. However, such a “solution” cannot last; both entities must agree on a way forward, one that provides legal protection for artists against AI and keeps music accessible to app users.

While UMG may have ulterior motives for removing its music from TikTok, this stand marks the beginning of true protection for artists.

Art by Kate Johnson

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