TikTok Undercuts Artists With Claims of ‘Free Promotion.’ It’s the Oldest Trick in the Book (Guest Column)

For as long as there’s been a “music business,” creators have been fighting for their fair share, and modern history is replete with examples of corporations trying to shortchange music makers.  

Case-in-point: AM/FM radio, where U.S. broadcasters have been getting away with paying artists $0 from their $15 billion-a-year revenue – despite the fact that music is their main input. Their argument? Because radio is supplying “free promotion” for the musicians, they don’t deserve a cut of the profits. Big broadcasters have been pushing this excuse since the 1930s.  

Fast forward almost a century, and we’re now seeing this play out with new technology – most recently with the dispute betweenTikTok and Universal Music Group (UMG). Using the same argument as radio broadcasters, TikTok claims its platform provides “free promotion” to artists, and it’s therefore trying to undercut what they   pay for the use of their music. But UMG refused to fall for this ploy and has now pulled all of its content from the platform until TikTok agrees to an appropriate licensing fee. As a result, about one-third of the most popular recordings on TikTok, including music from Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish, are now unavailable on the platform. (And this trend may grow if the dispute expands to the publishing side of the business, with indie publishers’ TikTok license due to expire in April.) 


UMG is doing the right thing by standing up for its artists. The label is making the case that creators should be paid fairly for the use of their tracks, in line with other platforms. (It also seeks to protect artists from the harmful effects of unregulated AI and encourages online safety protocols for users, two things all of us should support.) UMG recognizes that the lure of potentially viral promotion is in no way a substitute for fair compensation to hard-working creators. 

Long before social media, companies using others’ musical property have sought to avoid paying fairly for that privilege because of this outdated argument around “promotion.” They tried it in the case of piano rolls, silent movie theaters, retail stores, music venues and even peer-to-peer file sharing platforms like Napster and Grokster. In each of those instances, companies tried to underpay (or not pay at all) for the music on the bogus theory that creators should “just accept the promotion, be thankful for whatever they get, and be on their merry way” – regardless of the immense profits they were making from the use of that music.  

Thankfully, in the above cases, players in the music industry stood firm and refused to be blinded by the siren song of promotion. But that clearly hasn’t stopped others  from trying the same trick.   


TikTok is abusing its reputation as the place where new music is discovered. It’s true that many of today’s popular artists (like Lil Nas X, Doja Cat and Lizzo) first found fame on the platform. It’s also where catalog music is finding new life. There is no disputing the important role TikTok plays in the current music ecosystem. But that is an altogether different question than whether or not TikTok should compensate artists fairly.   

Instead of using its power to pay artists less, TikTok should take the opposite approach. It should seek to be the digital home for musicians, the place not just where they can be heard, but where they want  to be heard and where their value is recognized. This holds true for superstars, middle-class musicians and up-and-comers praying for their first breakout hit. And it starts with paying all of them fairly in recognition of the critical role they provide to the business, whether they’re receiving “promotion” or not. 

Going forward, it’s important that key players, like UMG, take a stand against inequity on every platform that seeks to take advantage of creators.* 

*SoundExchange is not involved in collecting sound recording royalties from TikTok. 

Michael Huppe is president and CEO of SoundExchange.

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