More than one third of the songs — at least 17 tracks — on Billboard’s TikTok Top 50 chart are no longer available for use on the app after Universal Music Group’s negotiations with the platform fell apart last week. UMG said the Bytedance-owned company refuses to pay “fair value for the music.”
The missing tracks include several of the most popular songs on TikTok: Muni Long’s “Made for Me” (No. 2 on the TikTok Top 50), Xavi’s “La Diabla” (No. 7), Drake’s “Rich Baby Daddy” (No. 9), and Lana Del Rey’s “Let the Light In” (No. 11).
The absence impacts both recent releases — Ariana Grande’s “Yes, And?” along with a pair of songs from Nicki Minaj’s December album — and catalog: Lesley Gore’s “Misty,” originally released way back in 1963, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor,” which came out in 2002 but charted on the Hot 100 for the first time recently due to a synch in the film Saltburn.
Users still appear to be able to still make videos with an official “orchestral version” of “Murder on the Dancefloor” — likely because it’s licensed to a different label. And even though UMG and TikTok’s licensing agreement expired, 10k.Caash’s “Aloha,” which was released by the UMG label Def Jam in 2019, is available to soundtrack TikTok videos as of Thursday morning.
In addition, TikTok has long had a vibrant bootleg scene, which means that in some cases, users have uploaded their own versions of UMG songs or made remixes in place of the official sounds. Those bootlegs were also a source of frustration for the record company, which said last week that “TikTok makes little effort to deal with the vast amounts of content on its platform that infringe our artists’ music.” It’s worth noting, however, that labels often encourage remixers to rework their artists’ songs without the proper clearances in the hopes that it starts a viral trend.
TikTok has been a dominant force in the music industry since 2019, transforming both marketing and signing strategy. “We fully immerse ourselves in the diverse subcultures of TikTok,” said Alec Henderson, vp of digital at the independent label APG, in December. “We have weekly meetings dedicated to sharing things that we’re seeing there. We view the TikTok viral chart with a competitive mindset. And we put a high emphasis on working with artists that are native to the platform.”
As the industry became increasingly focused on TikTok, it also became increasingly uneasy about the platform’s power. The app started to get saturated — with brands, movies, videogames, cats, ASMR, and more all battling for attention — which made marketing music both more expensive and less effective. Labels are used to having some level of influence over promotional levers; TikTok proved frustratingly hard to leverage.
Tension over the platform’s low payouts started to grow as well. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, “doesn’t view music as a value add,” one senior executive told Billboard in the fall of 2022. “They just view music as a cost center they have to limit as much as possible.”
“The [payout] numbers are horrifying,” said a manager at the time. A marketer who oversaw the campaign for a single that was used in roughly half a million TikTok videos, earning billions of views, found that his artist took home less than $5,000 from the platform. It was no surprise when UMG CEO Lucian Grainge fired a warning shot late in 2022, noting pointedly at an industry conference that a value gap was “forming fast in the new iterations of short-form video.”
Last week, Universal Music Group said that its license agreement with TikTok was set to expire on Jan. 31. “TikTok proposed paying our artists and songwriters at a rate that is a fraction of the rate that similarly situated major social platforms pay,” UMG said in an open letter. The record company accused TikTok of trying to “intimidate us into conceding to a bad deal that undervalues music and shortchanges artists and songwriters as well as their fans.”
After UMG issued its statement, TikTok hit back, accusing the record company of promoting a “false narrative.” It’s “sad and disappointing,” TikTok added, “that [UMG] has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.” These comments elicited yet another response from UMG.
If the standoff between the two companies continues, it will start to affect even more music: At the end of the month, TikTok will have to take down any song that Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) has a stake in. Many UMPG songwriters collaborate with artists signed to other labels (or are signed as artists on other labels). This means that the number of songs that become unusable on TikTok could balloon.
Artists can market their music elsewhere, of course — TikTok has competitors in both YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels. However, neither of those apps have demonstrated the ability to break a song with the speed and intensity of TikTok.
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