Universal Music Escalates TikTok Fight, Pulls Coldplay, Harry Styles Songs

Universal Music Escalates TikTok Fight, Pulls Coldplay, Harry Styles Songs
Pedestrians outside Universal Music Group headquarters in Santa Monica, California.

 The fight between TikTok, the short-form video service, and Universal Music Group NV, the world’s largest music company, is about to get worse. 

In the coming days, a large number of additional songs from some of the biggest artists and songwriters, including Harry Styles and Coldplay, will no longer be available on TikTok, according to people with knowledge of the matter, marking a major escalation in a disagreement that has been raging for weeks.

The dispute kicked off in January when Universal’s contract with TikTok lapsed and the two companies failed to find common ground on an extension. Afterward, myriad songs from Universal’s extensive catalog, which includes work from artists like Taylor Swift and The Weeknd, began disappearing from the platform, limiting the music choices of TikTok’s more than a billion users.

At the time, due to a clause in the expiring contract, tracks represented by Universal’s publishing division remained available. But in the weeks since then, the companies have failed to reach a new agreement, and beginning Monday night, the additional songs started coming down, as well, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing nonpublic information.

A last minute deal could still be reached, though it appears increasingly unlikely, the people said.

The removal of Universal’s publishing catalog from TikTok will impact not just artists signed to the company’s record labels but also many other performers across the industry. Harry Styles, for example, releases music through Sony Music Entertainment but is signed with Universal for his publishing rights.

The exact size of the coming purge remains unclear. Universal’s recorded music catalog includes over 3 million songs; as of 2022, the publishing operation had nearly 4 million songs that it owned and administered. A TikTok spokesperson said that Universal and its publishing unit collectively represent around 20% to 30% of popular music on the platform, depending on the territory.

“The reach of a publishing company like Universal is far wider than a record label and a sound recording,” said David Israelite, president and chief executive officer of the National Music Publishers’ Association. “It goes far beyond the recordings of Universal, the record label — the impact is much bigger.”

The escalating fight could do much to reshape the fraught relationship between social media companies and musicians. Universal is trying to force TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet conglomerate ByteDance Ltd., to increase its payments to record companies and artists. The company also wants protections against the use of its music to train artificial intelligence models. So far, TikTok has balked at Universal’s terms while arguing that its app provides invaluable promotion for artists.

At the end of last year, TikTok executives thought they had made peace with the music industry, which for years had lambasted the company over its compensation to artists. Entering 2024, Ole Obermann, TikTok’s global head of music, had closed deals with Sony and Warner Music Group Corp., ensuring that songs from the two major labels would continue appearing on the platform.

The service was also working on a new deal with Universal and extended their contract by a month to iron out the final details, according to people familiar with the conversations who were not authorized to speak about it publicly. But on Jan. 30, the week of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Universal published an open letter saying it was at an impasse with TikTok.

The letter took TikTok’s team by surprise, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. The following day, the company’s CEO Shou Chew was set to testify in front of the US Congress, and the news quickly became the talk of Grammy week. In written statements, the companies traded barbs. TikTok called Universal “greedy.” Universal called TikTok a “bully.” Roughly two days after the first letter, Universal’s music began disappearing from TikTok, and numerous videos went silent.

In recent weeks, many music companies have rallied behind Universal. In general, TikTok pays labels a lump sum for the rights to their catalogs, with the possibility of larger payouts depending on how many times videos are created using tracks. Many in the music industry believe TikTok isn’t paying enough considering it has built a substantial advertising business around videos with soundtracks. ByteDance’s sales topped $110 billion last year while TikTok is valued at more than $250 billion.

Artists are less sure who to blame. Some have criticized TikTok while others have expressed displeasure with Universal or confusion about how the corporate disagreement might undermine their livelihoods.

So far, the impact of the stalemate on consumers has been muted. After initially venting their frustration, many TikTok users have adjusted, setting videos to songs that are still available. With reduced competition on the platform, songs from the Billboard Top 100 that weren’t swept up in the initial Universal takedown have grown in usage, according to Round, a digital agency that operates a TikTok analysis tool.

Universal’s financial losses from the quarrel are expected to be minimal, in part, because TikTok only represents about 1% of its annual sales. Since the start of the purge on TikTok, the overall consumption of Universal’s songs on other distribution channels has changed minimally, said the people.

The next phase of the dispute — pulling down songs based on publishing rights — is likely to be a messy process. Even if  a Universal-represented songwriter contributed just a couple lines to a song recorded by an artist on another label, the music will be removed. As a result, the whole industry is likely to get swept up in the coming changes.

Meanwhile, many of the current workarounds favored by TikTok users — such as choosing cover versions of Universal-recorded songs — will likely be less effective.


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