Every Thursday, labels deliver all their new releases to TikTok. This is typically a mundane process, but an essential one. Just as record companies want their new tracks playable on all the streaming services at midnight, they want them on TikTok — a crucial promotional venue and driver of music discovery, especially for younger listeners.
But on Sept. 22, things began to go wrong with what’s ordinarily a relatively seamless operation. Five executives — all affiliated with Sony Music or managers with artists in the Sony Music ecosystem — told Billboard that they encountered problems getting their music on TikTok. The issues varied, as did their duration: Some songs’ delivery was temporarily delayed; some never made it; some temporarily faced copyright takedowns even though they were legitimate major-label releases that didn’t infringe on the works of others.
Two sources were told by Sony Music that even Bad Bunny‘s new single “Un Preview” — distributed by The Orchard, which Sony owns — was initially available on all streaming services when it came out Sept. 25, but not on TikTok. (A rep for Bad Bunny did not respond to a request for comment.) It does not appear that the other major label groups experienced similar problems.
While TikTok is renowned for its technical abilities, especially its algorithm, no platform is impervious to mistakes; perhaps someone accidentally pressed the wrong button at headquarters. Funny as that sounds, a version of it has happened before: Back in 2019, major labels suddenly encountered problems delivering songs containing swear words to TikTok. When asked about the platform’s unexpected turn towards the puritanical, a representative said that “due to an internal error, we inadvertently restricted explicit tracks from TikTok globally.”
But last week’s hiccups on TikTok arose against a different backdrop. Sony Music was in the process of negotiating a new deal with the ByteDance-owned company, according to multiple sources. And Sony Music executives told at least two people that they believed sudden problems with getting music onto TikTok were linked to the ongoing negotiations.
Reps for both Sony Music and TikTok declined to comment.
This bizarre episode served as a discomfiting reminder of both TikTok’s power and the music industry’s uneasy relationship with the platform. TikTok often seems like it’s the only service capable of jumpstarting a hit — “the biggest game in town,” as one manager told Billboard last year. That means a label’s music has to be on there if it hopes for commercial success.
But TikTok is also notorious for its low payouts to rights holders. And this has created tension, leading some of music’s most powerful figures to demand better rates from the platform in public remarks.
In September 2022, Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge warned of a value gap “forming fast in the new iterations of short-form video.” “We will fight and determine how our artists get paid and when they get paid in the same way that we have done throughout the industry for many, many, many years,” Grainge added during a call with investors the following month.
Sony Music Group Chairman Rob Stringer echoed this sentiment during a call with investors in May. “Some of the short-form video providers are relatively new, but we are clearly monitoring their progress, and it doesn’t take a scientist to realize that we are being underpaid by some of those content providers,” he said. “As [our] negotiations go on, that will be our position until we are satisfied that we have been paid properly.”
Warner Music Group CEO Robert Kyncl has been more measured in his public comments about TikTok. Warner announced a new multi-year licensing deal with TikTok this summer.
Nearly four years ago, when TikTok said it “inadvertently restricted explicit tracks,” the problem took a number of weeks to resolve. Labels first noticed that songs containing swears were having trouble at the end of August. It was October before a TikTok rep said the company was “finally able to notify labels of the full restoration of affected tracks.”
The various issues experienced by Sony Music affiliates in September were fixed far more quickly. No one was TikTok-less for even a full week.
Still, an executive says, the experience was unnerving — a reminder that his artists’ access to a platform with more than a billion monthly active users “can be cut off overnight.”
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