It’s been around two weeks since Universal Music Group (UMG) did the unthinkable and removed their entire music catalogue from TikTok.
The decision came after UMG and TikTok failed to renew their music licensing contract, citing disagreements over compensation, the rise of AI, and the safety of users.
On January 30, UMG published a scathing open letter directed toward TikTok, calling out the platform for “build[ing] a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”
“As an indication of how little TikTok compensates artists and songwriters, despite its massive and growing user base, rapidly rising advertising revenue and increasing reliance on music-based content, TikTok accounts for only about 1% of our total revenue,” the letter reads.
UMG, which controls approximately a third of the world’s music, stopped licensing music to TikTok once its contract expired on January 31. This includes some of Gen Z’s favourite artists— with the discographies of Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Billie Eilish now wiped from the platform.
“TikTok attempted to bully us into accepting a deal worth less than the previous deal, far less than fair market value and not reflective of their exponential growth,” the letter goes on to say. “TikTok’s tactics are obvious: use its platform power to hurt vulnerable artists and try to intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music.”
TikTok was quick to clap back, accusing UMG of putting “their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.”
“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 and discovery vehicle for their talent,” the social media company writes in a statement. “[UMG’s] self-serving actions are not in the best interests of artists, songwriters and fans.”
There is no denying that TikTok has become a significant player in the modern music industry.
Just last year, TikTok users watched South African artist Tyla break into the mainstream after her song ‘Water’ went super viral. The 2024 Grammy’s solidified her achievement, with Tyla securing the win in the “Best African Music Performance” category.
Of course, Tyla is just one of many success stories that have come out of TikTok.
According to TikTok’s Music Impact Report from 2023, the short-form video app “fuels music discovery,” where TikTok users are more likely than the average social media user to come across new music and elevate smaller artists.
Doja Cat, Lil Nas X, and The Kid LAROI were once mainly recognised for their TikTok-viral tunes. With these songs and artists transcending the digital space and defining mainstream pop, it’s clear that today’s music industry is heavily influenced by TikTok (whether they like to admit it or not). But what is often assumed to be a symbiotic relationship between the music industry and TikTok has been called into question with UMG’s decision to pull its artists.
The role of music in TikTok culture
When we think back to peak lockdown in 2020, music-related trends dominated TikTok.
From dancing to lip-syncing, TikTok users worldwide were doing the Renegade to K-Camp’s ‘Lottery’ or the viral choreography of Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Savage.’ These types of trends saw the likes of Addison Rae, Charli, and Dixie D’Amelio skyrocket to viral fame.
With TikTok becoming the most downloaded app in 2020— beating out Facebook, WhatsApp, and Zoom combined— it was in this era when the average social media user became acquainted with the app. As a result, dancing videos and lip-syncing have pretty much become synonymous with TikTok content.
But the importance of music on the short-form video app runs deeper than pandemic-era trends. Before TikTok became the platform we know today, it was Musical.ly.
Back in 2014, Musical.ly founders Alex Zhu and Louis Yang set out to create an education-based social network called Cicada.
“At that time massive online open courses were extremely popular. Everyone was attending, but 10 per cent or less were finishing the course because the curriculum was very long,” Zhu explains to Forbes contributor Murray Newlands. “We thought to make the educational content short-form: you had three to five minutes to talk about the concept in a very brief fashion…At the end of the day, we hoped that everybody could teach and everybody could learn, and we’d build a community.”
After raising funding and working on the platform for six months, Zhu and Yang decided they needed to pivot. Not only was it difficult for experts to synthesise complex topics into short videos, but “the learning experience and the content format was [just] really boring,” Zhu notes.
While Zhu and Yang could have chosen to tap out after Cicada’s failure, they realised that building a “content-based community” required videos that were “extremely light” and relatively easy to upload and create. After brainstorming, they came up with the idea of combining music, social media, and video. And so, Musical.ly was born.
While Musical.ly was not what its founders necessarily envisioned, it soon became the go-to platform for short-form musical content in the mid-2010s. The app even spawned its own class of creators, with the likes of Loren Gray, Baby Ariel, and Jacob Sartorius dominating the app with lip-sync videos.
Chinese tech company ByteDance went on to acquire Musical.ly in 2018 for “as much as $1 billion.” Hoping to capitalise off the platform’s success and user base, ByteDance merged Musical.ly with its own short-form video app, TikTok.
“Today it was announced that two of the world’s fastest-growing short-form video apps, Musical.ly and TikTok, will unite to create a new global app,” a 2018 statement from the TikTok newsroom reads. “The newly upgraded platform, which keeps the TikTok name, creates a unified user experience, debuts a new logo and user interface, and offers greater capabilities for video creation.”
That being said, ByteDance didn’t necessarily set out to establish a music-discovery platform, despite what TikTok evolved into. Instead, the merger of TikTok and Musical.ly was a strategic decision— one that would help ByteDance expand beyond the Chinese market and go global.
“(By) integrating Musical.ly’s global reach with ByteDance’s massive user base in China and key Asian markets, we are creating a significant global platform for our content creators and brands to engage with new markets,” Zhang Yiming, ByteDance chief executive, said in a statement at the time of the acquisition.
So, if TikTok intended to be something other than a music-first platform, does it even matter if UMG pulled its catalogue?
After the news that TikTok would be breaking ranks from UMG, the internet spiralled.
With a significant part of the app changing, it was daunting for many creators— especially those who make dancing videos.
For instance, @BrookieandJessie posted videos with choreography to copyright-free music. Meanwhile, Nadia, also known as @grapejuicenads, took requests from her followers, singing songs that had been removed so users could still experience some form of the music.
Internet journalist and author of the Garbage Day newsletter, Ryan Broderick, claimed UMG’s decision to pull their catalogue might “snowball into something that fundamentally alters the way the internet (and culture) currently works.”
“TikTok’s biggest impact is not just on music, but the unprecedented open flow of audio file sharing. We’ve honestly never had a platform be this big and allow this much remixable audio,” Broderick shared on X. “Also most TikTok users still use audio files as a sort of hyperlink between different content on the app. It’s an important discovery tool.”
TikTok's biggest impact is not just on music, but the actually unprecedented open flow of audio file sharing. We've honestly never had a platform be this big and allow this much remixable audio. It would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. Without that, everything changes. https://t.co/sa7v9MXOhC— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) January 31, 2024
Broderick makes a significant point. TikTok has become a powerful marketing tool for artists, with musicians using the short-form video app to promote upcoming singles and albums. Some artists have seemingly created music with soundbites intended to go viral on TikTok— ‘Yummy’ by Justin Bieber is one such example.
“Its chorus seems designed purely for Gen Z-ers in yoga pants to spoon frozen acai into their mouths while miming along to the word “yummy”,” Alexis Petridis, Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes write for The Guardian.
The song dropped in 2020 and was the lead single of Justin’s fifth studio album, Changes. With his previous album, Purpose, released five years earlier, Justin had taken a step back from the music industry. He joined TikTok on the day ‘Yummy’ was released, seemingly to leverage his comeback and drum up some publicity.
Justin and his team actively encouraged his followers to participate in dance challenges for the track. They went as far as compiling the best TikToks and sharing them on Justin’s official YouTube channel.
Considering the marketing power of TikTok, numerous artists are now openly criticising UMG. TikToker-turned-singer PeachPRC has called out the corporation, questioning why UMG would mute her songs on the very platform they discovered her on.
She has since started sharing her unreleased music to get around the restrictions.
In a similar vein, TikTok users like @kendrasyrdal speculate whether Taylor Swift announced her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, at the Grammys because of the new rules around music sharing on TikTok.
Since Taylor can no longer share snippets on the app, her choice to announce the album at the award show—albeit to a barrage of criticism—helped fuel speculation and conversation among her fans, effectively promoting her upcoming album.
“She is getting her fans to create thousands and thousands of free advertisements for her album [on TikTok]… a platform on which she cannot use her music to market her album,” Kendra says in the video. “As it stands right now, the only way that she can market this album [on a massive] platform for the foreseeable future is if her fans do it for her.”
As music by UMG artists continues to float around the platform and musicians pressure the corporation, TikTok is seemingly prevailing in the power struggle with UMG.
Although music remains a significant aspect of TikTok culture, there has been a shift. While TikTok dances are still around, they no longer dominate the FYP as they did in 2020. Today, TikTok seems to be centred around comedy, political discourse, and social commentary—genres of content where popular songs are not necessarily a prerequisite.
Despite the initial concern over how UMG’s decision will impact TikTok users and creators, fewer and fewer people seem to be bothered by the decision. This raises a central question: how long can UMG withstand this situation, or will they eventually yield to TikTok’s influence? Only time will tell.